FLOW MY TEARS, THE POLICEMAN SAID – Philip K. Dick (1974)

flow-my-tears-the-policeman-said-pkd-kresekJust a short review this time.

The more I read PKD and talk about him with fans, the more I get the impression that PKD is the kind of author that is especially read during one’s teens and early twenties. In that sense he is formative, but he’s often abandoned later, at least, lots of his work is, and many fans only recommended 1, 2 or 3 books while they have read lots of his novels.

Before this one, I had read Ubik, Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? and A Scanner Darkly. I didn’t think particularly highly of any of those, but there was enough there to keep on reading Dick. Guess what: Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said fits in neatly with that experience. It’s an okay novel, but it’s also muddled and bereft of any real depth. And despite Dick’s reputation, it’s not that wonky or weird either.

I’ll get to all that in a minute, but even though it fitted my previous encounters with his prose, Flow My Tears did alter my mind about PKD: I won’t actively seek out any of his novels anymore. If I happen to come across one cheap second hand, I’ll pick it up in a heartbeat, no doubt. But I’m not going to buy any of his work new again, or even look out for it in the second hand shops. And so while I’m still vaguely interested in reading The Man in the High Castle, The Martian Time-Slip, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, Now Wait for Last Year and Time out of Joint, it will be serendipity that will decide whether I’ll read them or not. I might still buy a best of PKD short story collection, as I hear his real strength lies there – we’ll see.

As for Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, there’s plenty of reviews that have summaries and some analysis, so I won’t go into that at length. In short, the novel deals with celebrity culture, addiction and the societal changes that bubbled to the surface during the sixties: student revolt, the civil rights movement, more openness about sex.

Sadly, most – if not all – of the politics remains in the background: while there has been a Second Civil War, and there’s a police state in place since, hardly any of the oppression is felt. It makes for satire without a sharp bite. It’s as if it’s all just a prop to Dick, to support his story about Jason Taverner, a genetically enhanced TV-personality and pop singer who wakes up as a nobody, unknown to anybody, without a trace even in archives or government databases.

That central plot is what drives the story. PKD provides an episodic progression, presenting Taverner a succession of new characters. Things are quite disjointed, and characters are easily discarded after their scenes are over. As a result practically everybody in the novel feels as a prop too, and real tension never materializes. It’s as Warwick Stubbs wrote on Goodreads: “Dick walks his protaganist into a problem, and then walks him right back out.”

Taverner doesn’t really experience an identity crisis and there never is any angst – it is no Metamorphosis. As a character study of downfall, or even of smug celebrity entitlement, it falls short.

It’s true that this novel is also about the nature of reality, and while for a few pages it seemed as if Dick was heading for yet another mise en abyme, near the end the reasons for Taverner’s predicament are explained with druggy handwavium. On top of that, it doesn’t hold up logically – but who reads Dick for logic anyway? So while some reviewers seem to find much of thinky worth here, this is no applied philosophy either – it’s a sandbox at best.

In the end, Flow My Tears is fairly entertaining, and there are a few pretty good scenes throughout the novel. But Dick pushes too many buttons, and, as in those vintage radiocassette players, whenever you push one button, another button pops free again.

Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said (first edition hardcover)


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26 responses to “FLOW MY TEARS, THE POLICEMAN SAID – Philip K. Dick (1974)

  1. Ohhh, good analogy with the tape player! I remember that happening quite vividly.

    I haven’t met many PKD fans my age. I’d always assumed it was because I don’t tend to associate with people who like his stuff, but your idea that the older one gets the less one likes PKD would seem to cover my experience too. I never liked his stuff so I can’t experiment on myself like I have with other authors and genres.

    Know any stupid kids who would be willing to read PKD because they don’t know any better? We could experiment on them…

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  2. Hey I’m about to post a PKD review myself! I don’t remember much about Flow My Tears… I thought it was slightly disappointing. In my mind every Dick novel suffers from the same problems. Disjointed storytelling that often feels aimless, but I like his writing enough that I keep on going back. I like his writing style, the way his characters sound and the way he describes things. It feels sort of lazy and funny at the same time and entertaining enough.

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    • Indeed. The shame is that it could have been so much better. There are a lot of good or interesting ideas in this book, but none are explored. More or less the same story written by somebody who would have taken more care for it, fleshed it out a whole lot more – somebody who didn’t write books at the ratio PKD did – could have made this into one of the all time greats, on par with Stand On Zanzibar.

