A Scanner Darkly: On identity and splitting in two
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.
As he had said to the Lions types there in the hall, he looked like a doper when out of his scramble suit; he conversed like a doper; those around him now no doubt took him to be a doper and reacted accordingly. Other dopers–See there, he thought; “other,” for instance—gave him a “peace, brother” look, and the straights didn't.
You put on a bishop’s robe and miter, he pondered, and walk around in that, and people bow and genuflect and like that, and try to kiss your ring, if not your ass, and pretty soon you’re a bishop. So to speak. What is identity? he asked himself. Where does the act end? Nobody knows.
Todd VanDerWerff: The works of Philip K. Dick are obsessed with questions like these. Is a man truly made of what's inside of himself? Or do we react to the outside of a person more than we should? In other words, am I something tangible that cannot be changed by how other people perceive me? Or does the way people see me make me who I am, create a situation where it's impossible for me to be separated from the image I present to the world? Dick played around with these ideas in nearly every one of his novels, and he never satisfactorily answered them in his own head, I'd imagine, which is why he kept wrestling with them, as if they could be answered. Even The Man In The High Castle, perhaps his most "conventional" classic novel, is obsessed with the true identity of reality, as the characters slowly come to wonder if they're living in a false reality, even though the alternate reality they're intrigued by is very close to ours, but different in a few key ways.
But while Dick was frequently interested in these ideas, A Scanner Darkly could pretty much be considered his magnum opus on these particular themes. His central character is essentially split in two, then made to adopt an entirely new identity as the book goes on. Which of these people is the true man? Arctor? Fred? Bruce? None of them is. They all are. I'd say "take your pick," but that treats these questions a little too glibly. When Arctor is in the Arctor persona, that's who he is, both because that's how he's acting and that's how the world treats him. But when he's in the (rather self-loathing) Fred persona, the same is also true.
I'm reminded of The Wrestler's Cruel Study, which we read a few months ago. In that book, the character of Primus Muldoon spoke of Nietzsche's theory that all we are is a series of masks covering a core self that is, perhaps, unknowable. A Scanner Darkly wrestles with these ideas just as well as that book did. (That theme was one of my favorite things about Wrestler's.) The duality of Arctor becomes literal in a way I'm not sure I completely liked—having the two halves come in conflict with each other in a way that renders his information useless to his superiors—but I liked the way Dick switched between "Fred" and "Arctor" so freely in the early passages of the novel.
I've never been addicted to drugs, so I'm probably off-base here, but in the world of A Scanner Darkly, I wondered if all of the drug addicts felt a sort of commonality under the idea that they were "undercover," in some ways. That they were really other people who were just using drugs for some purpose outside their real goals and desires. Until they used too long and became the people they'd only been "pretending" to be. We see this most acutely, of course, with Arctor, but we see glimmers of it with glimpses of the man that, say, Barris used to be or watching Jerry's sad, slow decline.
But there's more to chew on here. Look at how, for example, Bob's past with his wife and kids becomes a thing he was lying to himself about. Lying to yourself is a form of identity construction, after all, and the lies Arctor tells himself split him in two, in some ways, and the person we see slowly disintegrating before us is the end of that road. (Tellingly, Dick's longest period of drug abuse came after his fourth wife left him.) And then you have the way the people at New-Path erase both Fred and Bob and try to create a new identity on top of those older ones, the identity of Bruce. We get some indication that this is the standard way for New-Path to deal with the addicts they get, and it makes a sort of twisted sense. To treat someone for issues such as these, you first need to erase everything they identify as themselves, reduce them to a kind of shambling infant.
And, of course, we have the fact that Donna is also hiding her true identity. Everybody in this book is a series of masks, and I'm impressed at how this idea runs throughout the novel without Dick commenting on it, really, outside of the portion I quoted above. He talks about it, sure, but outside of the Arctor/Fred split, a lot of the other identity issues are much more subtly handled. You can say many great things about Dick, but he tended to be pretty unsubtle. In this book, he's painting with more subdued colors.
Donna Bowman: It isn't the theme; it's the way you present it. Science fiction is often a way to deliver familiar themes in new dress, getting them past our defenses by setting them amid unfamiliar locales, species, or technological trappings. So it's never surprising when authors in the genre foreground big ideas like identity—especially since technology always raises new questions about identity as it pushes forward with genetic engineering, computer-mediated interaction, and organ replacement.
