A SCANNER DARKLY BY PHILIP K. DICK

Mors ontologica. The death of being. Although, strictly speaking, there is no being. No substance to it. You are nothing but a cloud of blue smoke on a windy day. Less than smoke, in fact; less than wind. At the age of twenty two I quit my job, a good job, a promising career, and moved, with nothing, to London. I took a new name and lived a new life for twelve months. There are people still now who know me as that person. In their memories, I mean. That man continues to live, to be, in their memories. Two people. He and I; and I suspect he is having the better of it. Younger than I, fitter, more handsome. I look at myself and I don’t recognise what I see. I never have. In the mirror, for example, I am short. The mirror, you’d think, cannot lie. Your reflection is real, if anything is. Yet when I stand next to the woman with the long legs, the woman who is, we all agree, very tall, I find that I am taller still than she is. Perhaps it is my bad posture that tricks the eye.

Many years ago, or so it feels to me, a different woman sat down next to me in a bar. She was unknown to me, but spoke as though we were friends, or had at least had prior conversations. She asked me about my music. She had seen me, she said, performing only ‘the other day.’ I allowed her to continue in this fashion, not out of politeness, but because I couldn’t be sure that she was mistaken. Where was I ‘the other day’? I could not account for my whereabouts, or not with any certainty. She called me Joshua. How tall is Joshua, I wondered. I wonder still now. Who is he? Who am I? Less than smoke; less than wind. Recently, I was asked if I would consider doing some modelling. I laughed when I read the message. Imagine. Me turning up at the studio or house or wherever looking like this. Their interest had been aroused by my Instagram pictures, they said. They wanted someone who looked just like me, they said. Whoever is in those photos does not exist, I replied. Imagine. They had no idea who they were talking to. The tall or the short guy? The guy who lives in London or the one who is writing this? The musician or the model? The truth is, I feel no meaningful connection to any of these people.

“What does a scanner see? he asked himself. I mean, really see? Into the head? Down into the heart? Does a passive infrared scanner like they used to use or a cube-type holo-scanner like they use these days, the latest thing, see into me – into us – clearly or darkly? I hope it does, he thought, see clearly, because I can’t any longer these days see into myself. I see only murk. Murk outside; murk inside. I hope, for everyone’s sake, the scanners do better. Because, he thought, if the scanner sees only darkly, the way I myself do, then we are cursed, cursed again and like we have been continually, and we’ll wind up dead this way, knowing very little and getting that little fragment wrong too.”

I have toyed with reading Philip K. Dick for as long as I can remember. I have picked up several of his books, read a page or so, and then abandoned them. I have picked up and abandoned A Scanner Darkly more times than any of the others. Even though I was enjoying it. It was, I think, the threat of his work being badly written. It’s the one thing I see repeatedly stated in relation to Dick’s novels. The ideas are great but the writing is poor. It made me nervous. So I wanted to deal with that accusation straightaway. I consider myself to be highly critical of, and sensitive to, bad prose style; and I did not find it here. Dick isn’t Nabokov, certainly, but then Nabokov is, as a stylist, overrated anyway. Often turgid and smug. Although that’s beside the point, of course. I’m losing focus. Dick’s style isn’t meticulous, or does not give that impression. Not here. And this is, I’m told, one of the more mature efforts. The language is jivey, the sentences – the word order, the grammar – idiosyncratic. I was strongly reminded, to the point of crying theft, of David Foster Wallace. For what it’s worth.

A Scanner Darkly begins with a man’s struggle against the aphids he thinks have taken over his house, his dog and his own person. An infestation. Only the bugs aren’t real. Jerry has lost his mind. Jerry was a drug addict. He took a whole lot of drugs and lost his mind and started seeing bugs, in the house, on his dog, and his own person. It is one of the funniest, and saddest, openings to any novel I have read. It sets the tone, too, for the rest of the book. Sad and funny. A Scanner Darkly is about drugs and drug addicts, amongst other things. It is about what it is like to be an addict, the awful consequences. The premature ageing, the brain damage, the cravings. That sort of thing. Guys sitting around talking shit for days on end. Wasting their lives, you might say. Oblivious to life, you might say. I don’t know. The addicts live to score. One guy fantasies about ‘a huge window display; bottles of slow death, cans of slow death, jars and bathtubs and vats and bowls of slow death, millions of caps and tabs and hits of slow death, slow death mixed with speed and junk and barbiturates and psychedelics, everything–and a giant sign: YOUR CREDIT IS GOOD HERE. Not to mention: LOW LOW PRICES, LOWEST IN TOWN.’

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In a speech given by Bob Arctor, the main character, we are told that drugs will lead to ‘the desertion of your friends from you, you from them, everyone from everyone,’ but that did not ring true in Dick’s portrayal. There is, amongst his addicts, a sense of camaraderie, of people, in a mostly incompetent fashion, looking out for each other. Dick’s attitude towards these people is sympathetic, sometimes lapsing into romanticism and sentimentality. Like, he cares about them and doesn’t want to show them in an entirely bad light. Charles Freck, for example, wants to lay Donna, but doesn’t like the idea of buying her. Dick’s addicts are charming too. Even Barris, who is something of a cunt. The bad guys in A Scanner Darkly are not the drug takers, even though they break the law to feed their habit, but the dealers. There is much in Dick’s work that is murky, but his ethics aren’t. While Freck doesn’t want to buy Donna, we are told that two dealers shot up their sleeping underage sister, raped her and then pimped her out. In addition to the dealers, the straights, the establishment, get a kicking too. They are bad guys too, in Dick’s world. The cops, the rich, the government.

“Drug misuse is not a disease, it is a decision, like the decision to step out in front of a moving car. You would call that not a disease but an error in judgment. When a bunch of people begin to do it, it is a social error, a life-style. In this particular lifestyle the motto is “Be happy now because tomorrow you are dying,” but the dying begins almost at once, and the happiness is a memory.”

There have, of course, been many novels about addiction and, while I enjoyed Dick’s big-hearted version of all of that, A Scanner Darkly was not, on that basis, particularly fresh or illuminating. For me, the most interesting thing about the drugs aspect of the novel is how Dick uses it to engage with other, trickier, subjects, such as identity and paranoia. On the latter, it is easy to see how being an addict, being strung out, can lead to feeling as though someone or something is out to get you. Yet Dick’s kind of of paranoia is deeper, more intelligent than that. There are times when Barris, for example, seems unreliable, untrustworthy; but, then, of course he is, he’s an addict. Likewise, so is Bob Arctor. Arctor cannot trust Barris, but he cannot trust himself either. It is not a question of whether the threat of Barris is real or imagined, but the fact that it is probably both.

Moreover, Bob Arctor is not only an addict but also a undercover narcotics agent. At one point in the book he is given the job of surveilling himself. Which is funny, of course, but consider what this means. Most people who are being watched do not know that they are, or only suspect it. Arctor knows. Therefore, every moment he must wonder how his actions and words are to be perceived, he is ultra aware of what impression he is giving of himself, of the precarious position he is in. As a undercover agent and an addict Arctor has two distinct identities. Bob and Fred. As the storyline progresses, A Scanner Darkly asks you to consider the question: which of these two personalities is real or legitimate? Or is it neither? Or both? As previously noted, one of the consequences of drug using is brain damage. See: Jerry and his bugs. Ultimately, Arctor develops a kind of split personality. As Fred he begins to talk about Bob in the third person, as a separate being. Bob and Fred. He is both the establishment and the lowlife. He is the paranoid freak and the ‘they’ who is out to get him.

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