Sunday, November 6, 2016

Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick

I don't exist, he said to himself.  There is no Jason Taverner.  There never was and there never will be.  The hell with my career; I just want to live.  If someone or something wants to eradicate my career, okay; do it.  But aren't I going to be allowed to exist at all?  Wasn't I even born?

Jason Taverner leads a charmed life: he's a six, one of an elite group of genetically engineered humans, and he stars in his own television variety show.  He's famous around the entire world until, one day, he wakes up and he isn't.  His girlfriend, his manager, his lawyer--none of them have ever heard of him.  His music no longer exists in jukeboxes, or anywhere else.  He doesn't exist.

Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said is another in Dick's canon of books which look askance at our reality, and thus, ourselves--which asks, who are we really and what is this place we live in?  Taverner is the spiritual cousin of someone like Bob Arctor in A Scanner Darkly, whose drug-addled mind results in a psyche so fractured he ends up pursuing himself as both policeman and criminal.  Dick sets Flow My Tears among the context of a massive police state, where not having identification can result in getting sent off to the forced labor camps in Alaska.  As always, Dick was sensitive to the ways in which the modern world threatens and impinges on the fragility of our selves.

But, like all of PKD's best books, that hardly explains the strangeness that happens at the margins.  It doesn't help us understand, for instance, the presence of the Jesus-freak Jehovah's Witness policeman who arrests Taverner, or the strange racial politics of the novel (black Americans have been nearly eradicated by eugenics policies, "like the last flock of whooping cranes).  Flow My Tears is about all that well-worn PKD stuff--the spuriousness of reality, the unreliable nature of the self--but like his most affecting novels, including Timothy Archer and VALIS, it ends up being about much more.

The most captivating part of the novel is not the police chases or the drug trips but the low-key conversation Taverner has with an old lover, Ruth, in the middle of the book, where they meditate on the nature of love and grief.  Ruth tells a story about a rabbit who grew up with a group of kittens and learned to act as a kitten did, but met violence when it tried its playful kitten-act on a German Shepherd:

And the part of him the dog bit, he kept that part hidden behind the drapes because he had no hair there and was ashamed.  But what was so touching about him was his pushing against the limits of his--what would you say?--physiology?  His limitations as a rabbit, trying to become a more evolved life form, like the cats.  Wanting all the time to be with them and play with them as an equal.  That's ll there is to it, really.  The kittens wouldn't' stay in the nest he built for them, and the dog didn't know the rules and got him.  But who would have thought a rabbit could develop such a complete personality... A little life trying.  And all the time it was hopeless.  But the rabbit didn't know that.  Or maybe he did know and kept trying anyhow.

Is Taverner a rabbit, trying to be a cat?  Or a cat, turned by some magic into a rabbit?  Ruth argues against Jason's cynicism, extolling the virtues of both love and grief:  "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."  In the end, we discover that Taverner's upheaval is not the result of him losing touch with reality, but someone else--a fan taking a mysterious drug which slips the bonds of reality, and drags others with it.  There's something profound about the strength of Taverner's presence in the mind of someone else, something like the love that Ruth talks about, and something in the loss of his familiar life like the sobering grief that Ruth praises.

Brent told me he thought this was one of the better Dick books; I think I agree.  It doesn't quite reach the depth of the three VALIS novels, but it comes pretty close, and you can see the more human touch that Dick employs in those books beginning to form. 

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