Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said

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Inventing a future reality is easy. Anyone can say, “in the year 10,000 AD humans will have evolved into telepathic knights,” but to populate that reality with the names of TV shows is much more difficult. I think the particular genius of Philip K. Dick is a combination of killer scenarios (“In the future…”) and exhaustively mundane details that give a potentially sterile future some grit, some room to hobble around and assert itself.

Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said could have easily been a predictably trompy caper through a 1984-style police state if it weren’t for PKD’s skill for environments, and those airy, imaginative specifics which lesser writers might hoard for other books. Like, NBC still exists, but it airs shows like “The Adventures of Scotty, Dog Extraordinary” and “The Phantom Baller Show.” Or, people still read the LA Times, but refer to all science-fiction movies as “captain kirks;” everyone drives flying cars, but a mug that says “Keep On Truckin’” sits quietly through a scene, an anachronistic detail that speaks volumes. These details are more extraordinary to me than the foundations of the future-premise, which is that America has become a vast police state following a post-Kent State Second Civil War between the counterculture and the “man.”

It all speaks to Dick’s primary concern — the question, “What is reality?” (His incomplete answer, in 1972: “reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.”) It’s more than a conceit, or a set of physical parameters that delineate a certain place and time. It’s also the living, breathing detritus of culture, all those ignorable layers of fluff we push aside day in, day out.

Everyone, as they go about their lives, exists in a slightly different dimension than everyone else; an ineffable, unprovable, alternate reality. That, in broad terms, is the central matter of most Dick novels, especially Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said, whose main character, Jason Taverner, wakes up one morning in a world that has never heard of him. He navigates a Los Angeles veined with police barricades, unfavorable to unpersons like himself, the situation made worse by the fact that he happened to be a massive celebrity in his previous “real” life. Is this the real world? Was the other world, the world of his 9 PM Thursday night show on NBC, somehow a dream? How can an unperson define themselves? What happened? If this is another world, then why are all the TV shows the same?

Incidentally, Taverner’s former celebrity is a good foil for Dick’s perpetual discussion of identity/reality, since Jason Taverner the star relies on others to define him. Without fame, and the constant reassurance of selfhood which comes with it (both the most alluring and most dangerous aspect of celebrity, in my view), his completely unrealized sense of self — for all intents and purposes, his lack of a reality — becomes inescapable. Taverner is not only somebody, but somebody, defined in part by the bits of stuff he’s accumulated, the albums he’s released, his hit singles (including a song called “Nowhere Nuthin’ Fuck-Up); because he believes himself to be more important, more real than the people he encounters throughout the novel, his prison of anonymity is excruciating.

If you like Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said, which I do, especially the more I think about it, you would do well to read Dick’s surreal companion essay, “How To Build A Universe That Doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days Later” (link to full text). It starts out with some classically wry comments about Disneyland (the kind of Baudrillard-ian LA observations that seem par for the course from smart sci-fi people) before developing into a legitimately crazy theory about how all human existence is just a veiled reality created by the Devil in order to obfuscate our true and perpetual time and place, which is Judaea in 50 A.D.

It’s hard to know if and when, or ever, Dick is bullshitting — both in his life and his books. It’s tempting to believe that, for lack of a better solution, he accepts all possibilities, and wrote (much like the hapless android in one of his early stories) by punching new holes in the tape-reels of his robot chest, dictating the details of his reality as he went.

NEXT BOOK: STILL DHALGREN

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7 Responses to Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said

  1. Mr. Marianna Ritchey says:

    Dick is definitely not bullshitting about Judea 50 A.D. At least, not bullshitting in the sense of deliberately concocting a ruse. His “real” (!) encounter with an information-rich pink laser is documented in VALIS and the edited “exegesis,” IN PURSUIT OF VALIS, both of which I highly recommend to you and/or your loyal readers, assuming you and/or your your readers have not already experienced second-hand Dick’s mind-bending pursuit of VALIS, a pursuit which took up the better part of his latter days.

  2. Claire Evans says:

    Ah, I have much to learn still. Onward!

  3. Mr. Marianna Ritchey says:

    I only recently read VALIS because I’m planning to assign it in a course I’m teaching this fall. I know you’re probably not taking requests, but I would definitely be interested in your thoughts on the book at some point in the future.

  4. evan says:

    i know, you being who you are and me being who i am, that it is probably important for me to write something about this post but i’m kind of at a loss. The more distance I get from PKD (or I guess from the intense phase where I read a bunch of his novels one after the other) the easier it is for me to distinguish between what are his talents (chief among which is his profound understanding of what gives the banality of mass media its own kind of holiness) and what are his psychoses. But even with his well-documented break down I’m still not entirely convinced the whole thing was ‘sincere,’ or even that it is even a question of sincerity vs. satire (or fiction, or anything else on the other end of sincere conviction).Recent things I’ve been reading have made me re-think the entire ‘gnostic’ side of sci fi writing, and I don’t think I’ll be able to actually understand any of it again until I finally get around to reading “The Flight to Lucifer” and pretty much everything else Harold Bloom has ever written.It would also require me to pretty much obliterate all memory of “the matrix” because even though it seems so inspired by this whole subgenre it is essentially a reversal of the formula. There is nothing sublime about the ‘truth’ that the characters in those films find, and the whole thing boils down to some kind of messianic parable in the end that makes the whole thing kind of irrelevant.Anyhow I enjoyed this, especially because its a PKD book I’ve never read. Speaking of Baudrillardian observations of theme parks, I’ve been meaning to go back and re-read the part of Contact about disneyland now that I am no longer 12 years old, but I can’t find my copy of it. I remember it being very good. That whole book was incredible to me. Enough to make the film of it seem irrelevant in comparison, even though it is a Very Good Film by any other standard.

  5. Claire Evans says:

    Wait, have we talked about this before? Last time that I watched The Matrix I was blown away by my lack of credulity in the entire conceit: who would ever want to unplug? I mean, not in this “I just want to eat real steak again” way, but if the robots are getting something productive out of it, and I have the total illusion of free will in my magical brain world, then how is The Matrix not a win-win situation?

  6. As a major PKD fan, I find Flow My Tears to be the most depressing and frightening of his books. Felix Buckman is an incredibly disturbing Big Brother because he’s also the only calm sane figure in the book. Also, the scene where Buckman’s sister dissolves into pure decay in the midsts of Taverner’s having the hots for her is one of the most grotesque images Dick ever came up with (second only, in my mind, to ‘gubble’ from Martian Time Slip). This book was, and feels like it was, written during the darkest time of Dick’s life. He was dirt poor, surviving off of dog food, and beset on all sides by paranoid delusion and real practical woes.The one ray of light moment is the strange ending with the ‘copter landing at the gas station where the Empire (Felix Buckman’s whole world) seems to have been an illusion that just suddenly dissolves. Dick wrote that he relived this moment in real life himself years after having written the book.I highly recommend this collection of Dick’s non-fiction writing: http://www.amazon.com/Shifting-Realities-Philip-Dick-Philosophical/dp/0679747877 It has some great commentary on the books as well as a few really moving personal essays. He actually was quite a talented essayist, somewhat surprisingly.

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