If I went back and analyzed my comprehension of Scanner page by page, I think I'd find that all the play with identity was pretty obvious from the moment Fred in his scramble suit was introduced at that Lions banquet. Any savvy reader would know that nobody in this book is who they seem to be, that everyone is a part of some conspiracy, that double-agency should be assumed as a matter of course. And yet every time a new facet of identity—or a loss of confidence in an existing facet—was revealed, I gasped. It wasn't the fact of that matter that shocked me, but the way Dick pinpointed every existential jolt, staying with the characters and their thoughts, resisting the urge to editorialize, making us feel it.
Two of those moments stand out for me: Fred's disbelief when Hank tells him his cover identity was Arctor, and the meeting between Donna and Mike where they discuss their plan of getting Bruce sent to the farm. There's so much grief in those scenes. Both are suffused with the wish that we didn't have to look behind the curtain. The life we live on the surface, as screwed up as it is, at least allows us to belong to some community. As soon as someone scratches at the coating, our relationships become chess games. Friendship and love—they're real, Dick seems to say, in the text and in the moving afterword. But they collapse at the slightest nudge into commodities to be exploited, bought, and sold.
Leonard Pierce: As has been mentioned, and will continue to be mentioned, the notion of identity, and the near-impossibility under the best circumstances of people being able to figure out who they really are, is one of the most persistent themes in Philip K. Dick's work. (We'll discuss other themes of his tomorrow.) But what really stands out for me in A Scanner Darkly—as mentioned, probably his best treatment of the issue other than, arguably, The Man In The High Castle —is the way he makes it into the book's central tragedy, rather than simply using it as a thematic framework or a plot device.
Donna touched on this above: In Scanner, Dick doesn't use this as mere jet fuel for the plot, or even as a jumping-off point for philosophical speculation. There's nothing exploitative about it. It's barely even a plot point at all: We know all along that Arctor is Fred, and his shock in learning it isn't all that surprising. Donna's status as a double agent (and Mike's as a triple agent) is a bit more unexpected, but hardly shocking given what has come before. Second faces, dual natures, and alternate identities are the norm in the book, and as Todd astutely notes, this is to be expected in a book so immersed in drug culture, where everyone must, of necessity, present one face to the straight world and another to their drug buddies.
What's so stunning about this is the emotional power Dick invests in the theme. He didn't follow themes because he was a playful structuralist; he did it because he cared deeply about them—he was himself consumed by the obsessions he put on paper. What makes A Scanner Darkly so effective, ultimately, is its ending: we know from the start that Bob Arctor is in trouble because the things he has to do as Fred are being hindered by the things he has to do as Bob. But the tragedy really begins to unfold when he learns that these two people are as real as "he" is, and that they're literally in competition with each other; this terrible knowledge precipitates a mental breakdown. After that, he becomes yet another person, but really, he's no one at all. The various means by which organizations to whom he owes no loyalty—and, for the most part, of whom he has no knowledge—have used to bind him to them have ultimately destroyed his mind, changing him from a man to a number of different men to something that is barely even a man at all. It's that knowledge that breaks Donna's heart, and makes her want to abandon the life she's sacrificed the most: her own.
Ellen Wernecke: The notions of identity at play in A Scanner Darkly were as fascinating to me as they were to my colleagues; I can’t remember the last science-fiction story I read that was so wholly and unapologetically character-driven. The scene with Arctor addressing the crowd at the Lions Club is even a little too obvious in introducing this theme—the agent being fed lines and rejecting them in order to say what he wants (scattered and disorganized as it is) outlines his dilemma a little too brightly—but I was still caught up in it as it progressed.
The more Arctor became confused between himself and Fred, the more I worried for him and wanted him to pull himself out of that lifestyle, even though it was clearly impossible. It seems as though Dick is suggesting that all addicts eventually subsume their other identities because it becomes impossible to keep up the façade of other desires and wishes; the need for the substance trumps all. The identity split that precedes Arctor’s decision to become a double agent, his entrance into the drug culture, and his exit from his "straight" life are never fully explained, but that somehow worked for me. We’ve read enough stories about people reaching a breaking point in their lives over a seemingly trivial incident to be able to fill in the blanks. The Bob Arctor before Substance D may not have his own name in the narrative, but he hovers over every change that happens afterward.
