A Scanner Darkly: on fictional drugs and consequences 

A Scanner Darkly: on fictional drugs and consequences 

Wrapped Up In Books is The A.V. Club’s monthly book club. We’re currently discussing this month’s selection, Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly, in a series of posts to be followed by a live online chat Thursday at 3:30 p.m. CST.

Zack HandlenA Scanner Darkly is my favorite Philip K. Dick novel, and I've read enough of his work for that to mean something. (I even did a Gateway To Geekery on PKD a while back.) I'd read it a few times before it was picked for this month's book-club selection, and I've seen and own the movie, so I was glad to hear the name come up. PKD's work makes for an excellent launchpad for discussion, flaws and all, and Scanner makes a great starting point, because it's relatively straightforward. Now that you've all experienced the novel for yourself, that may seem like an odd description, but compared to the rest of PKD's fiction, Scanner is almost sane. The concerns of the characters are understandable, and it's not very hard to relate, even if you haven't had much experience with drug use.

Drug use is the topic of this first discussion thread, though, and that's what I'm here to talk about. If you knew me, you'd probably think that's ridiculous. I'm not straight-edge or anything, but I'm strictly a beer-and-occasional-cigarette man these days. I've dabbled in pot, but the closest I came to anything heavier was a New Year's Eve party where I saw some guys snorting cocaine. (The powder was surprisingly undramatic in person. I thought it would look less like albino baking soda and more like, I dunno, moral decay and a Bret Easton Ellis novel.) Substance D isn't the main reason I love Scanner as much as I do, but re-reading it this month, it was the element that most stood out for me. Dick goes to great lengths to document the negative effects D has on its users, describing the cognitive breakdown that results in the two hemispheres of the brain competing with each other, but the actual positives of the drug are elusive. That's fairly typical in addiction narratives, but the point here is more complex than simple admonishment.

For Bob Arctor, the hero of the book, and his friends, Substance D (known as "Death," because no one ever accused PKD of subtlety) isn't so much a recreational hazard as a way to deal with their dissatisfaction with life. Early in the novel, Bob remembers what drove him to leave his old life and become an addict/narcotics agent. He had a wife and two daughters, and one day he accidentally cut his head and then decided he hated all of them. PKD has certain, um, issues with women, so the few words we get about Bob's old life are unsurprisingly hostile, but I love the concept that it's the change in sensations that leads him to his awakening. The pain was a means to an end, which makes it a tool in the same way the drugs are a tool. First there's recognition of the banality of existence. Then there's the need for escape. Less than escape, even. Simple distraction.

The first time I smoked pot, I was a senior in college, and like most college seniors, I was messed-up inside. A couple of actor friends invited me to hang out with them one night, and since they were both stoners, a bong got passed around. I remember it was blue, and glass, and hilariously large, like a prop from the Adam West Batman. My first hit, I breathed in deep… and then I spent the next 10 minutes coughing. I had to go into the bathroom for a while, because I thought I was going to throw up, although I'm not sure why I thought that. My friends kept reassuring me that the coughing meant I'd gotten a lot of smoke into my lungs, and that that was a good thing. I didn't really feel different. My throat hurt. Then the coughing calmed down, and I went back to my seat, and things got reeeeeeeal calm. I stopped talking. I talked a lot back then, but all of a sudden I didn't need to anymore, and everything just got really friendly and amusing and I relaxed. At the end of the night, I went back to my dorm room, watched Cool Hand Luke, and ate an entire box of Cheez-Its. It was rad.

There isn't much that's "rad" (or whatever you kids are calling it now) in Scanner, but the main reason I enjoyed getting stoned off my ass is that it made me stop thinking in the usual way for a while. Same thing with Bob and his scalp wound, although I didn't have a wife and children to abandon. What makes Scanner work as a drug novel is that it neither romanticizes nor overly demonizes drug abuse. In the Author's Note that concludes the book, PKD talks about the friends he based his story on, and how they were trying to "play," and were punished horribly for their innocence. These characters don't become addicts because they want to kill themselves or hurt others. They do it because they were curious, and because they were trying to get past the banal tedium of so much conscious existence. It's a bleak perspective, but at least it's an honest one.

So, what did you guys think of Substance D? And how does PKD's treatment of this topic gel with other stories you've enjoyed, and with anything else that comes to mind?

