Sunday, January 25, 2015

Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said: a Book Report

"He's sixty-two years old and his name is Fred.  Originally, he was a sharp-shooter with the Orange County Minutemen; used to pick off student jeters at Cal State Fullerton."
 --Philip K. Dick, Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

A while back, my friend Christine asked if I would collaborate with her on an art/writing project about the connections between Orange County and acclaimed science fiction writer Philip K. Dick (PKD).  For a masters-level class at CSUF, Christine and classmates had already created a PKD in OC web site and Facebook page.  Being a huge fan of PKD, I eagerly accepted her invitation to be  part of this project.  We are currently planning a big art show/zine release on this topic in May 2015 at Hibbleton Gallery.

PKD is known for his trippy/dystopian stories and novels, many of which have been made into films—like Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report, A Scanner Darkly, etc.  What is less well-known is the fact that he spent the last years of his life living in Orange County.  He had an apartment in Fullerton!  A while back, I visited the special collection on PKD at the CSUF library.  You can check out what I found HERE.

Dick’s last five novels (written roughly between 1970-1982) are set mainly in Orange County, and they offer an insightful and disturbing portrait of an ultra-conservative, paranoid, Nixon-era 1970s OC.  For my contribution to our PKD in OC zine and art show, I have decided to read each of his last novels, and write book reports on them—paying particular attention to their commentary on Orange County (where I grew up and live).  

The first novel I’ve just finished reading is called Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said.  It was begun when PKD was living in Berkeley, but completed and published when he was in Fullerton.  The book sets up nicely some of the main themes he would explore for the rest of his life.

I’ll start by describing the world of the novel.  The year is 1988 and the U.S. is a totalitarian police state.  Police (pols) and national guard (nats) have set up checkpoints everywhere.  If you want to go anywhere, you have to pass through these checkpoints, and present various forms of ID.  If you don’t have proper ID (that is, if your identity is not stored in the vast databases of the state), you can be sent to a forced labor camp (FLC).  To be “undocumented” is a sure-fire trip to one of these detention centers.

College students live in walled-off underground areas, surrounded by pols and nats.  If a student tries to escape (and spread “treasonous” ideas) he/she is sent to an FLC.  Black people have been sterilized, and are rapidly going extinct.  They still live mostly in urban ghettos, like Watts.

Richard Nixon is worshipped like a God, or a new Messiah, and herein lies a main theme that will permeate all of PKD’s OC novels—the ultraconservative/reactionary policies of Nixon (who was, after all, from Orange County) are taken to their logical conclusion.  The student radicals and African American civil rights leaders have clearly lost in America.  The country has devolved into a paranoid, hyper-policed, and (frankly) dumber place.

The main character of the novel, Jason Taverner, is a super famous talk show host with a weekly viewing audience of 30 million.  In place of social consciousness, the people of PKD’s alternative USA tune into mindless television and celebrity worship.  Sound familiar?

The main “action” of the novel begins when Taverner wakes up one day to find his identity has been totally erased from the government’s vast databases.  This is dangerous because to be without proper ID is a ticket to a forced labor camp.  Jason’s journey to recover his lost identity introduces another of PKD’s major themes—the struggle to maintain one’s identity in an increasingly alienated, repressive, and mechanized world.

The title of the book comes from a nearly lost piece of poetry, which begins each major section of the book.  The poem reads like an elegy to a lost society.  In the worlds of Philip K.Dick, something shattering happened in America between 1968-1970.  Voices of protest and conscience (like MLK and Bobby Kennedy) were silenced and a new order rose to power, represented by Richard Nixon and his homeland Orange County, California.  Dick’s final novels, as we shall see, are a kind of elegy to what was lost in the late 60s, and a cautionary tale about where he saw the country headed.

I don’t want to include any major spoilers here (you should read the book!).  I just want to identify a couple major themes that will resonate throughout Dick’s last novels.  These themes may be stated something like this: The struggle to hold onto one’s true self (identity) while living in a repressive, Nixon-inspired dystopian USA.  Stay tuned for my next book report on A Scanner Darkly!

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