My assault on the novels of Philip K. Dick continues. A SCANNER DARKLY (1977) was Dick's anti-drug novel, his turnabout on the drug scene after he'd spent years using amphetamines to help him crank out more work faster -- more than 40 novels and 120 short stories in a 30-year career. Despite the subtext (explained in an author's note/dedication at the end), SCANNER DARKLY is my pick for PKD's best novel of those I've read so far. It's even better than my previous pick, THE THREE STIGMATA OF PALMER ELDRITCH (1964) -- because even with Dick's usual plots-within-plots, wheels-within-wheels, nobody-is-who-they-seem-to-be setup, you can clearly follow what's happening all the way to the end and it's well worth the trip. There's even a happy ending. Or at least a hopeful one.
Every character in the book is a drug addict. After a few weird scenes to set the stage, the story turns out to be fairly simple: Narcotics officer and drug addict Bob Arctor is given the impossible job of spying on himself 24/7 for his superiors at the police department -- to determine if Arctor's a bigtime drug-pusher. How he gets forced into this corner is hard to explain -- you'll have to read the book.
Arctor first disassociates himself from the situation, looking at his friends through his role as drug-narc "Agent Fred." Then Arctor starts going schizophrenic, as the stress between his drug intake and having to perform surveillance on himself and all his drug-addict friends is too much for him to deal with.
In one 20-page chapter towards the end, Arctor falls apart -- and the writing is brilliant, some of Dick's best writing ever.
But that's not the end. Remember, this is a PKD novel -- nobody is what they appear to be.
Though the life of every character in the book centers around drugs, there is very little drug TAKING shown. Most of the characters -- including Arctor/Fred -- are addicted to the evil Substance D, which appears to be available everywhere, rots the mind in a ridiculously short time, and seems to be organic. It can be grown by anyone who can set up the right conditions to grow it.
This "secret" leads to an ending that is hopeful, uplifting -- it hints at a way out of the nightmare for all the characters.
Of course, Bob/Fred has had Issues from the start. In one early scene during an anti-drug speech to the ridiculously straight-laced Anaheim Lions Club, Fred catches a look at himself in a mirror while dressed in his police-narc-disguise "scramble suit," and all he can see is "a vague blur." Here's a guy who's already having trouble with Reality, and nothing that happens from that point on helps him much. Things just get weirder.
Because everyone in the book is a druggie, you have to sit through a lot of pretty meaningless dialogue. Watching hours of this on surveillance video is one of the things that drives Bob crazy. But not all of it's meaningless -- and it all works for the story.
Some of the writing and dialogue is pretty crude. And some of it's very clever -- very funny -- even moving, in the end. PKD grows on you, I think. The novels of his that I've read recently have each been progressively better, and they seem to work with each other -- some of the things that happen to Bob here are also mentioned in PKD's later VALIS.
Though PKD does clearly get his anti-drug message through here, the book is anything but a lecture. PKD climbs on the soapbox for just a bit in the afterword -- where he dedicates the book to a dozen friends who died or had their lives ruined from drugs. "These were my comrades," he writes. "There were no better. ... I'm not any of the characters in this novel. I am this novel."
It's the most passionate, most convincing PKD book I've read so far, keeping in mind that it starts -- as all of his do -- in some pretty gritty, down-and-dirty surroundings. The first character we meet spends the whole first chapter pulling aphids out of his hair, off of his body, and out of the carpet in his grungy apartment. If you can get through that, you'll be ready for the rest of the story.
Next up: THE DIVINE INVASION (1981).