Sunday, 10 August 2008

"Flow, my tears, the policeman said" by Philip K. Dick

There are certain novelists who are not taken nearly as seriously as they should be because of the subject matter they choose. Patrick O’Brian, C.S. Forester and Derek Robinson are all probably examples of this; despite Robinson having been short-listed for the Booker in 1971, various of his books are currently out of print, while O’Brian was never short-listed but surely would have been had he written modern day working class stories in Glaswegian dialect. From the world of science fiction, Isaac Asimov and Philip K. Dick would also be prime candidates for this sort of snooty critical disdain.

This last statement might require some slight qualification, though. When we think of science fiction, we tend to think of stories set far in the future and grappling with huge themes such as conquest, oppression, scientific advancement, enlightenment and the indomitable nature of the human spirit; certainly much of this is present in Asimov. Yet Dick’s books are mostly set in the late twentieth century, and tell stories set on a very small scale of human experience. Many science fiction books are set in faraway worlds and feature fantastic inventions such as inter-galactic space drives. Yet Dick’s books are set mostly on earth and, although using different names and employing a few additional features, his gadgets could quite credibly form part of our own environment, or at least that slightly warped parallel universe which he makes out of it. If his works are science fiction, then so is Orwell’s 1984.

This is the key to appreciating what Dick does as a writer. He takes a world which could be our own and then manipulates it in some quirky, and usually nightmarish way. It is as if he reaches out, takes time and space in his hands, and twists them, so that some parts are compressed and others stretched. This nasty creased mess then becomes the canvass on which he starts to paint his scene, with his characters left at the mercy of wherever they come to fall on the treacherous terrain.

“Treacherous” because in Dick’s world nothing can be relied upon to be what it seems. He is one of the few writers ever to have achieved an eponymous adjective, and this is exactly what “phildickian” means: that in some bizarre way one’s belief system is about to be put radically to the test. He is obsessed with the nature of reality or, more precisely, with different people’s perceptions of reality and of how these might be manipulated. Frequently this operates on many different levels, each adding a new layer of complexity. In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (later made into the film Bladerunner), for example, Dick not only creates androids who believe they are human, but poses the question “if androids can believe they are human, how can any human be sure they are not an android?”

In Dick’s case there is an added piquancy to these alternative views of reality since it was something that he himself experienced, by which he became obsessed, and which was either the product or the cause of serious mental health problems. In 1974 he had an experience, or a number of experiences which he variously described as blinding light and a sense of recognising that reality was not as he had previously understood it to be. He frequently referred to this as, and used as the title of an early novel, an eye in the sky, in other words being part of an artificial world that somebody has created and catching the creator unawares gazing in at his creation, rather like a colony of ants suddenly discovering that the world they have been living in has actually been built between two sheets of glass so that young scientists can observe their workings.

Tantalisingly, there are hints in his later writings that he may actually have made all this up, but whatever the case there can be no doubting the disturbed balance of his mind. The evidence is plentiful. He convinced a psychiatrist that his wife was trying to kill him, resulting in her being taken away and confined in a secure mental hospital, being fed tranquilisers to calm her constant rage, which the doctors ascribed to her unbridled murderous instincts (his problems really began when she was finally released …) He addressed a later wife in nothing but German, though refusing to allow her to learn the language. He removed the labels from all his records, insisting that people should choose their music by instinct. Later in life, he covered dozens of notebooks in nonsense writing, insisting they (his Exegesis) would be his true literary legacy. He believed, and almost convinced the FBI, that he was being targeted by the Russian secret service, kept under surveillance and being used as a pawn in some indeterminate plot for world domination. However, the assertion in his official biography that repeatedly asking women for sex was further evidence of mental illness may say more about the biographer’s mind than his subject’s.

In The Penultimate Truth, millions live in crowded subterranean colonies believing that the planet surface is lethally radioactive, but it is a lie, spun by the rulers up top, and perpetuated by phony media broadcasts. In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? a sub-plot also makes use of a media con-trick, with the added twist that when this is exposed, people continue to believe in it anyway because they find the false world it has created more comforting that the reality which they dare not confront. In Ubik the reader is left wondering whether the central character actually died early on the in the novel. In The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, we find a different kind of altered reality as the population are fed a hallucinogenic drug.