Leonard Pierce:  First of all, don't put all the blame for Substance D at PKD's feet; in the novel, it's also referred to as "Slow Death," a term that was common in the early '70s for heroin.  He was probably just trying to reinforce the extremely addictive nature of the stuff by comparing it to the most addictive real-world drug there was at the time.

I've long been intrigued by the fictional portrayal of drug highs, especially because so many authors have experience with narcotics, but so few are able to communicate the real nature of a good (or bad) high in prose. Writing is a slow, deliberate, thoughtful process; getting high is a fast, frenzied, chaotic, visceral thing. No matter how much first-hand experience you have with drugs, it's hard to communicate the sensations of euphoria; it's as hard to write a good drug scene as it is to write a good sex scene, and endless novels, both good and bad, are corrupted with clumsy attempts at both.

Marijuana, because of its gentle, non-intrusive high and its non-addictive nature, is a pretty poor jumping-off point to understand the kind of atmosphere PKD was trying to describe. The characters in A Scanner Darkly are first and foremost addicts: It is the basic fact of their existence, and the motivation from which all their actions derive.  To understand them and their behavior, you have to have experience—if you're fortunate, second-hand only—with the nature of addictive drugs. My own is blessedly brief, a short period when I was young of being hooked on speed, but meth is a grungy nephew to horse in terms of its addictive power and the kind of physical havoc it wreaks on the body.  I was able to quit before having to face the consequences of a long-term user, but even my experiences as a short-timer on the same drug that Dick favored himself taught me some lessons that allowed me to appreciate the book when I first read it.

What Dick does extraordinarily well is not, as you point out, to describe the benefits or the joys of Substance D; where he excels is in describing the drearily eternal mindset of the addict.  The sky-high, loopy, endless, entertaining drug talk; the groundless paranoia (or even worse, the grounded paranoia); the inability to think of any human relationships outside of how they affect your ability to score more drugs: these are the hallmarks of every addict, have been for generations, and Dick has an intelligent insider's genius for describing them.  Likely, he didn't even care about the specifics of Slow Death; for him, it was a useful abstraction that let him draw in his science-fiction audience and get a book published that might otherwise have been too uncommercial.  What he wanted to do was tell the story of ordinary drug addicts, and what that addiction did to their minds, and he did it extremely well.

I found myself, after finishing my re-read of A Scanner Darkly, going over his notes, then revisiting a set of similar notes written by William S. Burroughs, another brilliant novelist and notorious drug user, as part of Naked Lunch.  It's curious—and fascinating—that they led such similar lives, but came to very different conclusions.  Dick refused the notion that drug abuse was a disease (he called it "an error in judgment, like the decision to step out in front of a moving car"), he retained a touching and very human affection for the friends he lost, and those who he knew that were still addicted.  Burroughs, on the other hand, believed that junk-sickness really was a disease, a virus, an ailment unparalleled in human history—but he held junkies, and junk-talk, and the endless, eternal, unchanging schemes of junkie jive in nothing but ferocious contempt.  I often wonder if the difference was that Burroughs didn't start writing until he'd kicked his own addiction, while Dick couldn't seem to write without it.

Tasha Robinson: I'm not sure I like your claim that a reader can't understand Scanner's characters and behavior without having personally experienced addition, Leonard. I read fiction in large part to experience different lives, ones I'll never personally live for various reasons, and I tend to accept the author's version of those lives—especially when they're coming from personal experience, as Dick's are here. I think claiming you need to have been an addict to "get" what Dick wrote is selling this novel short, particularly since it seems (judging as much from that sad, sad postscript Zack mentions as anything else) that he wrote it specifically to communicate to the non-addicted what drug addiction is like.

And Lord, he doesn't paint a tempting picture. Like the both of you, I was struck by the fact that the book rarely gets into the drug experience itself, beyond the unintended consequences of paranoia, hallucinations, and massive dissociation and identity issues. (Which we'll get to in large part tomorrow.) Not to mention the social aspects of a group of junkies brought together and held together largely by drugs and the shared needs of poverty: Barris and Freck's need for Bob Arctor's house, for instance. And yet because of Dick's experience, the book is sympathetic as well. There's a certain amount of "Look at these dirty junkies, talking about nothing all day, stupidly failing to understand 10-speed bikes, worrying obsessively about invisible dogshit and bugs, and then sneaking around informing on each other." And yet Dick sympathizes with Arctor's alienation and need for something more, and looks down on the way the straights at New Path condescend to him and abuse him, even before it's revealed that there's more wrong with him than meets the eye.

