Stuff I expect from Philip K. Dick, even though I’ve never read his work. Stuff that deterred me from reading Philip K. Dick, because Naked Lunch and Sartre was enough paranoia for me. Stuff that’s old now, moving on, roll my eyes, that’s so old-fashioned.
And yet, the man managed to shock my worn sensibilities in this 1974 tale about the ultimate I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here!
One thing about Ruth Rae: she was smart enough not to let her skin become too tanned. Nothing aged a woman’s skin faster than tanning, and few women seemed to know it… (96)
“You look every bit as beautiful—“ he began, but she cut him off brusquely.
“I’m old.” She rasped. “I’m thirty-nine” (98)
“Hell, no.” Worry appeared on her prunelike face. Prune-like—he withdrew the image; it did not seem fair. Her weathered face, he decided. That was more like it… (102)
“I can’t stay,” he said, “any longer. And anyhow, you’re too old… (105)
After she hits him over the head with a stoneware platter from Knott’s Berry Farm…
“Why did you say that to me?” Ruth said hoarsely.
“Because,” he said, “of my own fears of age. Because they’re wearing me down, what’s left of me. I virtually have no energy left…” (105)
I read this bit at the onset of my own thirty-fifth birthday, and it still haunts me… *scoff* ageism *scoff* sexism *scoff* *scoff*
But that’s the point. The protagonist is an arrogant, shallow celebrity who projects his own self-criticism onto the world, casting it about like confetti at a circus. And, as illustrated by that final quote above, he’s abnormally self-aware enough to know it. Because he’s a six.
He’s also a famous talk show host with a long music career and 30 million fans. But after a confrontation with an ex-girlfriend, Jason Taverner finds himself in a world where no one recognizes him. Without an ID, he must avoid the pols at every checkpoint or risk assignment to a labor camp, so he befriends a series of women who each help to hide him and guide him until he can find a way back to reality. Or is THIS his actual reality and he’s been too drugged to see it?
I keep seeing dismissals of PKD’s work because of his failed visions of future 80s technology. In his world, transportation technology leaps to flying cars, while communications technology stalls with corded telephones. (Funny how things happened the other way around, right?) Being a high-profile SF author makes PKD an easy target, but, from Anderson to Van Vogt, vintage SF authors can’t seem to imagine themselves away from the landline telephone, no matter if that tale takes place in Vancouver, Venus, or very, very far away.
But who reads vintage SF for reverse fortune-telling, anyway?
“And to him his public existence, his role as a worldwide entertainer, was existence itself, period” (4).
Primarily serving as commentary about the vanity and exaltation of celebrity culture, with some poignant moments about love and grief, Flow My Tears toys with reality from the privileged perspective of a superstar living on both sides of a police state. In one reality, Jason is exempt from the oppressive trappings of near-future listless fascism; in another reality, Jason attracts suspicion at every corner. Celebrity advantages are heightened in this atmosphere where an ongoing war between the police force and the literally underground college students goes on in the background, suggesting a more incendiary prophecy: the cultural attack on intellectualism. The reader will never really feel this darker aspect of the novel because Jason’s exceptional detachment from such grounded issues skirts the mood of what could be a juicy, mounting nihilism. But, oh well. Compton did it better the same year, with greater intensity, yet with equally limited interaction with the sociopolitical environment.
“My reality is leaking back” (192).
The inherent sexism of Jason (and possibly PKD— I can never really tell where the character ends and the author begins in these male-written seventies novels. It was the “me” decade, after all) is too pitiful and codependent to be offensive, where Jason loves and respects no one, yet denies himself in order to maintain any relationship with just about any female. He says annoying things like, “In most cases a sympathetic lie did better and more mercifully. Especially between men and women; in fact, whenever a woman was involved” (43). He expresses jealousy at his lovers’ past relationships, while accepting the possibility of current, ongoing affairs, because, we assume, he is deathly afraid to be alone.
However, that codependent sexism is offset, perhaps unintentionally, by the women who happen to carry the tale. Jason is no one without his lady friends and, while no one would accuse PKD of drawing deep characters, his female caricatures are more interesting than his male protagonist. Superstar Heather (“… a goddamn beautiful-looking person” ), Mental Kathy (“An almost pseudo-epileptoid personality structure” ), Aging and likewise Codependent Ruth (“When you love you cease to live for yourself; you live for another person” ), Vast and Reckless Alys (“If Alys did not give a damn about something, that something, for her, ceased to exist” ), and Dumpy Mary Anne (“Does everything have to be on a great scale with a cast of thousands?” ). And the most grounded woman of the tale returns him to the reality he prefers—suggesting that his reality really is buoyed by his audience of nobodies.
But it’s PKD, and his reputation precedes him. Even though this isn’t just some trippy nightmare a la Naked Lunch, there’s the sense that this story is more cascade than craft, where the flow of narrative might overwhelm details. Sometimes ideas are dropped, conveniently forgotten, remembered later, or maybe not. “Isn’t there a microtrans on me somewhere?” (104), the unexisted man hiding from the police state suddenly remembers hours later. And, what about that whole drug squid thing that his ex-girlfriend threw at him? Oh, and then there’s the white pseudo-inclusiveness of the 70s where PKD wedges in a black guy at a gas station to play the Magical Negro to the despondent police general. They hug.
But I got more from the “aging” Ruth:
Jason, grief is awareness that you will have to be alone, and there is nothing beyond that because being alone is the ultimate final destiny of each individual living creature. That’s what death is, the great loneliness…
But to grieve; it’s to die and be alive at the same time (120 – 121).
Happy Holidays, y’all!