Home > Book Reviews, Philip K. Dick > Book Review – Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K Dick

Book Review – Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K Dick

Lately I’ve been lusting after the recently-published Library of America box set of Philip K Dick novels. I’ve read (and own) all 13 titles, of course, but I am a fan of the LoA editions (I have the Flannery O’Connor volume) and I’ll probably ending up shelling out for it. Anyway, this got me thinking about the 13 novels Jonathan Lethem (a noted writer himself – sadly I have never read his work) selected out of the 35 or so contenders. I realised that I’d read and reviewed 5 of the 13 in the past couple of years (these being Martian Time-Slip, The Man in the High Castle, Ubik, Now Wait for Last Year and VALIS), so now it’s my intention to re-read the remaining 8 books in the not-too-distant, with a view to reviewing them here.

It’s been ten years since I read Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said (henceforth Flow), mainly because I didn’t think a great deal of it the first time around. Well, nothing’s changed. It’s certainly an interesting read, and it’s a book that occupies a fairly unique space in PKD’s canon, coming at the tail end of the massive production of his sixties work, before the more measured (and far less prolific) work of the seventies. More than anything, though, this is a book about despair. Like A Maze of Death, this is a very dark tale.

In Flow, Jason Taverner, a famous signer and variety show host, is attacked by an enraged ex-lover and henceforth finds himself in a world where he’s an unknown entity. He’s become a nobody, and that’s a problem as he’s living in a police state where one must carry ID of various kinds at all times or risk being thrown into a work camp. Nothing seems to have changed in Jason’s world except that all memory of him has been erased, and so henceforth he is forced to buy the services of Kathy the counterfeiter, an unstable young woman who betrays people to the authorities in the hope of buying the freedom of her husband, who has been incarcerated in a work camp. It turns out that Kathy’s husband is in fact long dead and she herself on the brink of collapse. She soons turns Jason Taverner over to the ‘pols.’

What starts as a fairly intriguing but thinly-detailed police state thriller takes an unexpected turn in the middle third of the book, where we are introduced to Felix and Alys Buckman. Felix is a police chief and all around good guy (he’s negotiated for the lives of thousands of starving students when others would have had them shot) and Alys is some kind of leather and bondage freak (and a lesbian too, we are told). They are brother and sister, and also husband and wife. Okay. Jason Taverner eventually becomes embroiled in their strange world, and Alys ends up dead after a mescaline trip. Moreover, when Jason sees her, she’s actually a skeleton.

Let me say that this book comes across as utterly unconvincing in these and other ways. It just doesn’t make a lot of sense. Late in the novel, there is some attempt to explain Taverner’s condition by virtue of the existence of an experimental drug called KR-3 which warps the timeframe of the user or some other bullshit. But PKD had already done the experimental drug time travel thing in Now Wait for Last Year, to far greater effect. So KR-3 is a lame excuse for an explanation.

Eventually the plot peters out. There’s a few interesting scenes near the end where we see Felix Buckman, grieving not only for his dead sister but also (we understand implicitly) for Jason Taverner, the man who he himself has decided to frame for his sister’s death. He stops his ‘quibble’ at a gas station, sees a black man, draws him a heart with an arrow through it on a piece of paper, hands it to the man, drives off, returns, hugs the man, and leaves again. And then, instead of a satisfying conclusion, we get a epilogue where PKD summarises the fates of all major (and a few minor) characters over the next 100 or so years.

There’s a fair bit of interesting stuff in this book, I guess. PKD has filled his novel with numerous asides about an eclectic range of topics, ranging from snuffboxes, to 17th century music, to antique pistols. But I’m afraid it’s all filler. It’s difficult for me to understand why this novel is so highly regarded (it won the John W Campbell Memorial Award in 1975). It’s not a bad book, by any means, but I don’t believe it to be in the best thirteen. I would have omitted this and included Time Out of Joint instead.

I’m sure there are PKD fans out there who will disagree with much of this. Your thoughts on Flow would be appreciated.

Lastly, I just listened to a performance of John Dowland’s ‘Flow My Tears’ on youtube. It’s very moving:

  1. Rutledge McMillin
    January 13, 2013 at 1:42 pm

    I just finished Flow. I came to PKD by way of my love of Blade Runner. I’m a newcomer, having read Ubik, The Man in the High Castle, and now Flow.

    I agree with your negative review of the book. The plot is not convincing. I still don’t understand how the squid tentacles, the surgery to remove them, the angry ex-girlfriend who botched the auditions Taverner got her . . . how does all that fit? I suspect PKD just decided to go another direction and abandoned that part. I think he got wrapped up in his characters and let the design of the story suffer. Toward the end, needing a device to explain Taverner’s predicament, he lazily threw in a drug that warps space-time or something. And if you harbored any doubts that PKD had given this one less than best effort, the epilogue is the ultimate proof.

    I think he was a brilliant man and a great writer, but alas, he was human and capable of sloppiness and error. It’s like: I like the Beatles, but The Long and Winding Road is a maudlin piece of trash. “If you meet Buddha in the street . . .”

    • guysalvidge
      January 13, 2013 at 2:55 pm

      Glad you agree with my lukewarm assessment of Flow, Rutledge. It’s not my favourite of PKD’s novels by a long stretch.

  2. Matt
    October 2, 2014 at 7:32 am

    I really liked it. That last line about Mary Anne Dominic’s pottery being loved just seemed to tie the whole thing together. As if the confusion and death caused by Alys Buckman’s drug trip had a positive outcome, making a timid woman embrace her art and grow. And therefore it was all worthwhile.

    Yes some of the plot elements seemed to have been abandoned. I didn’t miss them though.

  3. Marco
    March 6, 2017 at 11:40 am

    Your plot summary is excellent. And you are spot on with the “flaws” you point out. Yet, to me, this novel ranks as high as top five of PKD’s. I’ll try to point out why that is so. First of all, the whole story is about love/empathy. Taverner’s ignoring that he and Heather Hart belong together (because he’s such a frivolous douche), Buckman’s relationship with his sister, Kathy’s very sick state… they are all depicted very strikinkly. The feelings portrayed seem authentic to me, even though I know they’re totally made up at the same time. The characterization in itself is not on a high level, but that’s because PKD isn’t really interested in that part of his craft. This can be justified when looking at the major theme of shifting realities and the question “what is real?” throughout his work. The plot is broken when the assassination attempt in the very beginning of the story is ignored later on, true, but, it makes perfect sense here because, reality is broken in so many ways that a logical, coherent storyline just wouldn’t belong in this warped universe. It’s a (drug-induced, if you will) kaleidoscope shifting through various, beautifully drawn sketches of humanity. Plastic, phony, fake aspects (like the “super-drug” pseudo-explanation for the plot or the lame ballads Taverner and Heart sing which they even themselves despise and attest bad taste to anyone who likes that kind of shit) on one hand and genuine affection (the art the potter girl produces or the emotional breakdown of fascist general Buckman) contrast so well and THAT quality is what makes me love this book. PKD knew that many of his sci-fi concepts lack coherence just as well as Franz Marc knew that horses aren’t actually blue…

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