Book Review 11: Drugs and Existential Crises

“The most dangerous kind of person,” Arctor said, “is one who is afraid of his own shadow.”

Page 129

“A Scanner Darkly” by Philip K Dick is a weird book. If you want your stories straight forward, with plots that are fairly easy to follow, skip this one. But if you enjoy challenging material that explores the psyche, and where most things are not what they seem, you may enjoy this book.

Fred is an undercover narcotics investigator chasing after the producers of a powerful mind altering drug called Substance D. Undercover work is risky. Fred’s supervisors don’t know his real name, or what he looks like. In meetings, undercover officers wear high-tech scramble suite that completely disguise their appearance. In the course of his undercover work, he also consumes Substance D to blend in. He supervisors assign him to track a major drug dealer. He is on the trail of Bob Arctor.

Bob Arctor is a small time drug dealer trying to survive among the other users, dealers, and prostitutes that populate Southern California. Mysterious things happen in the house he shares with two other guys. His property gets damaged. Someone sabotages his car. And everyone is suspicious of everyone else.

Bob Arctor actually works for the Orange County Sheriff’s department and has infiltrated the drug culture. His plan is to do larger and larger buys from his girlfriend Donna, until she asks him to work directly with her up line dealer. Then he can do the same thing with him to ultimately get to the top and the final, big bust.

And from time to time, Bob Arctor puts on his scramble suit, and becomes Fred, to go meet with his bosses at the Sherriff’s department and report on the activities of Bob Arctor.

After that things get complicated.

As we follow Bob/Fred through the novel, we watch his mind slowing fall apart. He starts to see Bob and Fred as different people. When Fred is reviewing the audio and video surveillance, his has a strange sense of déjà vu, but sees Bob as a different person. Meanwhile, Bob has the vague sense he’s being watched.

Dick is exploring several key things in this novel: the nature of identity, the ways people deal with a major drug epidemic in a fascist police state, and the way drug culture destroys lives.

The collapse of Bob’s/Fred’s mind is the central theme of the book. Early on, he has a good sense of who he is, and what he’s doing. But even then, he is not always comfortable with what’s going on.
I’ll be glad, Bob Arctor thought, when we get in the holoscanners and have them set up all over this house. He touched his gun, felt reassured, then wondered if he should make certain it was still full of shells. But then, he realized, I’ll wonder if the firing pin is gone or if the powder has been removed from the shells and so forth, on and on, obsessively, like a little boy counting cracks in the sidewalk to reduce his fear. Little Bobby Arctor, coming home from the first grade with his little schoolbooks, frightened at the unknown lying ahead.

Page 71

As the drugs exert more influence over him, he has trouble both distinguishing between Fred and Bob and with not distinguishing between Fred and Bob.

And then he thought, What the hell am I talking about? I must be nuts. I know Bob Arctor; he’s a good person. He’s up to nothing. At least nothing unsavory. In fact, he thought, he works for the Orange County Sheriff’s Office, covertly. Which is probably why Barris is after him.

But, he thought, that wouldn’t explain why the Orange County Sheriff’s office is a after him – especially to the extent of installing all those holos and assigning a full-time agent to watch and report on him. That wouldn’t account for that.
Page 183

Dick does a great job with prose like this. He puts Bob/Fred into these weird loops of circular logic. Fred/Bob is trying to apply logic and structure to his thoughts, but no matter what path he goes down, he comes back to the same place.

At one point he thinks considers ending surveillance on Bob Arctor so he can begin personal surveillance of Bob Arctor. But he decides against it.

On the other hand, Hank and those guys downtown would not be too happy if Bob Arctor left his house, now that the monitors had been expensively and elaborately installed, and was never seen again: never showed up on any of the tape. He could not therefore take off in order to fulfill his personal surveillance plans at the expense of theirs. After all, it was their money.

Page 134

All of this takes place in the near –future fascist police state in Orange County. Substance D usage is at epidemic levels, and those not on the drugs will put up with anything to not be victimized by the drug, its dealers, or its consumers.

Right up front, Dick emphasizes the importance of identity. Very early in the book, one of Bob/Fred’s roommates explains how to survive in such a climate:

To survive in a fascist police state, he thought, you gotta always be able to come up with a name, your name. At all times. That’s the first sign they look for that you’re wired, not being able to figure out who the hell you are.

Page 9
Once you lose your identity, you lose any advantage you have in dealing with police.

Fascist and dictatorial states in both literature and the real world focus on names. The pharse “Papers, please” in a fake German accent had become cultural shorthand to describe governments that more and more tightly restrict individual rights. Governments set up check points, monitor the movements of their citizens, and require people to identify themselves at any point, as a way of controlling the populace.

This is one of the reasons the Bush Administration’s Real ID program is running into difficulty. The idea of the national ID card is anathema to people around the country. It just feels wrong to millions of American. It seems to run counter to the ideals of freedom and liberty our country was based on.

It was also interesting to see this same issue pop up in the recent Harry Potter book. As the corrupted Ministry of Magic outsources Muggle round-ups to wandering wizards and other creatures, the most important thing a caught wizard can do is come up with a name – quickly.
In a sense it highlights the tension between societal control and individualism. The controlling society demands a name, and citizens must provide it. Ironically, those with the strongest individualistic tendencies are the one who do not want to give a name. They instead value those individual rights so strongly they will not surrender their identity with out a fight. Or if they can’t fight, they’ll come up with a fake name.