Whether Dick knows or believes in this sublimation of identity from personal experience, or makes it characteristic of his Substance D users for the sake of the book, it’s an idea that allows a lot of latitude not only for our sense of Arctor, but also for his friends. Still, I found the revelation of Donna’s true stake in Arctor/Fred/Bruce’s well-being to be somewhat abrupt. Maybe it’s because I had trouble grappling with her identity as viewed through Arctor, who constantly dismisses her and rejects his own interest in her even as he seeks her out. I suspect, though, that Dick would argue that it doesn’t really matter why Donna decided to become a double agent, or why she latched onto Arctor of all people. Like his decision after hitting his head to walk away from his wife and kids, it just happened.
Keith Phipps: I’d like to develop a point that Todd made above. I’ve read enough Dick to know how important the theme of identity is to him. And I know enough about Dick’s life to know how important drugs were to him. I’m not sure it’s a coincidence that the identity theme gets developed so explicitly and thoroughly in a book about drugs. No one takes drugs to continue feeling like themselves. They want to escape—for a little while for most, forever for others—the burden of being who they are. That’s true whether you’re tossing back a glass of wine to muster up the courage to talk to someone, or shooting up heroin at the Chelsea Hotel.
One of the most effective elements of A Scanner Darkly is the way it plays with the notion of the double agent. As an undercover officer, Arctor/Fred is required to be a cop. But it’s also understood that he’s going to be using drugs. To fit in, he has to. By necessity, he has to inhabit a gray area between cop and user. In theory, he can use his copy identity as an anchor, pulling himself back to his “real” life no matter how deep he goes into the drug culture. But from the moment he can’t toe the party line at the Lions Club meeting, it’s pretty clear that the line to his anchor has broken.
It’s partly chemical. Dick’s afterword to this book—one of the most moving pieces by him I’ve ever read—talks about the physical effects of drugs on the brain. Part of what must have been troubling to him—especially if he clung to the metaphysical notion of a human soul—was the way persistent drug use, especially when taken to the point of causing brain damage, fundamentally changed who a person was. If you mess with the connections enough, you can’t be who you used to be. You escape to the point of no return.
Or close to it. Our protagonist, whatever we want to name him, ends the book by tucking away a blue flower to show his friends, which offers the faintest hope of optimism. Something fundamentally, irreducibly him has survived. Call it a personality or call it a soul, but it’s his, and it’s intact. The drugs and confusion can’t touch it.
Zack Handlen: I'm not sure what edition of the book everyone read, but I've had my copy for a while, and I can still remember getting thrown by the plot description on the back. It stresses that the novel is about the "perverse symbiosis" between cop and criminal—which is true, I guess, although that's never really what I take from it—and then it describes how Fred is narcing on Bob Arctor, and claims that the two personalities don't realize they're in the same body. Obviously this is what happens over the course of the novel, but what I didn't expect was that we, as readers, got to see the process happen. That made it different somehow, less like an exciting genre plot, and more this slow, grinding tragedy. We meet Bob/Fred already on a downward spiral, but the actual personality split happens so gradually that it always surprises me. It actually becomes a challenge at times to remember that they were actually the same person.
I think Scanner can sometimes seem nihilistic, like much of PKD's work, because he breaks down the concept of identity so thoroughly that at times it seems like there's nothing left but the pieces. Bob's disintegration is terrifying and sad, but there's also an inevitability to the process: this is what he is, and he made the choice years ago that put him on this path, and there's no real way out. There's no system designed to save him, and it's hard to tell if he gets much satisfaction from his work. There's no grand crusade here, at least not for Arctor. It's more like, of the options he had in front of him, the slow form of suicide he chose was the least objectionable. That's bleak.
And yet, there are always moments that pop up in the middle of nothing to make the life Arctor eventually loses actually seem worth having. Like exchanging hash-smoke kisses with Donna. One of the things that puts Scanner slightly ahead of the rest of PKD's work is that its connections to an emotionally identifiable reality make it possible to care about what happens in way that doesn't generally happen with his books. It makes the identity game, like others have mentioned, less a clever construction, and more something fundamental and identifiable. There is a soul here that has value, and when Bob finally folds in on himself like a telescope, it's heartbreaking. I agree that there is a moderate amount of optimism in those final lines, but it's still not enough to overcome the novel's fundamental sadness.
