Saturday, August 9, 2008
Flow Some Thoughts On The Book, The Blogger Did
This summer I have dedicated myself to rereading all five of the books in the second PKD volume from the Library of America:
Now Wait For Last Year
Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said
A Scanner Darkly
I'm on chapter four of Now Wait For Last Year, and I recently completed Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said, which I have to say blew my mind. It had been a while since I read it, and, admittedly, I had never done a close read of the book. Like I think happens quite often with PKD's readers, I devoured Flow soon after I discovered Philip K Dick amid a flurry of his books, reading something like five books in a couple of weeks (all of which kind of blended together in my mind).
So I was reading Flow and when I got to the end I was like, "what the hell happened to the Callisto cuddle sponge that knocked Taverner into the world where nobody knew his name (much like a Boston without Sam Malone or a bar called Cheers)?" It kind of weighed on me as I knew I could never really talk seriously about the book (much less assign it in a literature class) if I couldn't get a grip on the plot. What's more, there's tons of evidence that PKD spent more time and energy revising, rewriting, and reworking Flow than any other novel, so I knew that this wasn't just some plot hole PKD had failed to fill.
I asked around, but failed to get an answer that satisfied me. So I moved on, but then I remembered that PKD's agent had given him a challenge. I think it was Terry Carr who told PKD (please correct me if I'm wrong, I'm away from most of my reference materials) that he needed, once and for all, to come up with an answer to the question he had been asking his entire career: what is real?
Dick's answer came in the form of Flow My Tears which, at its core, is a mediation on various types of love (for a detailed list of the types of love, see the dialog between Taverner and Ruth Rae that PKD cut from the book at the advice of his editor excerpted in The Different Stages of Love published in issue #28 of the Philip K Dick society newsletter).
Anyway I had a 'Eureka!"moment. Dick was answering the question 'what is real?', in part, by stating what is not real. And what isn't real is the world of the first chapter in Flow, a world in which there is no agape, no empathic love, no concern for anyone but the self (as demonstrated by Taverner's incredible self-absorption and his reckless disregard for the feelings of others).
Taverner's reality in that first chapter is based on his status as the one of the biggest celebrities on the planet. What's more, his identity is based on his wealth, and his power over others. I think Dick is suggesting these aren't the best ways of establishing an identity, because the world that Taverner discovers when he wakes up in that seedy motel room is far more 'real.' In this world, Taverner has no identity (and more importantly, no identity papers) and, the connections he makes with people in that world are based on intimacy (the sharing of the self with others) rather than the exercising of power over the people around you.
It's interesting to note that the notion of vertical power dynamics (who's got more power and who's got less) is now often ascribed by interpersonal relationship experts as a 'male' view of reality, while a horizontal axis which concerns intimacy (I'm closer to person A than to person B and therefore person A is more important to me than person B) is often thought of as a feminine way of looking at the world (please don't ask me to name these 'experts' - I'm trying to find my notes from the interpersonal communication class I took ten years ago).
So what's my point? Just that the 'reality' in chapter one is not real. I'm not saying it was a hallucination, or a 'dream within a dream' as Poe might call it, but rather, there's no there there, like a schizophrenic's private world, which ends abruptly at the tip of his or her nose, an ornate solipsism formed not from perception but from a flawed sense of self, and an exaggerated sense of self-importance.
Flow will someday make a great movie. It's perhaps the best suited for adaptation aside from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. It's set over the course of just two days and has a relatively simple setup: a lost soul tries to find his way home (it's the Odyssey narrative, which has been used in tons of movies, like, for example, E.T. and Oh Brother Where Art Thou?). Of course a screenwriter is going to have to provide a resolution for the cuddle sponge event. For awhile, before my realization about the book, I was thinking it would be great if Taverner at the end of the film were to suddenly discover the cuddle sponge's feeding tubes in his chest, thereby making Taverner's struggle to return to his world a dream within a dream. But now I realize this would be to invert the moral of the novel (ala Blade Runner). A far more faithful ending would see Taverner realize he was never famous, that chapter one was a delusion of grandeur.
I want to talk about Felix Buckman and his role in all this, but I'm spent, and it's time to go swimming, so stay tuned.