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    • I have to say A Scanner Darkly was the best of his I’ve yet read, and that’s also because it wasn’t disjointed or aimless, on the contrary, it had a fairly good focus, probably because it was easier to maintain for Dick, the novel being a semi-autobiographic story about addiction. But the downside was that it was a bit monotonous.

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  3. “but who reads Dick for logic anyway?”
    -Ha!
    I truly do think you are on to something by noticing the youth aspect to his fan base. When I was a teenager it was a lot of fun to pass the bong around and say “What if my existence were just someone else’s imagination?” A lot of kids didn’t have anyone they could say that too, and so a writer like PKD made them feel less alone. Therefore we ignored the fact that he was giving us 50% of a story. Or (as I did when I was young) saw it as some kind of a ‘make your own deeper meaning’ virtue.
    As an adult, I truly no longer have the time to consider whether my existence is someone else’s nightmare: I still haven’t paid last years taxes, and the roth-IRA that was my retirement just tanked.
    In short if PKD is right Alys Buckman should get to rehab and leave me the hell alone.

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    • True. What also bugs me a bit is that these questions are at least as old as Plato’s cave allegory. In that sense PKD doesn’t bring that much new to the table, and the things that are new (some scifi elements, the oppressive government, the sterilization of PoC, etc., etc.) are hardly fleshed out and are just treated as props to support what’s basically a horse that’s been flogged to death. It should have been to other way around: make the questions about reality the prop, and explore a changing humanity and society.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I found this on LibraryThing, by a user with the strange handle “write-review”, on the biographical side of this novel. I thought it was interesting and so I’ll share it here:

    “Philip K. Dick began writing the novel in 1970. These, the late Sixties up to 1974, were turbulent times not only in the U.S., but also in Dick’s life. (…) Dick’s personal life descended into turmoil: his marriage to third wife Nancy Hackett crashed in divorce, with her taking their child Isa; he began communal living with friends (reflected in A Scanner Darkly); and he began taking drugs heavily, including mescaline (featured in Flow My Tears). Previous to this, his life had taken a turn for the better during his time with Hackett. You might think of this as living two different lives, with the better of the two disappearing quickly, though by no means overnight. It’s this dichotomy of realities that constitutes the main theme of Flow My Tears, with reflections of the times clearly represented, both the reality and the feared.”

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  5. I haven’t read any of your PKD reviews prior to this one, I think partly because I’ve only read “Do Androids Dream Electric Sheep?” and came away from it underwhelmed, given its reputation. Ubik and Man in the High Castle have been perpetually on my to-read list for a decade, but they always get displaced because of my experience with Androids.

    I’m going to go and read your review for that book now, but what you’ve said here reflects what I remember feeling after having finished that book. It felt like a series of circumstances for the central character to inhabit, but it all felt distanced, like I was watching it through a glass, rather than experiencing it as a reader.

    “Man in the High Castle” remains fairly high on my to-read list, but I’ve often felt like I “didn’t get it” with PKD, and at the very least this review makes me feel like perhaps it didn’t fly over my head after all.

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  6. grown-up pkd fan here, so they do exist (except of course you don’t know i’m real so here we enter the territory). and i didn’t really get him as a kid … ubik, androids, and scanner are all great i’d say, if you don’t like these you probably won’t get anything out of his other sf masterpieces (including high castle, 3 stigmata). i’ve (re-)read ca. 10 of his books over recent years, and of these flow my tears was the only one i really hated, it’s a potboiler and badly written in stretches (something that’s often said about him (i usually love his prose)). martian time-slip is boring, it’s too plot-driven, no proper down-times and detours, the stuff we grown up phd fans savour 🙂 i love what you call lack of focus but then i don’t enjoy cleverly constructed novels. i think pkd’s voice is unique, hovering back and forth between an omniscient narrator and the character’s inner monolog. you don’t know where you are and you never know what’s true. nothing works but there’s lots of cool ideas though many of them are pipe dreams (just like i have lots of cool ideas and never realize them). still it’s always about life, never about surrealist effects or soething, the novels are part of the worlds they describe and not just about them.

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    • Thanks for your perspective, it’s interesting what you say about not liking cleverly constructed novels. A good reminder about how it’s all taste obviously.

      What strikes me as interesting in PKD is that everybody, even fans, seems to hate/like other titles, more so than with other authors.

