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The Slow Train to Oblivion, expertly documented
on February 23, 2002
There is an old adage about writing: "Write what you know"--as quoted verbatim from Hemmingway, among many others, this proverb is a key to mastering the craft. One's best work originates from principle experience, core emotions; the rest is just window-dressings, technique for transition. Philip K. Dick, one of the most prolific authors of science fiction for the later half of the twentieth century, wrote about what he knew: paranoia, `big brother', psychological disruptions, drug abuse; and the sci-fi `trimmings' of aliens, techno-dystopias, etc. usually served as interesting backdrops. As a mad, bad, meth-snortin' horsemeat lovin' pulp master, the dominant themes Dick experienced during his relatively short(ened) life appear again and again in the bulk of his work, though rarely so coherently expressed as in his tragic masterpiece, _A Scanner Darkly_.
The `basics:' Bob Arctor is a drug dealer who is also Fred, a narc working undercover with the LAPD to bust a big time drug dealer named...Bob Arctor. Bob/Fred's drug of choice, Substance D(eath), gradually splits the user's brain into two separate halves, corroding the interaction between the hemispheres and rendering one a split-personality veering chaotically close to schizophrenia. Bob doesn't realize he's Fred, and vice-versa (except in moments of rare epiphany). As anyone who has read VALIS can attest, the real-life events from which this story is based occurred to Dick in the beginning of the `70's, and most of his fiction afterward were attempts for him to glean and get down the life-shattering experience. _A Scanner Darkly_ was debatably his most successful attempt, and certainly his most lucid.
For all the futuristic flourishes, the bulk of _A Scanner Darkly_ basically describes the everyday existence of Orange County drug users. The dissipation of the body and slow decay of the mind; the rupturing of the moral core for the immediate high; life on the downward spiral--it's all documented here, in harrowing fashion. Among the endless repetitive conversations and breakdown-ruminations, there are a few moments of outstanding imagery-the Connie/Donna face-melt and the flower-field being the most prominent in recollection--the first hideous, the second serene--both chilling to the bone given the circumstances.
Never a literary stylist, Dick's simple prose veered from elegant to downright amateurish, making some of his lesser/cryptic works a bit of a slog, yet in this particular volume, the author's heart can be found in the characters, environments, and overall pathos; the feel of catharsis is prevalent throughout and made abundantly clear in the coda:
"They wanted to have a good time, but they were like children playing in the street; they could see one after another of them being killed--run over, maimed, destroyed--but they continued to play anyhow."
A melancholic, mad masterpiece.