Saturday, October 18, 2008

Happy, happy they that in hell feel not the world's despite (Books - Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick)

I first read Philip K. Dick's Flow my Tears, The Policeman Said at some point around 1983, eleven years after it was written and just five year before it was set. At that point is was already clear how his fictional imaginings of the 'future' in this book would fall short. We were clearly not five years from driving personal airplanes rather than cars, nor would picture telephones be de rigeur. Twenty years later we would still not carry around 3-D pictures of our loved ones, build 4-dimensional rooms (whatever they are), or use the words 'mellow' and 'dig' quite so often. However, the police would have devices attached to people they are not holding in jail but want to keep track of , and nearly everything would be computerized (although we would no longer require punch cards for that process), and there would be a network you could plug into and get lost for hours or days with everything from imaginary games to sex - but it would be via the computer rather than the telephone. But he wasn't writing science fiction to be a prognosticator, Philip K. Dick was more of a philosopher. He wrote about future worlds to imagine the consequences of the one he lived in. That is, he really wrote about his present, and his creations are a combination of thoughtful erudition and thriller-like plots.

This book, for example, is one long chase scene housing a philosophical meditation on what makes life worth living, and quotes from a John Dowling lute song. Jason Taverner, a famous television host and singer, and a type of human called a '6,' wakes up to find himself in a world almost exactly like the one he left, only he doesn't exist in it. No one has ever heard of him- a virtual nightmare for someone who enjoys his celebrity. So this book is, on the one hand, an exploration of how we define ourselves. Are we addicted to the approval of others? Do we rely only on ourselves? Does work define us? Can we live with the dark in us, or do we try to drown it out with messages of comfort or obliterate it with drugs? In his new world Taverner must get false documents and is pursued by a learned police general and they have have a game of cat and mouse that is evocative of the one between Raskolnikov and Porfiry, the criminal and police officer of Crime and Punishment. This duel is complicated by General Buckman's profligate sister, Alys, who is a key to the twist on which the plot turns. I won't spoil it for you, since that is one of the pleasures of reading a Philip K. Dick novel.

There is a triad of women Taverner encounters on his journey who are contrast enjoyably and are central to the plot. First there is Kate, the document forgerer he engages to make him false identification. She doubles an informer, adding tracking devices to the IDs for the police to get her husband out of forced labor, but she doesn't always turn her customers in. Sometimes she likes them and helps them out instead. She has some sort of mental illness that has her careening from a vulnerable little girl one minute to a ruthlessly manipulative operative the next, and when pushed to her limit, she simply lies down on the floor and screams. In some ways, she is every person - living by a moral code that is not absolute but flexible, and driven by her comfort level with other people, her fear, and her need for love. And she has a breaking point where her need becomes blinding and absolute.

Then there is Ruth Rae, the aging huanter of Vegas nightclubs, now on her 21st husband.
Ruth still had beautiful black hair, all coiled in an upsweep at the back of her head. Featherplastic eyelashes, brilliant purple streaks across her cheek, as if she had been seared by psychedelic tiger claws.

Dressed in a colorful sari, barefoot - as usual she had kicked off her high-heeled shoes, somewhere - and not wearing her glasses, she did not strike him as bad-looking. Ruth Rae, he mused. Sews her own clothes. Bifocals which she never wears when anyone's around...excluding me. Does she still read the Book-of-the-Month selection? Does she still get off reading those endless dull novels about sexual misdeeds in weird, small, but apparently normal Midwestern towns?

Somehow, I don't think that the fashions of the late sixties and early seventies would be endlessly perpetuated through the ages, but if you can get past this distraction, it is Ruth who drives home the central theme of this novel.
..."Love isn't just wanting another person the way you want to own an object you see in a store. That's just desire. You want to have it around, take it home and set it up somewhere in the apartment like a lamp. Love is" - she pause, reflecting, - "like a father saving his children from a burning house, getting them out and dying himself. When you love you cease to live for yourself; you live for another person."

"And that's good?" It did not sound so good to him...

..."It's better not to love so that never happens to you. Even a pet, a dog or a cat. As you pointed out - you love them and they perish. If the death of a rabbit is bad - " He had, then, a glimpse of horror: the crushed bones and hair of a girl, held and leaking blood, in the jaws of a dimply-seen enemy outlooming any dog.

"But you can grieve," Ruth said, anxiously studying his face. "Jason! Grief is the most powerful emotion a man or child or animal can feel. It's a good feeling."

"In what fucking way?" he said harshly.

"Grief causes you to leave yourself. You step outside your narrow little pelt. And you can't feel grief unless you've had love before it - grief is the final outcome of love, because it's love lost.

Ok, the love and sacrifice stuff is pretty cliched, but the novel is written in a popular idiom. This theme is endlessly played out because it is a universal and timeless conflict. How many movies, novels, pop songs, plays, television plots can you think of about the need for love and the fear of commitment (particularly when it comes to the young Western male). But Ruth Rae's point about grief is about one of the requirements for love - vulnerability. Without being open, we can't really love, and if we're open we risk being hurt.

The third muse, Mary Anne Dominic, is an insecure, overweight woman who makes pottery. Despite the fact that Taverner only sees her lack of superficial beauty when he first meets her, and only relates to her as someone who can help him (come to think of it, that is pretty much how he relates to everyone), and despite the fact that we learn she was emotionally crippled by her mother and this has made her neurotically fearful, her modesty and her self sufficiency end up making her the most attractive of the three women, and the most valuable to Jason Taverner's growth.

If you can get past the silliness of the 1970s lingo, the story is entertaining and at times quite gripping, and I found its discussion meaningful, even sophisticated. I am going to re-read a few more of Philip K. Dick's books and see how they hold up.

Flow my tears, fall from your springs!
Exiled forever let me mourn;
Where night's black bird her sad infamy sings,
There let me live forlorn.

Down, vain lights, shine you no more!
No nights are black enough for those
That in despair their lost fortunes deplore.
Light doth but shame disclose.

Never may my woes be relieved,
Since pity is fled;
And tears and sighs and groans my weary days
Of all joys have deprived.

Hark! you shadows that in darkness dwell,
Learn to condemn light.
Happy, happy they that in hell
Feel not the world's despite.


Laura said...

Back when I was in the '70's when I was in high school I read several books by Philip K. Dick and liked them a lot.

Thanks for reviewing this book - I think I'll have to find a copy and read it.

Anonymous said...

I read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep for a science fiction class last year, and one of the things we discussed was how books like might be more useful as ways to look at the anxieties and tensions at the time the book was written rather than how well the book predicts what the future might be like.

Androids reflected a lot of tensions of the '80s -- globalization, body modification and science and the body, stuff like that. From your review, it sounds like this book might also be a good way to explore the issues when it was written, since the extrapolating to the future isn't very accurate :)

Kim (Sophisticated Dorkiness)

Ted said...

GSE - Well, that's 20/20 hindsight for you. I guess my point is that no one has a crystal ball and that anyone writing in the present is, to some degree, writing about the present. Whether they think so or not. I have Do Androids Dream... on the pile for a re-read. I'll be curious to see how it compares to Flow My Tears, which I really ended up liking, it was much more than a nostalgia read for me. I really thought it a good book.