Tasha Robinson: Okay, to start with, I'm interested in Leonard's notion that all the identity problems, rather than the drugs, are what precipitate Arctor's breakdown at the end of the book, because for me, that was the story's major flaw—it seems to happen all at once, with such abruptness that it feels like a chapter is missing. (It's equally jarring and did-I-miss-a-scene? in the movie, which we'll talk about on Thursday.) Yes, he's disintegrating throughout the book, losing bits of himself while maintaining enough awareness to resent and fear it, but when we step away from his point of view and suddenly see him through other people's eyes, as a shivering wreck, it feels like a trick to me, like at any moment, PKD might step back into his head and reveal that there's far more going on in there than appears to be going on on the outside. And I was actively disappointed when that wasn't the case.
For myself, I justified it by playing with the idea that Dick was pulling the ultimate identity hat trick on Bob/Fred there; we see Bob and Fred struggling to come to terms with each other, but more significantly, we see Bob trying to live up to his friends' idea of what a junkie should be like, and Fred trying to live up to what his fellow scramble-suited cops think a law-enforcement officer should be like, and both of them having problems with their roles. Then the psychologists testing him tell him that he's a burnout, utterly wrecked, and Donna echos that label (first as Hank, then as herself), and suddenly Bob/Fred completely changes into a shivering, incoherent blob, and he never really comes back from that. It's so much at odds with the busy-headed character we've seen up until that point that I had a hard time digesting the change. But seen as a simple identity issue, it makes more sense—he's finally been handed a role, a label, an identity that he can live up to without effort.
Zack's book-cover summary (huh, mine has it too, I just hadn't read it) would also explain the sudden complete breakdown as the point where Fred realized he was Bob Arctor, and disintegrated under the weight of that knowledge. And maybe that's what Dick intended, but if so, I'm just not seeing it borne out in the text. And frankly, I would find that story a lot more conventional and a lot less interesting. Much of what made A Scanner Darkly for me was the Brazil-like ridiculousness of the situation, as Fred was pushed into a position where he had to inform on himself in order to not break his own cover. Much of that tension and much of the interest comes from Fred/Bob's conflict of interest as he tries to figure out how to not implicate himself, while also not obviously trying to not implicate himself… because being too obvious about protecting Bob will reveal his identity to his fellow cops. If Fred and Bob really aren't aware of each other at all… well, again, I just don't see that in the text, given that Fred is actively, obviously, awkwardly responding to his fellow officers' feelings about Bob. Besides… doesn't that make the story less interesting? Isn't it just another variation on Identity, or that ridiculous faux-film pitch from Adaptation, where all the characters are secretly inside one dude's head, but they don't know it?
All that said, one of the most significant things for me about A Scanner Darkly was how Dick conceives of the Bob/Fred split as being a matter of culture. I find it pretty significant that junkie wastrel Bob Arctor is allowed to walk around with his real face showing, even if there's a secret behind it, while supposedly straight-and-narrow drug agent Fred is forced to hide behind a mask at all times. Dick never really spells out why that is in any detail; sure, it's to protect Bob Arctor's identity, but everyone at his agency seems to be wearing scramble suits all the time, as a matter of course. And surely they aren't all double agents and embedded junkies. No, I think Dick is basically saying up front that no one Fred works with can be trusted with any real information or any real facet of his personality. Maybe this is a slam on cops, or government, or The Man in general, or maybe it's a broader commentary on the masks we all wear in the workplace, and how most of us are different people in the office—even around co-workers we consider friends—than we are among the friends we choose for ourselves.
Major thoughts on identity and the shape of the book aside, I have one minor observation left that no one's touched on. It tickled me deeply when, late in the book, two of Fred's lady co-workers think they've deduced his identity—they decide he's someone named Pete Wickam—and one of them diffidently explains that the other would have dated him, except that he has bad breath. When this happens, for a second, Fred feels sorry for Pete, but only a few sentences later, he's thinking as though he IS Pete, and he's been shot down, insulted, forced to face something ugly about himself. And he resolves to get some mouthwash.
You know, because Pete's breath stinks, and because someone thinks he might be Pete.
Poor Bob/Fred/Bruce. Even three identities aren't enough for him; he even has to take personally an insult mean for someone else entirely, and identify with it so closely that he sets out to improve Pete's life. No wonder he falls apart at the end.