What struck me most about the way A Scanner Darkly treats drugs is that early scene where Bob Arctor addresses the Lions Club. His confusion and frustration could be seen as an early sign that he's brain-fried, but I see a larger break there, one that sets up what we're to expect from him for the rest of the book: He can't bring himself to mouth all the cant about how junkies are indefensible, awful people who should tremble in their boots as he and his fellow law officers bear down on them. And yet he can't find the words to defend them, either. He's stuck between two positions, unable to express or identify with either, and even less able to articulate his way toward letting them understand each other. The gap between the judgmental straights and the disintegrating people "playing" with D is too wide. He has an emotional investment on both sides of the divide, and doesn't know what to do with it. I think here, we're seeing Dick's frustration with his friends at its purest. Does castigating drug use mean going over to being a jackbooted thug? He doesn't know, so he retreats. (Unfortunately, retreating for Bob Arctor at this point means doing more drugs, which doesn't tend to clarify his thoughts or refine his ability to communicate.)

Lest we get too deep into our own navels here, though, let's not forget that A Scanner Darkly is sometimes extremely funny about drugs. Consider the plight of Charles Freck, who tries to kill himself with depressants and a wine, and winds up hallucinating that his sins are being read to him for subjective millennia by an other-dimensional being. That entire passage is like a Reader's Digest "Life On Drugs" anecdote. It's dry, not played for broad yuks, but Charles' resignation—a sort of "Yeah, this kinda shit happens" attitude—makes it pretty hilarious. The segment with the 10-speed bike, and the business with Barris leaving Arctor's door unlocked, with a come-on-in note on it—or did he? Or didn't he? By the end, it seems as likely that he himself has forgotten the truth as that he's fucking with his friends—are both similarly sad but grimly laughable. As grim as Dick's postscript is, you can't tell me he isn't chortling with his friends here as much as at them.

Donna Bowman: Good morning, everyone.  I'll be playing the part of the embarrassingly straight arrow in this weekend's discussion.  Tasha, I hope you're right that the addiction experience isn't critical to appreciating the novel.  Because good Lord, I appreciated the heck out of it -- I was totally sucked in and deeply moved -- but I've never been any closer to drugs than shaking my head no to the joint being passed around the room in my rock-and-roller days.  My parents were teetotallers and I somehow failed to develop a taste for beer in high school or college (I still hate it -- coffee, too), so I didn't get around to enjoying mood-altering substances of any kind until I discovered the joys of wine in my mid-twenties -- and then, of course, it was never about getting drunk and all about an aesthetic pleasure.  Heck, I've never even smoked a cigarette, although I did hold one in my mouth for a band photo shoot once.

And yet even though I have no personal experience against which to measure Scanner's authenticity in this regard, I still feel in my gut like this is one of the few works of art that has ever conveyed to me, with precision and largely without judgment, what being a junkie is like.  Tasha mentioned the business with the ten-speed bike, but seemed to indicate that Dick, at least partly, was shaking his head at how addicts become idiots.  That scene, though, led me through the sense-making process of a group of people whose sense-making apparatus is fried.  And I could follow it -- I mean, I could see that it wouldn't have occurred to them to count the back gears twice, once for each front gear.  The genius bit is that they can't even agree on how many back gears there are -- at one point, they agree that there are six.  It's all about looking at a strange artifact and trying to discriminate what this part is as opposed to that part.  Is that bit another gear, or is it a non-gear circular bit that just happens to be with the gears?  If you put an alien into a soundproof booth and gave him a ten-speed bike, could he tell how many gears there are?  

I've never been in that mental state, but Dick lets me in to see it from the inside by presenting it discursively, following all the meandering mental cowpaths and portraying the desperate, futile quest of all these characters to make sense -- to themselves, to their fellow junkies (the easiest task, it seems), and to those who govern their lives: their dealers and handlers.  It's like philosophy done in another universe with different laws of nature and logic, and yet Dick never lets it get out of control or nutzoid.  The insanity always appears in the quest for some kind of sane way to live this life.  I never failed to be fascinated by it and ready to follow where it leads.

Ellen Wernecke: I echo Tasha in strongly disliking the argument that one would have to live as the characters in a particular work live, in order to be able to fully appreciate how it’s depicted on the page. It’s a slippery slope that closes off so much of literature to me -- can I not relate to any male character, or any born before 1900?  Part of what makes great books great is the universalization of experiences that, in life, may be open to only a few.