One character in the novel tries to break free of the conventional bonds in the society and make himself great. He took various drugs in an effort to make himself smarter. Instead, he reported seeing God.

Donna inhaled from the hash pipe and contemplated the lights spread out below them; she smelled the air and listened. “After he saw God, he felt really good, for around a year. And then he felt really bad. Worse than he ever had before in his life. Because one day it came over him, he began to realize, he was never going to see God again. He was going to live out his whole remaining life, decades, maybe fifty years, and see nothing but what he had always seen. What we see. He was worse off than if he hadn’t seen God. He told me one day he got really mad; he just freaked out and started cursing and smashing things in his apartment. He even smashed his stereo. He realized he was going to have to live on and on like he was, seeing nothing. Without any purpose. Just a lump of flesh grinding along, eating, drinking, sleeping, working, crapping.”

“Like the rest of us.” It was the first thing Bob Arctor had managed to say; each word came with retching difficulty.

Donna said, “That’s what I told him. I pointed that out. We were all in that same boat and it didn’t freak the rest of us.

And he said, ‘You don’t know what I saw. You don’t know what I know.’”

Page 231-232

Despite the ever present drug use in the book, Dick is not defending it. We see the drugs destroying people’s lives and identities. While the characters are sympathetic and we care about them, at no point does Dick excuse their drug use. In an epilogue, he lists 15 friends he lost to drugs in the 60s and 70s. He describes their fates, from deaths to psychotic breaks.

Drug misuse is not a disease, it is a decision, like the decision to step out in front of a moving car. You would call that not a disease but an error in judgment. When a bunch of people begin to do it, it is a social error, a life-style. In this particular life-style the motto is, “Be happy now because tomorrow you are dying,” but the dying begins almost at once, and the happiness is a memory. It is, then, only a speeding up, an intensifying, of the ordinary human existence. It is not different form your life-style, it is only faster. It all takes place in days or weeks or months instead of years. “Take the cash and let the credit go,” as Villion said in 1460. But that is a mistake if the cash is a penny and the credit is a whole life time.

Page 277

And while we spend time laughing at the antics of many of the characters, one of the more poignant moments comes as Bob Arctor watches and drug-addled prostitute sleep.

“I don’t care if he stunk,” the girl beside him muttered later on, dreamily, in her sleep. “I still loved him.”

He wondered who she meant. A boyfriend? Her father? A tomcat? A childhood precious stuffed toy? Maybe all of them, he thought. But the words were “I loved,” not “I still love.” Evidently he, whatever or whoever he had been, was gone now.

Maybe, Arctor reflected, they (whoever they were) had made her throw him out, because he stank so bad. Probably so. He wondered how old she had been then, the remembering worn-out junkie girl who dozed beside him.

Page 160

It’s a sad glimpse into the life she had before she gave herself over to Substance D, and became a seemingly empty shell, prostituting herself for more Substance D.
As Fred investigates Bob, he still looks down on what he, himself is becoming.

He recalled a case in which a heroin dealer, out to burn a chick, had planted two packets of heroin in the handle of her iron, then phoned in an anonymous tip on her to WE TIP. Before the tip could be acted on, the chick found the heroin, but instead of flushing it, she had sold it. The police came, found nothing, then made a voiceprint on the phone tip, and arrested the pusher for giving false information to the authorities. While out on bail, the pusher visited the chick late one night and beat her almost to death. When caught and asked why he’d put out one of her eyes and broken both her arms and several ribs, he explained that the chick had come across two packets of high-grade heroin belonging to him, sold them for a good profit, and not cut him in. Such, Arctor reflected, went the pusher mentality.

Page 73-74

Throughout all this darkness, Dick keeps a sense of humor. He walks a fine line between laughing at the thoughts and foibles of the addicts and mocking them. Yet he doesn’t cross over that line. He doesn’t absolve them of the responsibility for their choices, yet he continues to emphasize the little humanity they have left. Like the strung out prostitute of still wistfully defends the object of her love while she sleeps, or Bob Arctor’s roommate who has had enough and tries to kill him self. He tries to purchase the right drugs from a dealer, which, combined with alcohol will give him a quiet, peaceful death. Unfortunately, after he consumes the
cocktail, things don’t work out quite the way he planned.

“Your sins will now be read to you ceaselessly, in shifts, throughout eternity. The list will never end.”

Know your dealer, Charles Freck thought, and wished he could take back the last half-hour of his life.

A thousand years later he was still lying there on his bed…They had gotten up to the first grade, when he was six years old.

Ten thousand years later, they had reached the sixth grade. The year he had discovered masturbation.

Page 188.

“A Scanner Darkly” is an anti-drug novel that’s not preachy.

“A Scanner Darkly” is a fascinating dive into the seas of identity.

“A Scanner Darkly” is a warning light about the dangers of a police state.

But above all, “A Scanner Darkly” is a great book that exercises the brain with a complex plot, sudden twists and turns in the story, and engaging and funny characters. It’s well worth the time.

1 comment:

Jon Clarke said...

Check out the movie. It's bizarrely spellbinding.