Sunday, November 29, 2015

A Scanner Darkly (1973)

I have to admit I was a little surprised when I reached the Author Note at the end of this novel by Philip K. Dick, which threw the whole thing into another context, or perhaps confirmed an unsettling undertow of mood and themes. There Dick tersely discusses the ravages and casualties of drug use before a list of the names of friends and loved ones and their dispositions: "Gaylene, deceased; Ray, deceased; Francy, permanent psychosis; Kathy, permanent brain damage," etc. There's even a "Phil, permanent pancreatic damage," which appears to be him. Thus it clearly has a more sober intent than usual. It is still trippy, Dick is always trippy, riffing on ideas of the bicameral brain producing separate consciousnesses coexisting within a skull. It's at least as paranoid as ever—probably more. In fact, written in the earliest years of Richard Nixon's enduring gift to us, the War on Drugs, the novel in many ways is a chronicle of paranoia exactly, with its deeply embedded network of undercover narcs. At the time it was published, 1977, we were hard at work rolling back some of those surveillance excesses, so it may have even read as exaggerated paranoia once. In our post-9/11 world it feels more like journalism than speculative fiction, and mundane journalism at that. That's just a measure of how good Dick was at imagining the future in certain ways. It is set in 1994, so the world he imagined was actually still 10 more years out, but that's a good call notwithstanding. There's a pall of depression that hangs over this, and not necessarily in a good way. The usual strong points are weak. There's a drug intriguingly called Substance D, for example, but it doesn't seem to do much more than create desperate addicts. Undercover agents wear "scramble suits" to disguise themselves from one another (to avoid blowing covers, I guess) but the description of the technology is way too complicated for the incidental role it plays in the narrative.

That's handled better in the movie directed by Richard Linklater from 2006, where it works as a pleasantly puzzling visual element. The movie loses a key thread in the story of the fanciful suggestion of a competing left-brain / right-brain foundation for mental breakdowns, but it's otherwise less gloomy than the book, energized by a madly riffing all-star cast of Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey Jr., Woody Harrelson, and Winona Ryder, among others, rotoscoped to good effect. The rotoscoping somehow gives it exactly the look and texture of a Dick narrative, cartoony, trembling in and out of existence, impossibly plastic. For that reason it has to be counted with the class of Dick-based movies, with Blade Runner, Minority Report, and Total Recall. I still give the edge to Total Recall, which seems to me best at capturing the core of Dick, his orchestrations of multiple realities interacting. But none of them is better at the look and feel of Dick than Linklater's picture. But it does verge on being a dreary affair—the book, I mean. There's a kind of 12-step recovery tone to that Author Note. A Scanner Darkly is weird, Dick is always weird, but it is also sad, and troubling. There's definitely a sense of soul-searching, as if Dick were losing interest in his greatest themes and capabilities even as we watch along. Addiction used to be an incidental side product of drug experience. Now it is the drug experience. From here on out, his work more and more began to entertain religious ideas I've never been able to connect with. But there's an amazing amount of his best work, most of it written in the '60s.

In case it's not at the library.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for mentioning Total Recall, which had some of the best Dick moments in film. But A Scanner Darkly became the best the minute it was released, for many of the reasons you mention (rotoscoping seems to have been invented solely to properly put Dick on screen). I may have to read Scanner again (wouldn't be the first re-read), because I liked it much more than you do. I might be influenced by the face that I found everything after Scanner to be virtually unreadable.