Monthly Archives: July 2014

Wordy Review: A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick

Well we nearly did it, we nearly made it through a second book without the appearance of prostitutes and/or pornography. What started as a joking jab in the ribs of fellow book clubbers has turned into an almost defining feature of this book club and I for one am for it. We’ve selected literature written by men and women from all sides of the globe, all walks of life, various literary styles and eras of time and yet they all have the oldest profession in common in their writing. Bravo, clap-clap it’s a small world after all and that world is all about vagina.

I suppose I should mention the fact that I’ve seen the film adaptation of A Scanner Darkly which I remember as being pretty good and while any other details of the movie have been lost to time and alcohol I did still remember that Donna ends up being a nark too which may skew my opinions on how everything fits together when taking on its novel form, but even with the previous experience with the story I still felt compelled upon finishing the book to go back and start over to see if I truly had grasped what the hell had just happened.
This is what you might call a bit of a cerebral fornicator of a story and it’s nice to know there’s a book on my shelf now in the event my brain needs a booty call, though in reflection there isn’t exactly a lot of foreplay, the book starts off with a junkie who sees bugs constantly crawling all over his skin, and you have just enough time to say ‘what a poor unfortunate degenerate’ while casually pretending you yourself don’t suddenly feel itchy and before long someone else is helping him collect jars full of bugs, switching the thought process from sympathetic contempt to ‘so are the bugs real? Substance D, scramble suit, should I be writing any of this down?’ an effect that I’ll say left me chuffed as chips because while A Scanner Darkly is difficult to get into I found it to be totally worth it, sort of like a swimming pool on an absurdly hot day that’s being inexplicably guarded by a giant scorpion.

A brief summary, stopping short of having to hide spoilers in white again, Robert Arctor is a narcotics agent monitoring a house of junkies hooked on Substance D, a popular new psychoactive drug. The house is actually his house that he’s living in undercover, a cover so deep Arctor is equally hooked on the mysterious Substance D as those he’s been hired to monitor. In order to protect his identity outside of his cover Bob wears a special scramble suit whenever he’s in the office which has two major effects: no one in his department knows who he outside of the alias ‘Fred’ and water cooler conversations are rendered virtually impossible. So no one is aware that Bob is Fred while he pops tabs of a drug that causes hallucinations and for the two halves of the brain to stop being such BFF’s, a clearly foolproof plan that truly just tested the amount of sarcasm my laptop can take. Essentially it’s like smashing Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas into The Wire and Frankensteining a narrative from the twitching remains in the wreckage.

The biggest problem with the book is really more of a hurdle, albeit an unusually high hurdle that’s on fire, covered with spikes and patrolled by ninjas on the backs of velociraptors (who are also on fire) and that’s the writing style, which is densely layered and disarticulate, every page packed with lines with few paragraph breaks and formed by a narrator who switches between completely losing his mind and being as high as an elephants eye, sort of exactly like these reviews. It took some getting used to but damn it if I didn’t end up happily chewing through it like the extra thick sticky fudge of crazy it is. I did have the habit of losing which character was which though, partially because they’re never really given any description or defining characteristics and partially because I kept trying to remember which one Robert Downey Jr. played in the movie. Also the high Substance D gives the user is never properly explained, and like being stuck in a conversation with your dealer you will be subjected to a bunch of junkies talking a bunch of repetitive junkie nonsense, but it all pays to the overall effect of the story because while books like Eleven Minutes and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd each gave a slight nod to the fourth wall A Scanner Darkly is the kind of book that would rather set up shop inside your skull and erase the part of the brain that know what a wall is altogether. Immersion really is my bag, baby and given the protagonists plight of cerebral disassociation the parts where Arctor is losing his mind feel exactly the way they should, paranoid and confusing and occasionally in German.

By this point of his life the prolific Mr. Dick (the real substance D, amiright ladies? *wink*) who would go on to have his work adapted into multiple sci-fi movies you didn’t even know where adaptations of decades old material was getting a pretty decent dose of the crazies himself, Scanner being reflective of his days living with junkies and dropping amphetamines, resulting in his writing 65 complete pages a day, take that anti-drug campaigners. Given its semi-biographical content the book hands down neither praise nor condemnation for drug culture, just a voice saying ‘here are some things that happened, some of them were weird, some of them involved large insects crawling on every surface and there are a few in your hair right now’ and it’s that firsthand experience talking that really helps get inside your head. Making someone itchy through paranoia is easy, I literally just did it to myself writing the previous sentence, but a novel that makes you paranoid through its protagonists distorted portrayal of his own confused, wobbly reality is the kind of trick on par with that of a dynamic duo of a master magician and thousand dollar hooker.

Honestly as much as I liked it a recommendation comes down to whether or not you can clear the aforementioned large flaming spiked hurdle that is Scanner Darklys writing style. It certainly took me a few attempts to clear it but once I did its scattered thoughts, cognitive disassociation and odd existential observations sucked me in like a Hoover at the event horizon. So call it an acquired taste, sort of like lime thick shakes, which I also love and both are getting a recommendation here and both aren’t for everyone so try at least one of them. One’s about $20 and will give you 5-7 hours in return the others about $3.80 and will give you about ten minutes and both are better value than your average prostitute, according to the numerous books I’ve now read on the subject.

Written by a man with A Manner Snarky, B.T. Calloway

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A Scanner Darkly Recommended Drinking List

(Slow) Death in the Afternoon

30 ml Absinthe (or Pernod if you live in a country where absinthe is illegal due to the belief that it’s like LSD or meth for some reason)
Champagne
Ice

“Pour one jigger absinthe into a Champagne glass. Add iced Champagne until it attains the proper opalescent milkiness. Drink three to five of these slowly.”

– as recommended by Hemmingway

Honestly, that should about do it.