'Voice' on Literature

Reviews of the last 50 years

VLS, August 1989


Philip K. Dick's Signal Achievements
By Erik Davis

When Philip K. Dick died after a stroke in 1982, he left behind almost 40 science fiction novels, over a hundred short stories, a few remarkable essays, and the "Exegesis," a crazed document that attempted to interpret the divine intelligence which he claimed invaded his mind in 1974. Though Dick remains partially buried in the mildewed heap of yesterday's pop trash (best known as "the guy who write the book they based Blade Runner on"), his dedicated following has grown since his death. Some of his best books are out of print in the States, but a steady trickle of unpublished (and mostly non-SF) work has been released in the last few years. Whether or not Dick hacked out the most brilliant American science fiction ever is debatable; that his work remains the most brilliantly fucked-up SF is beyond doubt.

Though he uses generic devices like androids, spaceships, Martians, and moon colonies, Dick's worlds are usually bummers just around the corner, near-futures characterized by rampant overpopulation, surveillance, urban decay, repressive state apparatuses, ubiquitous ads, and invasive technology. As far back as the '50s, Dick saw the dark, paranoid side of McLuhan's global village. The animism that primitive humankind projected onto Nature was for him reborn in our technological environment, where ominous spiritual forces merged with the instruments of late capitalism. Dick's machines are black jokes rather than believable imaginings: the portable computerized psychiatrist, Dr. Smile, in The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch; the empathy machine in "The Little Black Box," which fuses the users' consciousness with a televised savior; The Divine Invasion's holographic multicolored Bible.

Driven by what he called "divine discontent," Dick howled in his dystopic wilderness against the powers that be. His characters are ordinary schlemiels, bumbling Joes and Janes struggling with small moral dilemmas, poverty, politics, and psychic breakdowns in worlds where entropy reigns and communication breakdowns are inevitable. Unlike Pynchon—whose obsessions resemble his in many ways—Dick maintained little ironic distance from his characters, and his empathy for them and their hopeless struggles is palpable as well as odd. [return to top]

VLS, October 1991

Harlot's Ghost
By Norman Mailer
Random House, $30

by Blanche McCrary Boyd

The Writer did not come to Provincetown to think about Norman Mailer, The Writer came to Provincetown to slick her hair back with gel, peroxide a streak, wear an ear cuff, leave her shirts half buttoned, and get the best tan on the beach. She treats Provincetown like gay high school, driving around in her teenage muscle car with the T-tops off, her gelled hair static in the wind, old rock and roll blasting through six speakers. Her car is black '91 Firebird Formula, so low and lean she nearly lies down to drive it. Her Penismoblie, a friend calls it, and the Writer replies that not everything long powerful and hard is a penis; yet when she straps on this car she feels like a 17-year-old boy with a hard-on.

The Writer has come to Provincetown to think of masculinity and femininity as metaphor, as style, to enjoy drag queens, the bold stares of women, and to think about Norman Mailer, named by the same "great novelist in the Lord!" who, according to the Prisoner of Sex, named Bella Abzug. Norman Mailer is Normal Male but maler, as if male is something one does, or is an example of excess: maler than thou.

Mailer lives down the street from the Writer in Provincetown, and he is a fact, not a metaphor, as she discovers one night when her phone is inhabited by gremlins and she has gone to the pay phone on the corner to call her new love. Mailer is walking along Commercial Street with his wife, Norris Church, and one of his daughters and her husband. The Writer and Mailer greet each other. Introductions all around.

The truth is, the Writer like Norman Mailer. The few times they've been together he's been gracious to her, even generous, and she admires the way his hair is whitening, the clear blue of his eyes, their inward look. She is fond of his taste for excess and controversy, and she thinks he is a great flawed writer. She cherishes The Naked and the Dead and Armies of the Night, judges The Executioner's Song impeccably brilliant. But she does not want to think about Norman Mailer.

From her new love the Writer has learned to let a peach ripen, turn the fruit daily in its bowl, touch it delicately for softness under its velvety skin. She has learned to wait for the perfect moment, slicing the pink red yellow interior only after the fruit is bursting to peel itself. But her new love is out of town and not picking up her messages, and Mailer is wandering through gay high school, so when the Writer gets back to her apartment she slices the hardest peach and eats it, relishing the crunch, loud and unyielding as an apple.

She knows that he has a huge novel forthcoming, Harlot's Ghost, and she is tempted to review it, but to think about Mailer she must think about herself as a Woman Writer, or even-let us say it directly, since we are in Provincetown-a Lesbian Writer. Admitting that she likes Mailer makes her feel like a black person praising Gone With the Wind. In his books Mailer has cut the heads off women and thrown them out of windows; he has called his penis the Great Avenger and used "make love" and "violate" as synonyms; he has announced that all homosexuals wish they were straight.

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