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Collapsed Horizon: Philip K Dick's A Scanner Darkly, 40 Years On
Eli Lee , January 15th, 2017 13:56

In the fortieth anniversary year of Philip K Dick's fortieth novel, Eli Lee finds a prescient and poignant work of grief, less concerned with sci-fi predictions of the future than with exorcising the ghosts of the past and confronting the quiet horror of addiction in the present

“Everything in A SCANNER DARKLY I actually saw. I mean, I saw even worse things than I put in A SCANNER DARKLY. I saw people who were reduced to a point where they couldn't complete a sentence…and this was permanent, this was for the rest of their lives. Young people. These were people maybe 18 and 19, and you know, it was like a vision of hell. And I vowed to write a novel about it sometime.” – Philip K. Dick

A Scanner Darkly was Philip K Dick’s fortieth novel, and it’s one of his best-known works. It’s paranoid, disturbing and dystopian, but it wasn’t a vision of the future – it was a memoir.

Its main character, undercover narcotics agent, Bob Arctor, lives in a California that feels straight out of the early ‘70s, although we’re told the novel is set in 1994. When Arctor tries to infiltrate the supply chain of a drug called Substance D, he becomes addicted to it – his own supplier, Donna, is the woman he loves. His friends and housemates are all addicts, too. The plot ramps up when his police colleagues, from whom his identity is protected, ask him to run surveillance on himself, which is no-one’s idea of a good time: whenever he’s not on Substance D, he’s watching videos of himself on it.

Substance D is basically speed. For a long time, this was Dick’s drug of choice (I’ve written before about how you can conjure up an image of him at his desk, furiously typing, blinds drawn to block out the South California sun. He said he could turn out 68 pages of prose a day when he was on speed). Substance D is especially nasty, though. It destroys the connection between the two hemispheres of the brain, so that they first function independently and then compete, destroying any coherent idea of the self. In the case of Bob Arctor, it means that the addict self and the narc self eventually become unrecognisable to one another.

Dick denied that he based Arctor on himself, but their situations are strikingly similar: after his fourth wife Nancy left him, in 1970 – taking their daughter Isa with her – he said, “I got mixed up with a lot of street people, just to have somebody to fill the house. She left me with a four bedroom, two-bathroom house and nobody living in it but me. So I just filled it with street people and I got mixed up with a lot of people who were into drugs.” Arctor, too, had a family, but found himself alone and involved in drugs. “And then I just took amphetamines,” Dick says. “I have never ever taken hard drugs. But I was in a position to see what hard drugs did to people, what drugs did to my friends…” In A Scanner Darkly there's a strong sense of “how did I get here?” – that this isn’t where Arctor is meant to be. It’s likely Dick thought this about himself after the end of his marriage, too. When he was writing it, his then-wife Tessa would find him at his desk in tears.

By the time he wrote A Scanner Darkly, Dick was clean. He also had a horrific rehab experience in Canada which gave him the idea for ‘New Path’, the rehab organisation in the novel. Before, he would knock out up to four novels a year, but he worked on draft after draft of Darkly for four years. It was different; it required him to wrestle with a devastating period in his life and create something that would help him come to terms with it. Perhaps because it was less of a flight of imagination than other novels he’d written, this fidelity to reality forced him to slow down, get it right. Its depth and density reflect this. Also, its timeless truths about drug addiction and perfect evocation of the grotty southern California of the late ‘60s/early ‘70s make it a canonical drugs novel.

Post-war, two ways of writing about drugs emerged: in the early ‘50s, on the one hand there was William Burroughs, unnerving and brazen about heroin addiction in Junkie. On the other, there was Aldous Huxley in The Doors of Perception, recommending a nice afternoon listening to Mozart, staring at some flowers and dropping a soupçon of mescalin. In the early ‘60s the Huxleyian narrative of blissful transcendence dominated – his 1962 novel Island is the ultimate pro-psychedelics story. Alan Watts’ Joyous Cosmology came out the same year; Leary, Alpert and Metzner published The Psychedelic Experience soon after. But by the end of the decade, these beatific ideals had collapsed. There was acid burnout – a move towards heroin, speed and cocaine. In the background, there was Nixon’s war on drugs and the Vietnam War. When Dick wrote A Scanner Darkly, he wasn’t alone in charting the cultural wreckage of the late ‘60s – in Joan Didion’s era-defining The White Album, she writes that when she was admitted to a psychiatric clinic in Santa Monica, her symptoms did not seem to her “an inappropriate response to the summer of 1968”.

Even so, the characters in A Scanner Darkly are recognisable today. Dick’s addicts are paranoid, wired and desperate. When they’re high they sit around shooting the shit, which is often very funny. Dick believed it to be both his saddest and most humorous work; a great deal of the novel is just them talking drug-addled rubbish at one another (Dick was also proud of the novel’s “very funny suicide scene”). Some of them have a grimly recognisable entrepreneurial spirit, too. Arctor’s smart-ass housemate Barris says at one point, “I’ve got a temporary lab set up at the house…watch me extract a gram of cocaine from common legal materials purchased openly at the 7-11 food store for under a dollar total cost.” Homespun drug production? Distinct shades of Breaking Bad there.

But it’s not just a novel about drug addiction. Dick was always spilling over with beliefs, questions and epiphanies. A Scanner Darkly races back and forth between depicting the nervy, brutal shape of drug abuse and Bob Arctor slowly losing his grip on his identity, trying to understand why it insists on being elusive and unstable. This instability is, of course, directly linked to the way in which Substance D causes – as Dick says, wonderfully – “organic brain damage producing split-brain dysfunction and a tragic parody of bilateral hemispheric parity”. But it also connects to a far greater set of ideas Dick was exploring, primarily metaphysical, and especially so as he wrote this.

