Spring Break Book Review #7 (The last one): Deus Irae

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Deus Irae

by Philip K. Dick and Roger Zelazny

What the hell did I just read?

I haven’t read a lot of Philip K. Dick; I’ve read almost everything by Zelazny. Dick was, according to everything that I’ve heard, a unique visionary when it came to science fiction: his ideas have become some of the most famous in sci-fi, among them the books that inspired the movies Total Recall, Minority Report, and Blade Runner; he was not, however, all that great a wordsmith. (He did win prestigious awards, so maybe this is not a fair description.) I would somewhat agree with this assessment based on this book, but of course the issue is clouded by the fact that it’s a collaboration. Zelazny was one of my favorite wordsmiths, and also had some fascinating ideas; but where is the line drawn in this book?

I dunno; so I suppose I can’t come to any definite judgments here. So let’s just talk about this book on its own merits, shall we?

This is a post-apocalyptic novel; the world has been destroyed by war, by the use not only of nuclear weapons, but also far more destructive devices, nerve gas, global killers that worked by changing the atmosphere and permanently altering the climate (You know, like we’re doing now, voluntarily. It’s saying something that truth not only resembles fiction, but that it also resembles science fiction. Even worse: it resembles the science fiction of Philip K. Dick. Who also wrote The Man in the High Castle, the alternate history novel about Nazis conquering the US during World War II. Just sayin’.). In the wake of this devastation you have both bizarre mutant lifeforms struggling to survive among the ruins, which still includes several artifacts of the pre-war era, and also the rise of a new religion, struggling to survive among the ruins of Christianity, several artifacts of which still exist. And though the book is somewhat about the mutants and war and survival, it’s really much more about religion. And about art.

The main character is a man named, unfortunately, Tibor McMasters, which is something I wouldn’t do to a character I hated, let alone my protagonist; but Dick and Zelazny also made this guy into an “inc,” an incomplete, because he lacks arms and legs. He is nonetheless, with the help of a mechanized cart that has extendible arms and gripping pincers, an artist. He is hired by the new religion, the Servants of Wrath, to paint a church mural depicting their God, the Deus Irae, in his human form: Carleton Lufteufel, the man who pushed the button, pulled the trigger, who started the war that destroyed everything. The Servants of Wrath see him as the manifestation of a god who is essentially evil, but evil for a potentially good purpose: by making humans suffer, the God of Wrath purifies them so that they can move up into a better existence after they escape this incarnation through the blessed relief of death. As a post-apocalyptic religious cult, it makes a whole lot of sense.

The book, unfortunately, does not. I mean, it does: Tibor goes on a quest to find the actual Carleton Lufteufel, hoping to see the man’s real face before he paints his likeness, and this quest goes through difficulties and revelations like the classic hero’s journey; they lift an element out of the Ring Cycle, when Sigurd drinks the blood of the dragon Fafnir and learns to understand the language of the birds; the same thing happens to Tibor, though it may be only a vision granted him by the God of Wrath – who may or may not be real. It’s impossible to say what is reality and what is vision and what is a lie: there seem to be miracles, but there are also some pretty funny absurdist jokes – there’s a race of sentient speaking dung beetles who worship a VW bug as their god; there’s an ancient pre-war automated mechanic that takes one character’s bicycle, turns it first into three tricycles, and then when asked to return the original bike, instead makes it rain pogo sticks. So are we to take the Deus Irae seriously? Or is that just a joke? Got me. There are some fairly straight but extremely unflattering depictions of Christianity, mainly through the Christian priest, who is a complete ass; but the priest of the Servants of Wrath is also an ass. Tibor’s a pretty good guy, and so is his opposite figure, a Christian named Pete Sands (Tibor is ostensibly a member of the SOW church, but he considers converting to Christianity – but is basically rejected by the Christian priest-ass), but these two don’t help us determine which way we should go in terms of religion, whether God is good, but perhaps too rigid in his rules; or if God is evil, but with perhaps good intentions in the end. It is possible that the point is that all religion rests on perception: both Pete and Tibor have religious visions, and maybe those give us real insights into faith and morality; but there is a critical lie that happens at the end of the book, which is never detected: and so maybe it means that all religion is a lie.

I really don’t know. I really don’t know what I just read. I enjoyed parts of it, was deeply confused by other parts, and annoyed more than once, by the setting, and by the characters, and even by the writing. Though I think I may know why: there is a point in the book when Tibor waxes poetic about the Impressionists and the quality of light they sought to capture, which he says is morning light that changes the way everything looks until it burns off around 11am; he mocks Rembrandt, who never painted in the morning light and so is unbelievably easy to imitate (sayeth Tibor), because his figures all have nothing but shadows in their eyes, because all the figures look at nothing, have nothing to see. See, the thing is, I love Rembrandt’s work, and am underwhelmed by the Impressionists; I don’t really think anyone has the skill to re-create Rembrandt, though sure, maybe it’s easier to try, and maybe people can even come close. But I think it would be a whole shitload easier to mix up some bright colors and slap them on a canvas so that they are shaped vaguely like water lilies. And I think a lot of people have been able to do that, and get famous for it, because I don’t know that there is really anything special to see in most Impressionist paintings – it just has a reputation for being something above and beyond what is actually on the canvas, and people are able to bluff their way into that same reputation. (I’m going to throw out the name Willem DeKoonig, though that’s largely an inside joke. And he wasn’t an Impressionist anyway, so I’m off topic.) Anyway: the point is that there seems to be something of a divide between people who paint what they see, and people who try to capture something unseeable. (And maybe some of them succeed. I don’t mean to denigrate the entire Impressionist movement. Or all of the authors I’m about to mention.) I would put Rembrandt in the first category, and the Impressionists in the second. And I think the same division is possible with writers: some try to describe the world exactly as it is, and some try to capture an intangible, unknowable element, try to craft their language in such a way that it creates a second impression, of a different reality, one that is wholly spiritual or intellectual, detached from the words, detached from the sensory impressions. I would put, say, Stephen King or John Steinbeck into the first category, and James Joyce and T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound into the second.

I think Philip K. Dick would have wanted to be in the second category. And I absolutely, without doubt, would rather be in the first. I want nothing more than to be able to write like Stephen King or John Steinbeck, or Mark Twain, or even J.R.R. Tolkien, who was able to describe an entire fantastic world in humble, realistic prose, which is what makes his works so long-lasting and influential, because he started with the line “In a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit.” I think that, like Rembrandt, the realism captured in the work of these sorts of authors is deceptively difficult to achieve, and wonderful when it is done right. I kinda think the great effects achieved in the works of Impressionists, and authors who write like the Modernists and their detachment from reality, or like the Post-Modernists and their detachment from meaning, are really just, well, bullshit.

So maybe Philip K. Dick should belong to those science fiction fans who also love James Joyce. And since I can’t stand James Joyce, you all can have them both.

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