I've made it. I have finally reached the summit of the second Library of America collection of Philip K. Dick books, Five Novels of the 1960s & 70...moreI've made it. I have finally reached the summit of the second Library of America collection of Philip K. Dick books, Five Novels of the 1960s & 70s. With my flag firmly planted atop the snow-capped peak of this book I can look back upon two weeks of paranoia, time travel, authoritarian governments and more experimental drugs than you can find outside of a Merck testing lab, with the self-satisfied air of a man who has plumbed the depths of speed-induced psychosis and made it through the other side. What better reward could I ask for, though, than to have finally allowed myself to read a book I knew I would love from the moment I saw the film, A Scanner Darkly?
I have wanted to read this book since the first time I heard of it, way back in the heady year of 2004 when I was working the front desk of a hostel in Prague and running a traveler's lending library of english-language literature. I was fresh off of Man in the High Castle and was handed a tattered paperback by a Welshman along with the benediction that this book would "utterly melt your mind." With a recommendation like that, I was immediately interested. Unfortunately that copy was soon lost among the ever-changing residents of the hostel and an opportunity was postponed. I've read nearly two dozen of Dick's books in the time since then but for one reason or another have never returned to A Scanner Darkly until now. The wait has made it even more delectable.
Bob Arctor is an undercover cop investigating the sale of a drug known as Substance D, a heavily addictive drug its users lovingly refer to as Death because the end result of long term use is always either the big D itself or a fugue state in which the user's basic motor functions and cognitive abilities are stripped away, leaving a husk of a person behind. To infiltrate the organization making this drug, Arctor has become addicted to Substance D and is living in a bacchanal of a drug pad with 3 other users and attempting to make time with his dealer, Donna Hawthorne. He reports back to his office under the pseudonym of "Fred" and wearing a scramble suit to anonymize his identity, because no one knows the extent to which the police department has been corrupted by the drug syndicate, which leads to his superiors deciding that the user Bob Arctor is worthy of deeper investigation as he seems to have access to larger amounts of money than a man of his background should have and many hours where he simply disappears without a trace (of course, these are the times when Arctor is checking in with the department as Fred).
So Arctor begins investigating himself in a move so biting it could have been culled from one of Kafka's nightmares. Sitting in a secret facility, reviewing hours and hours of surveillance tapes, and hearing all of the inane blather that only a house full of junkies can think is profound, Arctor's consciousness begins to fragment down the center until his cop persona Fred begins to suspect that Arctor is in business with some very shady people and becomes determined to bring him down.
It's always a relief to me when a book manages to live up to the expectations I have, especially when it's a read I've been looking forward to for a number of years. The dialogue was spot on, so many of the conversations between Arctor and his roommates, Barris and Luckman, seem as though they could have easily been taken from real life. Especially considering that at the time he was writing this, Dick had essentially opened up his home in Berkeley to the ever-shifting tide of drug users, political activists, and wanderers that were all moving through the Bay Area in the early 70s. The paranoia that is a hallmark of every Dick work reaches its pinnacle here as Arctor races against his own failing mind to collar his crook in time, who just happens to be himself.
This read ranks up there with Ubik, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch as one of Dick's finest. It is easily worthy of the praise which has been heaped upon it, and it was really nice to find proof that one of Dick's books had finally been adapted to film in a manner that did justice to the source material. The only disappointment I feel is that I no longer have this book to look forward to, though I am certain that I will return for a reread at least once or twice in the years to come.
Thus ends my Dick binge of 2012. I've made it through a good number of the author's books by this point and the only major work still remaining are his Exegesis books (VALIS, Radio Free Albemuth, and The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, which I will get to at some point down the road when my mind is on more firm ground than it is after devouring five reality-shifting books.(less)
It's a strange feeling when you think you have an author pegged and then they go ahead and publish something straight out of left field. It's like Mic...moreIt's a strange feeling when you think you have an author pegged and then they go ahead and publish something straight out of left field. It's like Michael Jordan playing baseball, Lou Reed making a record with Metallica, or Michael Bay directing a Victorian drama. It just seems odd, like you've awakened in a world that is not entirely yours any more. This was entirely my feeling for the first hundred pages or so of Dick's Now Wait for Last Year, the third entry in his Library of America collection Five Novels of the 1960s & 70s.