Dick was an enormously wide-ranging reader and thinker – apparently he pored over his giant set of encyclopaedias (he would have loved the internet). But his reading suggests a certain wayward solipsism, which might be necessary, I guess, if – as he was – you’re busy creating your own cosmology. He read especially widely in mysticism, theology and spirituality, and as he tumbled further into this realm, there’s a sense that whilst the outside world deeply informed his work, what really lit him up was the construction of his own metaphysics. As much as he was anchored in the now (and in A Scanner Darkly this is especially true), he was also working out his own fantastically idiosyncratic responses to the kinds of abstractions that have been asked forever, most especially who am I? And is this reality the only reality?

Dick’s novels always pulsate between possible selves and possible realities. He was open-minded and in earnest. But in the case of A Scanner Darkly, in which the other self and the other reality are created by Substance D, all further possibilities are foreclosed. The only self is the disintegrated drug addict, the only reality their collapsed horizon. Everything implodes inside this paranoid subjectivity. It’s fascinating – in this novel alone, Dick shuts down a question he would normally push to the weirdest possible limits; it says an awful lot about the extent to which it stands out from the rest of his work.

In the early months of 1974, whilst writing the novel, Dick had a set of visions which formed the basis for his VALIS trilogy, and are also intricately detailed in his collected journals, ‘The Exegesis of Philip K Dick’. (Robert Crumb also turned them into a comic.) Based on the date, he called them the ‘2-3-74’ visions. These events convinced him – amongst much else – that there was another being within him: a first-century Christian called Thomas. Dick also came to believe, in all seriousness, that Anaheim, where he lived, was very clearly also first-century Rome or Palestine; that they were one and the same, and the two thousand years between them did not exist.

He was pretty confident about being Thomas and about his new interpretation of spacetime. As the PKD scholar Erik Davis remarks, “Dick dived into the deep end of the pool of weird”. He had ruptured reality and there was no looking back. As it stood, aspects of 2-3-74 had also been foreshadowed in his earlier writing, which made it all the more convincing. Through these visions, which refuted the idea of a single reality and a single identity, he barrelled towards a feeling of transcendence; towards something mystical and sacred that could eclipse everything that came before. You can see this play out in his novels – characters enter a process – a difficult struggle (just like Dick’s himself, which went on until he died of a stroke in ‘82) – to break free from the spell, or the entrapment, of their reality and reach something like salvation. It’s almost a Dick dialectic: reality plus rupture equals redemption.

A Scanner Darkly doesn’t do this, though. There’s no redemption, no light in the dark. This means that even as Dick was elaborating an entire metaphysics in his diaries, in Darkly, he was, very simply, writing his grief. “It is a very sad novel and very sad things happen to very good people,” he says. This makes it all the more a historical record, or even more accurately, a novel about drug addiction.

Since A Scanner Darkly then has no investment in predicting 1994, there’s no point asking what it got right about the future. Its few elements of science fiction, such as the ‘scramble suit’ that allows Bob to hide his identity in order to spy on himself (brilliantly depicted in Richard Linklater’s 2006 film adaptation, by the way); and the holographic projections of his house that he also uses to monitor himself, are background notes. Dick’s editor, Judy Del Ray, had to push him to make the novel more convincingly science fictional. “Judy, you know damn well the book is about the ‘60s,” he told her. Even so, he almost can’t help but write prescient novels. Even his novels were uncanny precogs – how meta.

In A Scanner Darkly, legal and governmental forces pretend to rehabilitate addicts, but inevitably, in this pessimistic universe, they enable them. The circulation of Substance D represents the epitome of a corrupt system, and making this point in the ‘70s might have made Dick seem a bit fringe, a bit of a conspiracy nut, but today he’s an anti-authority touchstone – a harbinger for exposing how corruption is at the very centre of things. There’s also, of course, the fact that surveillance is omnipresent in the novel, and that Bob Arctor watches and reports on himself. Dick’s surveillance dreams are the reality of social control today. You could also, if you want, say that Arctor’s split into two is an analogue of the real-life self and the self on the internet; the former watches the latter, and the latter is, of course, enmeshed in a web of monitoring. You could even go further and say that Substance D, causing self-surveillance and self-estrangement, is a symbol of identity dissociation in the same way the internet is.

But this is all conjecture. Really, Dick just wanted to talk about the friends he lost to drug abuse, and the pain it caused. In the Author’s Note at the end of the novel, Dick says, “This has been a novel about some people who were punished entirely too much for what they did.” There’s a list of his friends who have either died or been damaged by drug addiction and he says, “I loved them all”. (He puts himself in that list too – to Phil: permanent pancreatic damage.)

Usually, when we think of Philip K Dick we think of his astonishing foresight. He played with simulacra, fractured realities and multiple selves in ways no-one else did and that uncannily anticipated the postmodern condition. The transformation of a novel like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep into the stunning noir of Blade Runner has also made him synonymous with the hypnotic aesthetic of future-dreaming late capitalism, which is, in fact, far removed from his grubby, shambolic novelistic worlds. His prescience and the aesthetic vision we’ve superimposed on him are the reasons why he’s so popular; he dreamed up the myths of the future and we have filled them out, made them real.

Yet I stick to what I’ve always believed about him – that pretty much the driving force of his writing was to make us empathise with others and with their suffering. A Scanner Darkly was, as he says, “from the deepest part of my life and heart” – it is bound up with his own experience of loss, grief and addiction. Yes, Dick was a brilliant thinker, but it’s about time we gave more space to the other aspect of his brilliance – that he was also fully in touch with his own humanity, and able to turn it into such dark, funny and visionary novels.

Thanks to Kiran for her help and to Mark Fisher (RIP) for his essay on A Scanner Darkly