Now, for a sudden shift, I have left the late Victorian/early to late Edwardian and come to the 70s. Here, we find another great novel – which also happens to be the most depressing novel I have ever read – A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick. It is a science fiction novel, though the setting is essentially 70s America drug slums, but spattered with high technology and corporations. The title gives a hint to the plot; it is a reference to 1 Corinthians 13:12: ‘For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.’
Obviously, the glass has been replaced by the scanner. The book follows an undercover police officer in a drug den, as he attempts to find the supplier of the new drug that has come to town, which causes severe split personalities.
Here, I must give a warning: it is awfully hard to write about this novel without giving away some spoilers. That being said, the blurb on the back of the novel will tell you pretty much the same as I am about to. However, be wary of reading this post, if you think you want to read the novel!
As I said, the book follows the police officer Bob Arctor, who lives undercover in a drug house with several addicts, in an attempt to find the main supplier of a new drug in town. Dick engages in his usual writing, and one gets into Arctor’s mind, and can almost feel how Arctor lives in the drug house, and understand everything he sees. Phillip K. Dick was always good at that. However, the great twist of the plot (although most blurbs will tell you this anyway) is that the drug has caused Arctor to develop split personalities – he is both a drug addict in the house, and he is the undercover cop trying to prove that Arctor is the main drug dealer he’s after. This is where the book truly excels; it is incredibly sad, but done so well that you must read it, no matter what. I can’t describe it well, without ruining the whole way the book works, but, essentially, the book itself whittles away at your mind, and is almost nonsensical in parts, until other pieces are revealed later. In this way, it almost makes you feel that you are losing your mind with Arctor. The conviction which Phillip K. Dick ascribes to police officer Arctor in his hunt for drug dealing Arctor almost carries you away, as you become sure that there’s something more going on; the reader is almost just as shocked as Arctor is, when he finds out that he is the drug addict and the police officer, although the reader has known all along.
In other parts, random lines or verses of German and English poetry or songs creep into the text, unexplained pieces with no meaning, and the book flows on, ignoring the poetry, so the reader feels insane, as this shouldn’t be here. It is only revealed later how Arctor’s father would make him memorise German poetry and songs: the breaks in the texts signs of Arctor’s insanity and of the reader’s breaking mind.
It’s hard to describe the sensation. I hope I’ve given it some weight, and made you understand why you should read it. It’s depressing, sad, with a hopeful ending, and it will almost make you doubt your sanity. If I were to compare this book to anything, I would compare it to the Gamecube game Eternal Darkness. Both are masterpieces, and so brilliantly constructed that the madness within the work can, for a moment, make you believe it, and doubt your own sanity.
PS. It was made into a movie with Keanu Reeves. I’ve never watched it, but I’ve heard it’s fantastic