Wednesday, December 28, 2011

A Scanner Darkly, by Philip K. Dick


Undercover narcotics investigator 'Fred' has been masquerading as Bob Arctor--a big time dealer of Substance D, the latest addictive drug to sweep the nation.  He hopes to trace the ultimate source of Substance D, while struggling to avoid the suspicions of his druggie roommates (including psychotic and possibly malevolent genius Jim Barris) and his dealer/platonic girlfriend Donna.  However, as he himself begins to feel the drug's effects, it becomes increasingly difficult for him to keep track of his two identities. 

Set in a near-future dystopia, this book is less science fiction than cautionary tale (though Dick did not intend it that way) and memoriam for Dick's lost comrades.  There are elements of science fiction, to be sure--Fred's surveillance is conducted using holographic scanners, and when he deals with other law enforcement officers, he wears a 'scramble suit' to render his appearance and voice completely unrecognizable.  But the bulk of the story centers around the drug culture and the effects of illegal drugs on those who use them. 

The language is a bit dated--you can tell it was written in the seventies--but the story still holds up.  Dick is particularly adept at navigating the labyrinth of the drug-addled mind.  Arctor flips back and forth across and between trains of thought, and his perceptions are increasingly distorted by the chemicals he has ingested, but the reader always knows what is going one--whether it's a dream or a hallucination or just confusion.  Even the audiobook version preserved this clarity.  Dick relied heavily on his own experiences with drugs and the drug culture--there is a distinct ring of truth to his vivid descriptions of the varying hallucinations, and he immerses the reader in tortuous and paranoid trains of thought that somehow make sense and no sense at the same time.   In particular, Jerry Fabin's struggle with imagined aphids all over his house and body (and dog) was fascinating and horrifying at the same time--and a great way to set the tone for the novel and pull the reader in.

I expected the story to end with Bob Arctor/Fred's breakdown (a la 1984), but it kept going and following him into rehab.  This shift in plot--from Bob Arctor, narco cop out in the world, to Bob Arctor, cracked up and going through withdrawal--felt a bit awkward.  The story seemed to go on for a rather unnecessarily long time, dwelling on the details of life in rehab, even when Bob Arctor (at this point known as 'Bruce') could no longer really perceive them.  The reader sees things from other characters' perspectives for the first time since Jerry Fabin and Charles Freck exited the scene.  This may have been an effect of listening to the audiobook (ably narrated by Paul Giamatti), however, and might be less noticeable when the book is actually read.   I'm curious, too, to see how the movie version compares to the book.

Bottom line:  Disturbing and not for the prudish--the whole book teems with foul and offensive language.  The writing is excellent, though, and the story is interesting and compelling if occasionally somewhat rambling.  Plus it's loads better than the atrocious and overrated On the Road by Kerouac.  This is an intense, well-written examination of the drug culture and the costs associated therewith.

No comments: