Book Review – A Scanner Darkly by Philip K Dick
A Scanner Darkly just about stands alone in PKD’s career–none of his other books are written quite like this–which is a strange thing given that he wrote well over 40 novels, and most of them run together into one ‘meta-novel.’ Scanner is different, at times very different. And its very successful. The theme is drug abuse, the subject a thinly-veiled description of PKD’s own experiences of the late sixties. This is as close to an overtly political novel as PKD ever wrote (Radio Free Albemuth, written directly after this, also springs to mind).
The characters in A Scanner Darkly are fascinating. We start with Jerry Fabin, a drug-addled man who believes that aphids are crawling all over his house, on his skin, and in his lungs. He buys can after can of bug spray, showers constantly, and spends his time collecting the make-believe aphids in various containers. It’s not long before he’s carted off to one of the dreaded federal clinics. Charles Freck is another stoner, and ultimately a character peripheral to the main events featured here (although he does have one amazing cameo concerning a botched suicide attempt). But our main three characters, the inhabitants of a particular house in Southern California, are the schizophrenic Bob Arctor, the sinister Jim Barris and decrepit Ernie Luckman. Donna Hawthorne is the fourth major character in the novel; she takes the role of drug dealer, love interest in Bob’s case and, later, federal narc. It’s a strong cast and one based, apparently, on actual people PKD knew during this late-sixties period.
Another interesting thing about Scanner is that it differs in tone and often in execution in comparison to practically all of PKD’s other work. For example, the novel is littered with what William Burroughs called ‘routines’ or short anecdotes that play out in the minds of the various dopers, to comic effect. In an important sense, the plot of Scanner doesn’t move forward very quickly in the first half of the novel, because PKD is focusing on the idle stoner speculations of the various characters. Much of this is hilarious and true to life, but as I said, it’s very different from PKD’s earlier work.
The plot doesn’t really get going until the second half, when Bob Arctor begins to forget that he is also Fred, the police nark who has been assigned the task of surveilling himself, i.e. Bob Arctor. His identity as a nark is protected by a nifty thing called a ‘scramble suit’ which is practically the only SF trope in the novel (in fact there’s very little that’s science fictional about this book at all – and one might argue that PKD could just as well have ditched the SF trimmings altogether). Increasingly, ‘Fred’ (Bob’s nark identity) sees Bob as a potentially dangerous character, and ends up fully participating in the machinery of ‘justice’ that would arrest or even ‘snuff’ Bob altogether.
There’s a whole host of long philosophical monologues (and occasionally dialogues) in the middle third of the book. Fascinating as these are, I have the feeling that they do somewhat bog the narrative down. On the other hand, this kind of speculation (mainly in regard to the functioning of the two sides of the brain, and the corpus calloseum that connects these hemispheres) is relevant to the events unfolding, mainly but not exclusively in Bob/Fred’s head. PKD inserts several apparently unrelated passages into the narrative mid sentence, many of these intrusions being in German, to show Bob/Fred’s increasing confusion. Here the humour goes right out of the story, and we are reminded of PKD’s central point here: that while the drug world might seem like fun and games for a while, eventually the name of the game is Death with a capital D (in this case Substance D).
The narrative gets moving again in rapid fashion in the final third. I won’t spoil the plot for those who are yet to read this most poignant and sad of PKD’s novels, but suffice to say that the old master has more than a few curve balls in store for the reader who felt him or herself to be on stable ground at last. The ending is devastating. There’s no other word for it. A Scanner Darkly will be long remembered, long read and viewed (in its film version) and represents one of the real triumphs of PKD’s career: he lived through this to tell the tale.