Thursday, August 16, 2007

Phil & Bill

The twentieth century produced a lot of great literature from around the world. Being a reader in English, I'm inclined to favor authors from the States, two of whom in my opinion define what made for the best and most definitive writing of the century past. Philip K Dick and William Faulkner are not commonly thought of as belonging in the same sentence. Nevertheless, I believe that not only do they deserve mention in the same breath but in the same weight class of powerhouse literature.

Philip Dick's midperiod novel Ubik was published in 1969 and for me represents his peak as an author of speculative fiction. It also typifies what makes his works so great. The themes are fantastic but grounded in rich characters, and he uses the story to sound out serious questions about spirituality and what's real. Dick has a preoccupation with spiritual existence and the basic human need to experience faith. In his thorough and arguably profound exploration of this need, he comes to define what makes literature in the second half of the century important.

What stands in the way of spiritual enlightenment is nothing less than the world itself, or to put it more simply, consensual reality. A passage from Ubik elucidates this problem in a concise and humorous fashion, as is characteristic of Dick's writing:

The door refused to open. It said, "Five cents, please."
He searched his pockets. No more coins; nothing. "I'll pay you tomorrow," he told the door. Again he tried the knob. Again it remained locked tight. "What I pay you," he informed it, "is in the nature of gratuity; I don't have to pay you."
"I think otherwise," the door said. "Look in the purchase contract you signed when you bought this conapt."
In his desk drawer he found the contract; since signing it he had found it necessary to refer to the document many times. Sure enough; payment to his door for opening and shutting constituted a mandatory fee. Not a tip.
"You discover I'm right," the door said. It sounded smug.

William Faulkner, on the other hand, represents a keen understanding of human society, as represented in his fictional Yoknapatawpha County. He is preoccupied not so much with the spirit as with the moral girding of people in the cruel and feckless world. Nowhere in his vast and epic catalog is this better illustrated than in what I feel is his finest hour, the novel Light in August. Unlike Dick, who uses fantastic situations to point the reader to home truths, Faulkner brings us down to earth and lets us taste of its grand and fickle bounty. He represents what was most important to the first half of the twentieth century, a time of world wars and vast economic hardships.

His lens fixes less on the human relationship to a cruel and unrelenting reality (as Dick does) and more on the interstices of emotional causality between people and the consequences of tangles and misapprehensions therein. A passage from the novel:

He changed completely. They planned to be married. He knew now that he had seen all the while that desperate calculation in her eyes. 'Perhaps they were right in putting love into books,' he thought quietly. 'Perhaps it could not live anywhere else.' The desperation was still in them, but now there were definite plans, a day set, it was quieter, mostly calculation. They talked now of his ordination, of how he could get Jefferson as his call. "We'd better go to work right away," she said. He told her that he had been working for that since he was four years old; perhaps he was being humorous, whimsical. She brushed it aside with that passionate and leashed humorlessness, almost inattention, talking as though to herself of men, names, to see, to grovel or threaten, outlining to him a campaign of abasement and plotting. He listened. Even the faint smile, whimsical, quizzical, perhaps of despair, did not leave his face. He said, "Yes. Yes. I see. I understand," as she talked. It was if he were saying Yes. I see. I see now. That's how they do such, gain such. That's the rule. I see now

Naturally I am only scratching the surface with these brief glimpses, but having been in a reading frenzy of late and experiencing these authors anew (was it Samuel Delany who said you never read the same book twice?), it has been brought home that their combined contribution to literature of the last century is without price and brings timeless gain.

No comments: