Monday, February 15, 2016

Book Review - A Scanner Darkly

I decided to start reading some of the work of Phillip K. Dick and for now I'm relying on the titles available at my local library. When I picked up A Scanner Darkly, I didn't know anything about it other than that they made a "rotoscope" film about a decade ago but I never saw the movie and didn't pay enough attention to know the plot. Reading the synopsis on the back of the book was very sounded like sort of weird split-personality situation where the protagonist was a policeman who was hunting after himself. As I started reading the book, I realized that my interpretation of the synopsis was a little bit off, but the book was still intriguing.

The story revolves around the protagonist, a man named Bob Arctor who is a flaky drug user in Southern California living with a bunch of other druggies. He also happens to be an undercover narcotics officer trying to work his investigation up the drug traffic chain to find the big suppliers at the top. The trouble is, Bob actually did start using some of the drugs to maintain his cover and now he's a full-blown addict and is on the verge of a mental breakdown as a result.

There's a lot of internal monolog as both Bob the druggie and Bob the cop and as the book goes on, his psyche becomes more and more segmented to the point that my original reading of the synopsis makes some sense in that Bob the druggie seems somewhat unaware that he's actually a cop and he's very paranoid that he's going to be caught...meanwhile Bob the cop has dissociated himself so much from his other self that he studies and tails the drug user as a separate person. The whole concept is a little trippy (pardon the phrasing) and takes some time to wrap your head around the creative way the scenes play out.

The book is set in the future so there are some sci-fi elements but they are minimal. Remnants of the author's contemporary technology are still in place (the cars, the music, the phones, etc.). Probably the most intriguing piece of futuristic tech is the "scramble suit" that the cop wears when making his official reports or doing other leg work in an official capacity. The scramble suit is a full body suit with high-tech camouflage that "scrambles" the wearer's appearance constantly so that he/she is never recognizable. The technology and use of the suit seems to be yet another factor in Bob's loss of "self" and his mental schism.

A lot of the book is spent with extensive scenes where Bob is talking with his other addict friends in various states of drug use. The language definitely gets R-rated and a lot of times the conversations are semi-random ramblings about life, society, paranoia and corruption. The druggies go back and forth between being super friendly to each other and playing tricks on each other and sometimes being outright antagonistic to one another. I've not personally sat around through lengthy drug-induced conversations but the few times I have interacted with people who have been very drunk or high, their behavior and language seemed very familiar to what was portrayed in this book. The notes at the end of the book indicate that a lot of the content is semi-autobiographical based on Dick's own drug problems and his interactions with fellow users.

Dick indicates that he didn't write the book trying to sell some big anti-drug message but more he wrote it as a sort of memory to his old friends who he's lost over the years to their abuse. It's clear he doesn't condone drug use and the way the plot plays out it's clear that he'd like to see the drug trade taken down any way possible. More than that though I felt like he was just showing the tragic way that these people's lives are wasted and destroyed and sadly they often get to a point where there is no way to fully recover.

At the end, I can say this was an interesting read. It spun my head in circles at times and left me thinking about things but mostly it just made me sad and frustrated that the drug problem just keeps plugging away even though everybody (at least most people here in the U.S.) are taught and understand from their childhood that truly nothing good comes of getting into drugs. I understand there are some who "don't have a choice" and that sometimes psychological problems or other influences make a person feel like the risks are outweighed by what they hope to gain. Overall, I felt like this was an okay book but not something I would call a "must read." Still, it left me in a thoughtful place.

3 out of 5 stars

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