Sunday, 17 November 2013

A Scanner Darkly

Philip K. Dick A Scanner Darkly (1973)

At the likely risk of contradicting any previous claim I may have made to the opposite effect, A Scanner Darkly might be viewed as the pivotal Dick novel, or at least a pivotal Dick novel in that it occupies a narrative space roughly equidistant to all other devices by which he attempted to describe his understanding of the universe. Take away a few minor technological details and it reads almost like straight autobiography of a kind which could sit quite happily on a shelf amongst Burroughs' Junky, the oeuvre of Charles Bukowski, and other stumbling accounts of lives failing to happen; whilst on the other, more fantastic hand, all it shares in common with VALIS is buried within the increasingly schizophrenic delusions of Robert Arctor, the main character; so it's fiction, but it's true to life.

Dick believed in a layered universe, or at least in an idea amounting to the same - the thoroughly crappy reality of the world as it is as an illusion imposed upon the world as it should or could be by an errant creator. This theme reoccurs throughout Dick's career and is here expressed in the double life of Robert Arctor, a near permanently wasted addict of the terrible substance D and federal narcotics agent whose cover is so deep that he ends up spying on himself, and who is now so affected by the drug that he doesn't seem to quite notice how he's going around in circles. His world is also going around in circles, as, Dick suggests, is western civilisation, satirised here in New Path, the drug rehabilitation organisation which turns out to be a front for the production of substance D. Almost everything in this novel is eating its own tail.

In Southern California it didn't make any difference anyhow where you went; there was always the same McDonaldburger place over and over, like a circular strip that turned past you as you pretended to go somewhere. And when finally you got hungry and went to the McDonaldburger place and bought a McDonald's hamburger, it was the one they sold you last time and the time before that and so forth, back to before you were born...

They had by now, according to their sign, sold the same original burger fifty billion times. He wondered if it was to the same person. Life in Anaheim, California, was a commercial for itself, endlessly replayed. Nothing changed; it just spread farther and farther in the form of neon ooze.

It is this crushing sense of inertia, of entropic force which forms Dick's illusory superimposed reality, extending right down to the level of human consciousness and experience, the murk of this dreary dream world we float in, as it is later described:

Arctor had hit his head on the corner of a kitchen cabinet directly above him. The pain, the cut in his scalp, so unexpected and undeserved, had for some reason cleared away the cobwebs. It flashed on him instantly that he didn't hate the kitchen cabinet: he hated his wife, his two daughters, his whole house, the back yard with its power mower, the garage, the radiant heating system, the front yard, the fence, the whole fucking place and everyone in it. He wanted a divorce; he wanted to split. And so he had, very soon. And entered, by degrees, a new and somber life, lacking all of that.

Probably he should have regretted his decision. He had not. That life had been one without excitement, with no adventure. It had been too safe. All the elements that made it up were right there before his eyes, and nothing new could ever be expected.

As the author stresses in the afterword, there is no moral to this novel, but then it does so much that I'm not sure it really needs one. Philip K. Dick had an extraordinary view of the world, and one that might be deemed nonetheless useful regardless of whether you believe any of it, and this is as clear a glimpse of that world as we're likely to encounter outside of the usual biographical sources. At the risk of appearing rude, if you can't appreciate this one then you're probably a moron.

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