Wednesday, November 17, 2010

I Think Therefore We Are: "A Scanner Darkly"

Philip K. Dick might be our most underrated writer of the last 100 years. Yes, honestly, I mean that. I've said before his prose is more workman-like than artisan, which has cost him points with the establishment, but it can't be enough to detract from his recognizable gifts, not least among which are the sprawling spaces his narratives travel. Because it could just as easily be said that he was our most insane writer, too -- in the most positive sense of the term (though I acknowledge "insane" connotes many negative things).

"A Scanner Darkly" is the last book of his I needed read before "VALIS" (one of the handful I've read to date (all of which are reviewed on this site), a list based in one part on someone else's recommendation and one part my own self-imposed reading requirements) -- which is now, finally, at long last, next, and which I'm extremely excited about (although I believe I've said that before; I worry now I won't be anything but disappointed, ah, but that's enough negativity!)

There is something nearer and dearer about this novel, separating it from the other, more sci-fi oriented works of PKD's collection I've read. Never have I encountered an author who seems more committed to allowing his work to flow on its own momentum and not from something contrived. Donald Barthelme may have articulated this notion of "Not-Knowing" best, of valuing the cultivation of uncertain aspects of the story from the vantage of writer as artist, free from the convolution of a pre-established conclusion and the plot points building to that (showcased with devices like foreshadowing), but no one I've read has adhered to this approach more devotedly than seems PKD.

And "A Scanner Darkly" tells the story of a motley group of bums and burn outs the likes of which I've never seen before. Think if The Whole Sick Crew of Thomas Pynchon's "V." were given a follow up, set somewhere ambiguous in the future. Which if "A Scanner Darkly" is anything in specific, it's got to be an epilogue to PKD's experiences with drugs and excess in the '60s. As PKD himself notes in the opening line to his "Author's Note" at the end of the novel, "This has been a novel about some people who were punished entirely too much for what they did."

It's also a novel about losing yourself. Ok, so then you ask, well, to what exactly? Drug use is the simplest answer. I wouldn't say it's an incorrect answer, but I do think with Philip K. Dick, there's something lurking on the tip of tongues, said but not said, and going beyond illicit drug use and dependance. It's about the paranoia that comes from attempting to live a subculture lifestyle free from the opprobrium and castigation of the mainstream. It's also about how desperation and mistrust / betrayal are rampant within the parameters of such an environment, not forgetting the fact that drug use does tend to take people out of their right mind so-called. (I do hate to sound like some nuevo-hippie hellbent on questioning the sacrosanctity of society's cherished mores as concern drug use, but I think judiciousness requires that I remind people (myself included) not to take the tack of the normative underpinnings of that mainstream I mention.)

Some spoilage immediately forthcoming, depending on your point of view: There is certainly something to how Fred slowly moves away from recognizing that he is, in truth, Bob Arctor, a not-so-subtle but still deftly achieved effect by PKD. Of course saying what I've said in the previous sentence requires a little plot background, so spoiler alerts sounding sonorously, here goes: Bob Arctor dwells in a home with two other miscreants, Jim Barris and Ernie Luckman, all of whom are regarded among the dope-using derelicts of society, wasteoids and burn-outs. They're criminals society takes time only to wrest from freedom and put into prison, or possibly some derivation of a recovery program, but such programs are occluded and one's admission is not guaranteed.

It happens that Bob Arctor is addicted to a mysterious drug referred to only as "Substance D." So too is his alter-ego or alias, "Fred," because, as it happens, Bob Arctor is also an undercover police officer. Problem is, "Substance D" is a mind-altering substance, um, literally? It literally alters your mind? Basically that's true, and how it does this is, in a nutshell, by impelling the two hemispheres of one's brain into two distinct and altogether separate consciouses.

And while this internal reconfiguration is ongoing, Arctor as Fred meets with "Hank," his superior, for reassignment. Arctor's last mission was a bust, and the criminal whom he was responsible for arresting apparently escaped into the arms of a recovery program. Worth mentioning is that neither Hank nor Fred knows the other's true identity (this is because all undercover officers are veiled in a scramble suit (described by a Lion's Club M.C. as rendering an individual a "vague blur"), which is a a suit made up of multifaceted quartz lens and attached to a miniaturized computer that plays on loop from its hard drive the multiple visage components of a million and a half human images).

So what's revealed by Hank is that Fred's reassignment is himself, Arctor, i.e. Fred is to surveil Bob Arctor and determine if he's as involved in illegal drug sales and so forth, as an informant has alleged. All the elements of Kafka's "The Trial" set in some futuristic dystopia, with, as said, a touch of Pynchon's "V." and Kesey's "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" for good measure. The artificiality of our world is constantly regarded by the rampant consumerism manifest in ubiquitous advertisement, which several characters find themselves in varying degrees of conflict with. The narrator reaches its most pitched pathos, however, with the interplay extant between Arctor and Donna Hawthorne, a young drug dealer, who herself seems to have something more than just drugs and drug use to hide.

In the end I'd say what's most surprising is how cleanly PKD pulls off the mania of this narrative. It's truly a departure from everything I've read of his, heretofore. Whatever rules I might have thought existed in his narrative world, they're very much tossed to the side in "A Scanner Darkly." I shall remember this when tackling "VALIS" -- which I can only imagine what to expect from Horselover Fat in its pages.

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