Flow, my tears, the policeman said takes Dick’s obsession with different layers of reality to new heights. It is difficult to analyse this in any details without giving away the plot, but the novel open with Jason, the hero, a famous singer and TV star, discovering that he has apparently ceased to exist, with nobody every having heard of his TV show (which has mysteriously disappeared from the weekly listings) and there being no record of his birth at the central registry. Naturally the police find this both suspicious and disturbing, since they assume that he has stolen his file from the records department, yet only somebody very important could have done this. It then becomes clear that the police too (or one of them in particular) is grappling with different layers of truth. The most impressive thing, though, is that Dick manages to set most of the novel inside the heads of the two main characters, yet without in any way losing the grip of the reader’s attention. Anyone who has watched a new wave French film consisting of seemingly interminable monologues delivered by an unwashed man smoking a cigarette will recognise the scale of this achievement.

The reason for this is quite simple; Dick is a very fine writer indeed. The dialogue has an everyday credibility to it, as do the thought processes that run through Jason’s head. When it comes to General Buckman, the “policeman” of the title the balance of the book shifts significantly, as surely Dick meant it to, to the extent that we even begin to wonder who is supposed to be the real hero, even the real narrator. Is Jason intended by fate to be the catalyst that releases Buckman’s secret into the clear light of day (though again, misleading media coverage attempts to obscure the truth)? Or does Buckman offer Jason, in some perverse way, a route back to existence and the world he craves, a world where he exists in the eyes of his many fans and can soak up their adulation? Unfortunately, it is difficult to develop this point further without divulging key elements of the book’s denouement.

Once cannot say that a reappraisal of Dick is overdue, because thankfully it has already started. He has been compared to Kafka and to Borges, among others. Surprisingly, nobody has thus far mentioned Orwell.

“At the 469th Precinct station, Jason Taverner found himself lost in a multitude of men and women who moved aimlessly, waiting to get in, waiting to get out, waiting for information, waiting to be told what to do. McNulty had pinned a coloured tag on his lapel; God and the police alone knew what it meant.”

That could be from 1984, but is in fact from Flow, my tears the policeman said. However, there is a dryness, a sparseness about Orwell that does not always sit well with Dick. Typically his style is more flowing and instinctive; there are parts of this book which almost approach a stream of consciousness technique. There are similarities between the two writers, though. Both struggled with severe ill health, one physical the other mental. Both felt themselves profoundly out of tune with conventional society. Both believed that the basic decency of mankind would always assert itself if left alone to do so, but that it could be squeezed out of people by the unremitting daily grind.

“He did not object to the people; he saw them as trapped here, the ordinaries, who through no fault of their own had to remain. They had not invented it; they did not like it; they endured it, as he had not had to. In fact, he felt guilty, seeing their grim faces, their turned-down mouths. Jagged, unhappy mouths.”

That could be Orwell from The Road to Wigan Pier, but it isn’t, it’s Dick again. Like Jason Taverner, Orwell too felt guilty when he encountered “the ordinaries”. Guilty that he had not had to endure what they had, and guilty because he knew that he, like them, would have proved unequal to the struggle.

Dick has yet to find, or be ascribed, his rightful place in the pantheon of American novelists. For now, the critics are still moving him up and down, and along the shelves from side to side to see where he might best fit. There is no doubt that the “sci fi” tag has both delayed and confused this process. Perhaps it is meaningless. Throw it off and Dick is undeniably a great novelist. Replace it and he is not enhanced, but perhaps diminished, at least in some people’s eyes, notwithstanding that what he wrote was not really “sci fi” at all, but simply alternative offerings of reality.

His contemporaries included Updike, Heller, Kerouac and Bellow and it is difficult to say that he cannot rank with any of them, despite the exalted status of the last name in that list. He wrote what was seen as popular fiction, published for the most part by small specialist publishers, and the critical perception of his work has undoubtedly suffered because of this. However, so did Dickens, and his has not.

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