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.