Bopping with Niall JP O'Leary

Niall O'Leary insists on sharing his hare-brained notions and hysterical emotions. Personal obsessions with cinema, literature, food and alcohol feature regularly.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Reflections in a Scanner Darkly

All my bus tripping allowed me to get a lot of reading done and by the time I got to the Naas Road in Dublin, I had read 'Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said', the title coming from a 1600 John Dowland song.

Were it not for some small clumsy sci-fi elements (eg. the Callisto cuddle sponge!) and, more seriously, a needless epilogue, 'Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said' might almost be Philip K. Dick's masterpiece. It tells the story of Jason Taverner, a tv celebrity and singer with the world at his feet, who suddenly, and quite mysteriously, finds himself in a world where he does not exist. It could almost be a sci-fi reworking of Kafka's 'The Trial', with elements of the Book of Job thrown in (although it could be argued that 'The Trial' is a Twentieth Century reworking of Job anyhow). Dick is more restrained than usual in his use of wild ideas, concentrating more on the character of Jason Taverner and the personalities he meets than mindblowing effects. This is not to say the bizarre isn't present, and there are a number of strange scenes left without proper explanation (eg. the skeleton in the bathroom, the attempted murder of Jason), but this is Dick in thoughtful mood. And one of his main preoccupations in this novel is with women.

Dick was married several times and it is tempting to believe that this is an autobiographical survey of the various women in his life. If this is the case, it is not entirely flattering to Dick himself. In it we see a vain man incapable of love encountering many different incarnations of womanhood with a consistent lack of understanding. Genetically engineered to abhor of pain, Taverner is as fanatically enthusiastic about pleasure, and fails to acknowledge anything in between. For all that women feature prominently throughout, Dick could never be a feminist and it is the men in the novel who get the most sympathy. Taverner may be vain, but he has lost everything. Buckman, may be a version of '1984''s O'Brien, and involved in an incestuous relationship with his sister, but he is the most complex, and arguably the most sympathetic, character in the book. Almost all of the female characters on the other hand, with the exception of Alys, who scares Felix Buckman, define themselves in terms of Jason Taverner and sex.

There are many different definitions of love given throughout the novel, as there are many instances of the various forms it may take. Jason is a Six, genetically engineered to always ensure his own survival. If, as 'prunelike' Ruth Rae claims, love is living for another person, Taverner is genetically incapable of loving. His vanity and self serving nature contradict every defintion of love proffered. For instance, he cannot understand Buckman when the police general discusses a parent's love for a child. Love almost always seems to involve pain and Taverner cannot handle pain acting as it does against the survival instinct. However as Ruth Rae also says the survival instinct always loses in the end, we all die, even sixes. There are no truly profound insights here, but what there are have the ring of authenticity, hard won lessons born of experience.

For all the pain of the book, it is often very funny. There is one paragraph in particular that I think warrants a full quotation:
"He trod across the wall-to-wall carpet, which depicted in gold Richard M. Nixon's final ascent into heaven amid joyous singing above the wails of misery below. At the far door he trod on God, who was smiling a lot as He received His Second Only Begotten Son back into His bosom, and pushed open the bedroom door."
It is probably fitting that the carpet is part of the interior design of a paedophile's apartment.

As in many of his books, Dick here gives drugs a metaphysical dimension. What is startling here is the almost plausible explanation he gives for KR-3's effects. Baloney sure, but it is perhaps the first time I have seen narcotics and Kantian metaphysics mixed to such strong effect. Bizarre. Unlike a book like Heinlein's 'The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag', where the novel is so strong, the explanation cannot quite sustain it (though the very last paragraphs are poignant), here the solution to the mystery is so incredible as to force us to look at what has gone before in a transfigured light.

So why that epilogue? It feels very much as if it was tacked on to please a wider audience. Conrad did something similar in 'Nostromo', telescoping into sixty pages many years of his hero's life after spending four hundred pages dealing with a few weeks. He did it again in 'Chance', though in both cases it is to turn a happy ending into a sour one. Dick's epilogue has the opposite effect, but as in Conrad's books, it fails to convince the reader. Indeed in the case of 'Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said', it seems to contradict the implied ending of the rest of the book. If there is anything positive to be said for the epilogue, it is that in reducing what has gone before to a scrutinised segment of the many years later described, it subverts the hyperreal intensity of the story, making mundane what seemed sensational. Again though this fails to convince me.

In the last week or so, 'Next', a purported adaptation of Dick's 'The Golden Man' has been released. I will not be going to it. I have seen enough (trailers, etc.) to know that the heart of the short story has been jettisoned, with the movie appropriating the least interesting aspect of the story. 'The Golden Man' was Dick's antidote to the wildly optimistic vision of evolution that gave rise to superhero tales like those of the X-Men. He instead posited a vision of evolution that could take what might appear to us a backward step in order to move 'forward'. 'Next' takes one of the characteristics of this next stage creature and wraps it up in yet another action thriller.

It is interesting to note how many of Dick's short stories have been adapted into films compared to his novels. Novel wise we have 'Bladerunner' and 'A Scanner Darkly' (and perhaps 'Abre los ojos'), while varying in their faithfulness to the short stories they claim as their bases are 'Next', 'Total Recall', 'Screamers', 'Paycheck', 'Imposter', and 'Minority Report'. Personally I can understand this. Dick's novels are overloaded with ideas, too many for your standard Hollywood fare, and, to be fair, probably too many to make a coherent, dramatic, mainstream narrative. 'Bladerunner' had to excise much of what made the novel interesting, while 'A Scanner Darkly' is hardly a mainstream movie. In contrast his short stories generally take one idea and run with it. Unfortunately being short stories, they rarely provide enough content for a full ninety minutes and Hollywood must pad it out with filler. Often the filler takes the form of a chase; witness 'Paycheck' and 'Imposter', and probably 'Next'. Generally the short stories are not held in as high esteem as the novels, something that I feel is unfair. 'Beyond Lies the Wub', 'We Can Remember It for You Wholesale' and 'On This Dull Earth' are etched in my mind, while the opening from an early short story called 'Stability' (I think) must have inspired the introduction of Sam Lowry in the film, 'Brazil'. Ironically I feel it is the 'lesser' novels, such as 'Eye in the Sky', 'Dr Futurity' and 'The Crack in Space', the potboilers, that would probably make the best Hollywood fare. They could be classy B-movies with just enough eccentricity to appeal to a jaded audience, but with narratives strong enough to carry viewers with them. Sometimes a thought-provoking, intelligent book does not make an engrossing, entertaining movie. Hollywood prospectors should bear this in mind before they go mining Dick's back catalogue.

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