When I was 15, I had a dirty little secret, and that secret was Arnold Schwarznegger. On many a Saturday afternoon, my father pulled VHS cassettes out of their paper dust jackets—Conan, Red Sonja, Predator, Total Recall—and popped them into the VCR, with me on the couch, my legs crossed and shoulders hunched forward, my brother sitting next to me, taking two bites of Yoplait Custard style yogurt, forgetting it on the coffee table and taking a new one from the fridge a half an hour later (was that a boy thing or a Dean thing?), my father sitting next to us in his underwear (my father found wearing clothes at home a nearly impossible restriction) yelling “goddamn machine!” whenever the tracking went out.
I loved Arnie’s movies, but I would have never admitted this at school because a) I was a girl, b) I was a snobby, arty/literary kid and c) did I mention I was a girl? So I watched them on the sly, my mother and my sister both rolling their eyes and saying, How can you watch that crap?
Of course, I knew the Conan movies and Red Sonja were terrible and crazy kitschy, but that was also the fun of them. I’m not really sure why I liked Predator. Did I actually like it, or did I like it because my father liked it? At the time, my father and I had a bit of a symbiotic relationship, although a rift formed between us a year later when I realized I would never, ever be a Republican. (Dad, you were such a brilliant, irreverent person. How could you have liked Paul Ryan? How? I hope you’ve finally seen the light in the afterlife, and yes, I know you’d get a kick out of such a cheesy pun.)
But Total Recall, that Arnie flick was different. The thin line between the real and the unreal, the shift between reality, illusion and delusion, and never really knowing which is which although you’re sometimes sure you do. Yeah, I’d say those are my Themen.
About a year ago, I started working on an essay called “With Love From a Berkeley Girl.” A large part of the piece is about the impact, both funny and meaningful, Jonathan Lethem (before he was famous writer Jonathan Lethem) had on me during my Telegraph Avenue teens. When I was writing the essay—and it took a while to write—I definitely had Lethem on the brain. I read The Fortress of Solitude and loved it, read stuff by him and about him online, watched interviews on YouTube, etc.
Let me say here I love how easy it is to stalk someone on the Internet (she says as she googles an estranged ex-lover: Why won’t he update his blog?? Come on now, it’s been months.)
(FYI, as of now “With Love From a Berkeley Girl” has been rejected by five magazines and is still being considered by a sixth. When it gets rejected by the sixth magazine, as I assume it will—if I ever get any sort of news about a piece I send out other than “thanks, but no thanks” I’ll probably fall off my chair—I’ll post it here. So reader, stay tuned, that is, if you exist.)
Anyway, if you Internet stalk Jonathan Lethem for more than two minutes, you’ll discover his writing is strongly influenced by the science fiction writer Philip K. Dick. I’m always curious about the influences of people I’m curious about, so I did a Wikipedia link click and found out both Total Recall and Blade Runner—a little too nauseatingly 80s, but still—were based on stories by Philip K. Dick. And get this: the guy also has a Berkeley/Telegraph Avenue connection.
How did I not know this? Or did I know and just forget I know?
Either way, my interest was piqued. So I ordered the used copy of Dick’s short stories in the picture above. When the book arrived from England, I unpacked it, put it on my bookshelf, and immediately forgot it existed.
(Other than compulsive thrifting whenever I’m in the Bay Area (Goodwill, you are my god, Salvation Army, my savior) and the occasional splurge on jewelry (jewels!), I’m not really much of a shopper. But books, particularly used ones, I do impulse buy like crazy. I buy them and put them on my shelf and, more often than not, forget about them.
My husband likes to tease me about my goldfish memory, but what he doesn’t understand is my goldfish memory means I get to be excited about things I forgot again and again, and what could be better than that?)
The other day, I read online Jonathan Lethem has a new book of essays out and somewhere in my reading I came across the name Philip K. Dick again.
Wait, don’t have a book by him?
Yes, indeed I do.
So yesterday I dug it out of the pile and started reading.
First, a little criticism: some of Dick’s stories could use a bit of editing. He goes overboard with the adverbs at times and the dialogue is sometimes stilted. I’m five stories in, and so far his female characters tend towards shrill she-beasts, clingy creatures, devouring whores, and other classic negative anima fare (and guess what boys? If you actually are a woman, this get tedious.) But hey, the guy was writing in the 60s and 70s. I can cut him a little slack on that.
But here’s the other thing: wow.
So far, reading Dick isn’t like reading a story someone wrote, it’s like entering a mind meld with a brain that has a touch of madness; it’s like seeping down into the paranoid netherworld of the id, where things morph and shift so strangely and quickly but also so organically you immediately accept them.
There’s an essence in his writing that’s close to the what I’ve always wanted to reach in my writing, only I didn’t know it except I always have.
Does that make sense? Either way, I’m fucking digging it.
Now here’s the other other thing:
In 1999, a few months before I moved to Berlin, I fell in love with someone. The affair was intense and he was a writer and we wrote together and performed at poetry slams and if I had stayed in the Bay Area it would have probably turned into something serious but I had to leave.
For many years we tried to stay friends, but it never worked, not really. Since 2007, we’ve been estranged.
But now it’s 2006 and I’m sitting with my soon-to-be-estranged ex-lover at a taqueria in the Mission and we’re going to become estranged because I’m pregnant and will marry the father at the end of next year and my ex-lover will tell me he needs to break off contact because he can’t handle it, because things were never over between us, not really, and he’ll say it in a good way and I will understand and things will be ok.
But today we’re sitting outside the taqueria at a dirty wooden table, a couple of pigeons pecking at the rice on an abandoned plate left on the table next to ours, and I open my purse and out falls a book: “Eight Million Ways to Die” by Lawrence Block.
I know my ex-lover is a literary snob, but I’m still shocked when he scoffs and says, “Well, that’s disappointing.”
What I should say is, “Fuck you, you haven’t even read it. And what? I’m supposed to only read books you approve of?”
But what I do say is, “I know, the picture on the cover is cheesy and sometimes the book is a little formulaic, but Matthew Scudder is an interesting character and the book has great dialogue and the descriptions of New York are amazing and, really, it’s better than you’d think.”
Me, acting like a goddamn wuss, like I had something to apologize for because I’d dared to stoop to the world of genre fiction.
What’s wrong with us humans?
It’s like we’re all working on an assembly line, picking up each thing and each idea and each person and putting them in a box labeled good or bad, like or don’t like, mine or not mine. And in each case the decisions we make are nearly instantaneous.
All of us, choosing freely to limit ourselves in what is already a very limited existence.
I do this too, of course I do. But I try to question, to re-think, to not assume.
If I didn’t, if I had stayed a literary snob or someone who felt compelled to hide my taste in movies, I would have never discovered I loved Dick, I just didn’t know it yet—and yes, I am enjoying the perverse satisfaction that people have clicked on this piece expecting very different content.
So let me end this rambling post with two short words: stay open.
If you do, what you’ll love will find you. Believe it.
P.S. In the meantime, I’ve come to learn that Philip K. Dick is considered completely kosher in literary circles (I saw him mentioned on LitHub at least three times this year, and it’s only March). Since this is the case, the whole point I’m trying to make here is meaningless, or at least the example isn’t the right one to use. But I’m still keeping the post up just for shits and giggles.