      Agreed on his unique voice, as I said to Wakizashi, I guess that’s his main appeal. I guess you are also right about that life remark: this novel’s raison d’être indeed didn’t seem to be the stuff about a different reality, but about Jason’s reaction to it, a few vignettes about some other characters. Still, I’d have liked some more depth on the life stuff too.

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  7. I’m pretty lukewarm about the Dick novels I’ve read (Do Androids, etc. was alright, but not a patch on the movie), but I thought The Man in the High Castle was excellent, and not at all like his others. I’d urge you to give it a go before stopping with his longer work.

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    • Okay, thanks, I’ll keep it in mind. I do think Bladerunner is an important factor in the enduring popularity of PKD, and to a lesser extent Total Recall & Minority Report.

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  8. You make some excellent points in your review. I like PKD’s writing but I know how flawed it is. There’s something about his half-bonkers half-existential style that has always appealed to me. His huge output and extensive drug use probably played a big part in creating the feeling that a lot of his stories come across like first drafts, unfinished, or simply not explored in enough depth.

    I only read “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” in my teens. I got into him in my early forties when I started my WordPress Review blog. So I’m possibly a rare exception to your theory. After reading 15 PKD novels and a number of his short stories, I see the recurring themes and ideas, as well as the light characterizations and at times bizarre dialog. Yet I love his original voice and I still plan to read more by the author. Try some of his short stories, especially the ones he wrote around the middle of his career.

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    • Thanks for chiming in! I can see his appeal for sure, and in the end it is all a matter of taste. And you are very right about his original voice, I guess that’s his main strength.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I have this to reread and – unsurprisingly – not been desperate to get to it. I enjoyed TMITHC though and would like to get back to it, and have yet to try Time Out of Joint the only other PKD title I’ve got (I think, I may be wrong here). But yes, even with my love of Dowland’s lute songs (I sang a few in folk clubs in the 60s) I struggled to make sense of Flow my Tears, and I can understand your handwashing over his work.

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    • Dowland was new to me, I did search out the title song so to say, liked it a lot.

      As for that handwashing expression, could you elaborate? Not familiar with the expression, and I don’t seem to find it explained online.

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      • “Handwashing” is a reference to Pontius Pilate in the gospels who, literally and now figuratively, ‘washed his hands’ of any responsibility for Jesus’s execution. (Though as Roman governor he was of course solely responsible for criminal executions – but we don’t take the gospels as ‘gospel truth’ any more, do we).

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        • I’m familiar with the story, we use an expression based on it in Dutch as well, but wouldn’t use it in this context.

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          • I was meaning it to imply you’d had enough of PKD. 😁 The other literary context is of Lady Macbeth obsessively trying to wash imagined blood.from her hands after goading Macbeth to stab Duncan to death – but I didn’t mean that!

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  10. I read this book a while back – if not that long ago – but it didn’t really stick in my mind. The synopsis on Wiki makes it sound WAY more interesting than I remember; the only thing I took away from this book was that one of the characters was in a pretty dysfunctional relationship, a relationship I felt at the time may have told us something about PKD’s attitude towards woman. Needless to say, this turns out to be the policeman’s incestuous relationship with his sister – and yeah, it is pretty dysfunctional (I had to glance over the original text to confirm this). I’m still not sure why it made such a big impression on me though, especially given how the depiction of women throughout is so problematic.

    I’d second everybody else’s assessment of Dick’s shortcomings. I still reckon his books have a peculiar quality all of their own and that most of them are on the verge of being very good. It’s just that they rarely, if ever, deliver. You could blame this on Dick’s prolificity, but I think maybe that’s too kind (I don’t really buy the idea of Dick as a victim of circumstance; I think he chose to be the kind of writer he was).

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    • Yeah the incest and the pederastry were striking in this book. It seems PKD did this to add a dystopian flavor, but it didn´t really work for me. The titular policeman was a very strange character, I believe it was Jesse on Speculiction who pointed out in his review the cop seems more like 2 characters than one with conflicting thoughts. Dysfunctional on every front.

      “on the verge of being good”, I think that´s spot on.

      We´re all victims of circumstance so to speak, so in that sense Dick doesn´t get a special pass. He did what he had to do. Could he have written better stuff? I´m pretty sure he could have, theoretically, but he didn´t, and I guess there´s a ton of hard to parse reasons for that, but the bottomline is that he was what he was.

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