Now Wait for Last Year is set in a future in which humankind has somehow embroiled itself in a galactic war the likes of which would make the Kree-Skrull War seem like a minor dust-up. The people of Lilistar are genetic forebears of humanity, having seeded Earth with life millennia ago (think of the opening of Prometheus), so humanity has naturally sided with them in their ongoing conflict again the Reeg, a race of aliens who are only able to communicate to humans via small boxes. You would think that humans would know from our own history not to trust ourselves, but then logic has rarely been our strong suit. The war has not been going well for humanity, the Reegs are strong and the Lilistarmen have continually pushed us to increase our production for the war effort and make vague hints that they're more than willing to step in and "manage" their descendant's resources for them. All that is holding a complete takeover at bay is the Mole, UN Secretary General Gino Molinari, a hypochondriac with a 17 year-old mistress who uses his ailments as excuses to hold back the Lilistarmen from completing the "negotiations" that would cede control to these aliens.
Based on that premise alone, I would not think this is a Philip K. Dick book. It sounds more like something that Heinlein would have cranked out in one of his not-really-trying moments. In fact, the first half of the book embraces more of the elements of a political thriller than I've ever seen in a Dick work before. Fortunately, that's not all there is in these pages. Enter Dr. Eric Sweetscent, an organ replacement specialist called on by the Mole to assist him in keeping him just-this-side of death, and Kathy Sweetscent, his estranged wife who has just been hooked on JJ-180, a deadly addictive drug that shorts out its users neurological pathways but also allows the user to travel back and forth through time.
This is where things begin to return to the Dick we all know and love. Within no time Eric is slipped some JJ-180 and is in a race against time to find a cure to the addiction before he succumbs to the necrotizing effects of the drug. At the same time he is flung forward through time to several different alternate timelines, all of which offer various bleak scenarios for humanity's future enslavement and the future of his marriage. Can Sweetscent (such a good name) find the cure, save his marriage, and stop the Lilistar-men from taking over his planet?
This was a really captivating read. Once Sweetscent begins yo-yoing through the 4th dimension and we are treated to multiple alternate realities (including a great meeting with a future version of himself that is just filled with toxic self-loathing) and the sheer scope of the conspiracy begins to be illuminated, I really could not put the book down. Dick is truly a master of the time travel scenario, painting his scenes clearly, even when the reader is unaware just what may be going on. Most interestingly, though, are the latter pages of the book when the conflict with the aliens recedes into the background and Sweetscent focuses on saving his wife from the effects of her drug abuse and his marriage from the effects of his wife.
This book was written during an amphetamine-fueled streak of writing that saw Dick finish writing three other books at a time when his marriage to his second wife, Anne, was teetering on the brink of failure. Knowing this, it was especially heart-rending to read Sweetscent's musings as to whether it was even worth trying to save his wife, or whether both parties would be better off apart. It's a human touch that added a lot to my enjoyment of the story and further solidified my view of Dick as a tragic hero in his own works, a man struggling to understand his own world through creating fantastic escapist scenarios.(less)
Readers who only know of Hunter S. Thompson from his acid-washed hunt for the American Dream in one of this countries most deranged metropolitan waste...moreReaders who only know of Hunter S. Thompson from his acid-washed hunt for the American Dream in one of this countries most deranged metropolitan wastes will find a different sort of Hunter here. Given the man's talent for spectacle, pomposity and grand acts of destruction, it's easy for people to forget that before he was a legend, Hunter S. Thompson was a talented and capable journalist- one of those rare souls who was perfectly able to capture the flavor of the 60s zeitgeist, both its rapturous highs and its naive faith that a better world could simply be visualized into existence. Before his image became a caricature to be bandied about by everyone from Doonesbury's Gary Trudeau to Johnny Depp's recent ham-fisted offerings (I take no umbrage with Fear & Loathing, that was Gilliam at his greatest, but rather the execrable adaptation of The Rum Diaries and the animated spoof of Rango) Thompson offered up some truly great pieces of journalism.
The Great Shark Hunt collects many of these lesser known writings of Thompson's. There are some definite retreads of what has been widely available elsewhere- the entirety of Part II was culled primarily from his Fear & Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72, which is an interesting snapshot of life on the campaign trail with the underdog George McGovern campaign that somehow found itself the Democratic nominee despite the Dem establishment's fiercest protests and then fell apart with supreme gusto, allowing Nixon a landslide re-election. The closest example I can think of from recent elections is how close Howard Dean came to upsetting the staid Democratic platform before an unfortunate moment of exuberance caused the nomination to be handed to John "Do I Have A Pulse?" Kerry.
