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I Am Alive And You Are Dead: A Journey Into The Mind Of Philip K Dick

by Emmanuel Carrère

(Bloomsbury, £17.99, 315 pages, hardback, published 6 June 2005.)

Review by Molly Brown

cover scanEmmanuel Carrère's I Am Alive And You Are Dead: A Journey Into The Mind Of Philip K. Dick is not a conventional biography.

The author states in the preface: "... I have tried to depict the life of Philip K. Dick from the inside; in other words, with the same freedom and empathy -- indeed with the same truth -- with which he depicted his own characters. It's a trip into the brain of a man who regarded even his craziest books not as works of imagination but as factual reports." He later goes on to say: "My book has benefited from those that have preceded it. Lawrence Sutin's Divine Invasions: The Life of Philip K. Dick served as an indispensable reference, as did In Search of Philip K. Dick by Anne R. Dick... While I've consulted and talked with Dick's contemporaries, my primary text throughout has been Dick's own work, which I've approached as an admiring literary critic."

One problem I sometimes have with non-fiction books is the dryness of the writing, which can make even the most interesting subjects seem dull. No fear of that with this book: Carrère's writing is anything but dry, and once the book gets going, it reads more like a psychological thriller than a non-fiction biography.

Of course much of that thriller-like quality is the result of Carrère's liberal quoting from, and reference to, the work of Dick himself. (I've heard it said that the essence of the thriller is paranoia, and I find it hard to think of a writer whose work is more steeped in paranoia than Philip K. Dick.) But a lot of that thriller-like quality also stems from the vividness of Carrère's own writing (for which -- considering the book was originally published in French -- no mean share of the credit must go to Timothy Bent's skill as a translator). From beginning to end, Carrère's passion for his subject shines through, making for a compelling read.

But... on more than one occasion, I found myself searching in vain for a footnote, or an appendix, or any kind of indication as to whether the author's conclusions and extrapolations (particularly in regard to Dick's mental state) were based on documented fact, expert opinion, or merely his own speculation. As much as I understand and sympathise with the idea that this book was not intended as an academic treatise, I would have happily sacrificed a little of the author's vividly personal style in exchange for just a touch of academic dryness in the form of detailed citing of sources.

That said, I found the book difficult to put down and -- though not a definitive biography of Philip K. Dick -- it's a fascinating look into the mind of one of science fiction's most important authors.

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