You can dive into this book completely innocent as I did. VALIS was my second PKD novel, after Androids. I was warned. So I dove in with my eyes shut.
Not completely, though. I knew stuff. When I got it that this book was about insanity and reality, I knew I had come home. In my heyday hanging out over the edge, I wrote books too, and people called them insane. I wrote some good stuff but most of it came out as a flashflood of uncontrolled verbiage. No artist I. Never mind.
Now if you are academically inclined and know a lot about Dick’s life, you can dive right in and enjoy the ride though the PKD post-2-3-74 landscape. There’s nothing like it. As art, it transcends the novel form and its genres by offering a deep literary pleasure that invites analysis. This is the mind-in-tact approach. It serves all PKD readers. It’s fun.
If you go in the back door, however, Horselover Fat will greet you himself. Narrator-Phil warns us about what association with Fat requires: You cannot think about it without becoming part of it. By thinking about madness, Horselover Fat slipped by degrees into madness.
Personally, I think this book is safe. Art has a way of pulling our fat (sorry about that) out of the fire, and since PKD readers have a lot of reality-travelling under their belts, they should be able to hold on when Fat is at the helm.
Here’s what this book boils down to: You have an experience. It’s intense. It wipes out everything you think you know about yourself and the world. It busts open your mind and you know there is no way to get rid of it. Call it God, reality . . . whatever. Fat came up with several names for it, including Valis. My favorite name comes from one of Fat’s more stalwart mental efforts. Imagine he/you are standing in your front yard and suddenly from behind, you hear a thundering roar. Knowing where you are, you confront the situation realistically. It’s probably a horse. You quickly turn around and to your horror, it is not a horse. It’s a zebra!
So now there is a Zebra grazing in Fat’s backyard. Now and then it breaks into the house and gives Fat a good thrashing. Eventually the Zebra moves in permanently and now the Zebra sits on the couch in front of the TV with Phil, who still thinks it’s his house. Their conversations are interesting but mostly one-sided.
According to narrator-Phil, who has many insights into Fat, the Zebra is not what drove Fat over the edge. It got him going, as one might expect, but it was Gloria’s suicide that cut him loose and sent him on a worldwide search for the 5th messiah.
Personally, I don’t think searching for the 5th messiah makes Fat insane. After all, why not the 5th messiah? Just because billions of people have joined a handful of God-clubs around the world doesn’t mean they have a handle on the reality-thing. It just means that in tracking down reality, Fat is going it alone. That part might make it psychosis, but that’s not the whole reason narrator-Phil thinks he is insane. According to narrator-Phil, Fat tipped over the edge just as much because of his psychological baggage—dope, a fervent need to help damsels in distress, and his wife walking out on him taking his kid. Narrator-Phil says that Gloria “unfolded a panorama of total and relentless madness.” It’s easy from this to see how Fat got into trouble. Inviting suicidal Gloria into his house where a Zebra’s sitting on the couch may not have been his best move.