I wouldn’t call “A Scanner Darkly” a great book, but I enjoyed it far more than I expected for such a bleak chronicle of a man’s undoing. I was sucked in from the anecdote about Jerry and the bugs, and found it almost impossible to put down in the middle.  

For an author to draw on his own experiences to create a compelling work isn’t required, but maybe it’s because Dick was an addict himself that he’s so able to clearly delineate the personalities of Arctor and his friends. I’ve consistently had with depictions of addiction that inexpert authors will allow the drug to make its takers all the same through taking it, flattening them out into a sort of ur-addict. Dick masterfully keeps them retaining their own quirks even through the haze of Substance D and possibly deadly mushrooms and whatever else they’re taking. I keenly felt Bob Arctor’s betrayal as he listens to Jim Barris sell him out to the police, replicated a short while later by Fred’s sense of injustice as he hears Hank describing how optimal his house would be for a security operation. Bob’s outrage comes from that expression of difference; even though he himself is an informant and tries to direct attention towards them when the heat is on him, he considers himself above sabotaging his housemates for his payout.

At times I found myself sharing the disdain of Fred, Arctor in his scramble suit examining footage of his friends from the apartment that had been set up as surveillance (and, we suspect, seized from its previous owners on drug charges just as Hank intimates will happen to Arctor’s house). Spending time with people who have been artificially turned so far inward is exhausting, and if Dick had allowed those scenes to take over the book I might have cared less about the fates of those involved… but he doesn’t. Later, those scenes become critical traces in Fred’s desperate grab at what remains of his identity, which made me wonder: To what extent are the police involved in Arctor/Fred’s breakdown? Can we rightfully blame them for hastening his breakdown, by forcing him to break apart his own life into two different people? (We’ll discuss more on that tomorrow.) Is the strain under which they put him worth his reward? They treat him like a lab rat and ultimately rob him of even his identity.

When Fred is told that he will have to pay a penalty for willingly ingesting Substance D on the job, told that it isn’t no longer considered crucial for double agents to stay high to avoid suspicion, I wanted to protest along with him. But we don’t know whether Arctor might have taken himself to New Path, cleaned up and resumed his ‘straight’ life, or if he would just have died in one of Barris’ mushroom experiments. Maybe his undercover work slowed his fall, instead of accelerating it.

Todd VanDerWerff: I will be joining Donna over here in the "straights" category. The whole fundamentalist Christian upbringing got to me to the point where even when I was largely breaking with the religion of my youth in college, I could still barely stand to drink. I've had a couple of contact highs, I'd wager, from parties I've been to, but that's about as close as I've come, and the whole experience of reading A Scanner Darkly was rather like seeing something fascinating from the outside and not ever being able to get fully inside the headspace. I think Dick creates a marvelous simulation of what it must feel like to be an addict slowly losing his grip on sanity, but it always seemed to me to be more of a technical feat than one that really reached up and grabbed me, like some of his other work has.

Or maybe it did. What I'm impressed by is the way that Dick refers to both the experience of being high on a particular substance and the experience of wandering around Southern California as roughly the same thing. I think I'm the only regular books contributor who lives in the Los Angeles area, and Dick absolutely nails the hazy way the inland regions of the area make you feel. There are great places here - particularly closer to the ocean - but once you get out toward Anaheim or, God forbid, Riverside and San Bernardino counties, you're lost in a smoggy wilderness that's apparently not even as bad as it was when Dick was writing this book. The sense of being lost in the fog, of being unable to escape that dull, brown haze, could describe simultaneously the feeling of your mind slowly disintegrating or it could describe driving through the lengths of the Inland Empire, watching one indiscernible strip mall blend into another one. The occasional descriptions of the mountains or of the farm where "Bruce" finds himself at the end are notable for the way they seem to suggest nature shrugging off mankind, but taking almost as much effort in the process as it takes a man to shrug off his drug habit.

It's no coincidence, I think, that Dick sets this novel in Orange County. If it's one of the best books at capturing what it's like to be an addict or to hang out around addicts and listen to what they're talking about (that section where Fred is fast forwarding through hours of surveillance tape and seems to keep coming across the same conversation, just broken apart over hours, is a particular highlight), it's also one of the best books at capturing the dull sense that you are not living the life you should be that marks much of living down here. And I say that as someone who lives here willingly and largely likes it. I can't imagine how it must read for someone who hates the area and eventually shrugged it off to live elsewhere (as Dick did, if my remembrance of my college class on him is accurate).

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