Saturday, 13 October 2007

Review: "I Am Alive and You Are Dead" by Emmanuelle Carrère

I recently finished "I am Alive and You Are Dead" by Emanuelle Carrère, which is an astounding biography of Philip K. Dick. It's the kind of view of the author that changes your understanding of their work in retrospect, and certainly set me up for an interesting read as I now make my way through "Humpty Dumpty in Oakland", one of Dick's very early mainstream novels, which is only now making its way into the popular press. A separate review of "Humpty Dumpty" will follow in a few days.

In addition to presenting a chronology of facts and events from Dick's life, "I am Alive" constantly points out parallels between Philip K. Dick and the worlds he created in his mainstream and science fiction novels. Some of these connections are easy to make out, as it is not hard to imagine whole portions of a book like "A Scanner Darkly" coming from Dick's experiences in 60s and 70s California. Other connections are more complex and even astonishing, and difficult to describe if you aren't already familiar with Dick's work in depth. Without laboring the point and hence spoiling countless novels, let me simply say that the line between Dick's life and his work was a lot blurrier than one would think, given the fantastic nature of much of his work.

The material is well researched, and is seamlessly crafted into a detailed chronology that manages to inform and entertain at the same time. I'm reminded somewhat of "U and I" by Nicholson Baker, another work in which an author who is entertaining in his own right writes about an author he enjoys. Just as Baker recalled Updike as a part of his own life, it is clear that Carrère enjoys and remembers Dick's works as part of his life. Unlike "U and I", only occasionally does Carrère insert asides from his own life into the work, where the title for "U and I" might as well have been printed in exaggerated perspective with the letter "u" an inch high and the letter "I" a foot high. It is a skilled biographer who can hide enough traces of themselves to allow the reader to appreciate their subject in depth while leaving enough traces of themselves that we want to see more of their style. I look forward to reading other translations of Carrère's work.

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