For the most part, however, much of this material was new to me and featured many fine gems. The book is worth reading if only for Thompson's magnificent reporting from his hometown in "The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent & Depraved," which recounts the author's first meeting with his long-time illustrator Ralph Steadman and their liquor-fueled romps during the pinnacle event of white Southern gentry's year. Most interesting for me, Part III features political reports sent North during 1963 while Thompson was covering events in ever-turbulent South America. With his characteristic sneer for all those who would use their power to enrich rather than help, Thompson issues communiques from Puerto Estrella, a lawless city of Colombian smugglers, reports on the Peruvian military's overthrow of the popularly elected APRA party in order to maintain the same 40 family's grip on the nation, and recounts a showdown between the Brazilian military and a Rio nightclub which ends with bullets spraying and grenades being lobbed onto the bustling dance floor all to teach the owner a lesson in respect. All throughout Thompson never fails to shine a critical eye on the American expats and businessmen who never fail to embrace the inherent racism of former colonial masters, despairing about Peruvians inability to realize that the gringos are only trying to help and refusing to realize that riding in on a white horse to save them is just a rebranding of the same paternalism that South Americans have been dealing with since the Conquistadors decided to save by slaughter.
This is by no means a must-read, and I definitely found myself lagging through many of the articles, but for anyone who enjoys Thompson's personal brand of biting rhetoric it is an amusing and informative look at the works of a man who was never afraid to say exactly what he was thinking at a given time and who never failed to be shocked and appalled by the perversion of his American Dream by moneyed interests playing upon a populace's fears. In an era that seems so eerily reminiscent of the times in which Thompson was at the top of his game, reading the words of a man who was always willing to voice his outrage is a useful reminder.(less)
Memory, as Proust has so eloquently recounted, is a tricky thing. What we remember of an event is tinted by our own life experiences, opportunities, f...moreMemory, as Proust has so eloquently recounted, is a tricky thing. What we remember of an event is tinted by our own life experiences, opportunities, failures, and in no small part the exigencies of a given situation. What I remember of, say, a car accident I was in when I was 16 could be entirely different from the recollection of the driver of the car I was in, not to mention the occupants of the car that hit us. When speaking of the memories of the addict, this tendency for amnesia-fueled historical rewrites can be exacerbated to Swiftian proportions. So when I first heard of Gunn's memoir, wherein he seeks to ferret out the truth from his own stack of misremembered nights, I was intrigued. The idea of a reporter returning to the scene the crime twenty years afterward to interview witnesses and chart his own descent was a conceit that very much appealed to me.
I can think of few books whose narrator I've loathed so absolutely and completely. From its opening pages, Carr lays himself bare to the reader, advising that he is not a good guy and that there is much in his past that can be found abhorrent. Don't worry, he reassures us readers, while he may have beaten more than a few women, he still pays penance and reemerges as the protagonist of his own story. He found salvation in the raising of his daughters and has concocted a redemption song that can make the most hard-hearted weep, so he hopes. I call bullshit. This book is the work of a self-aggrandizing narcissist who possesses both an unflinching honesty in recounting his addiction history but also no small measure of blindness as to how his own privileged position as a white male member of the press allowed him his many chances for self correction. Chances that are frittered away time and again in actions that would have sent a poorer person of color to prison for life.
This lack of a broader context left me seething on more than one occasion as I made my way through Carr's memoir. Most significantly is the pass he gives himself regarding his history of abusing women. While interviewing one of his former victims, they both laugh awkwardly at the memory he has of holding her arms over her head while beating her face in an "oh look what drugs made me do" moment that absolves him of any personal guilt in terrorizing a woman he purported to love. Additionally he attempts to indict the testimony of the only woman who does hold him responsible for his lies and violence by repeatedly pointing out that she was also an addict and that she, unlike the heroic narrator, never managed to get her act together and is still struggling to this day.
It took a while for me to pinpoint what rubbed me so raw about this book but I think that is it. That while purporting to be an honest narrative of his own descent and recovery, it is still constructed by an author that desires to be liked by his reader and so grants himself a pass to spin or softball some events I see as highly problematic. As far as addiction memoirs go, this is a well written attempt but about halfway through I came to the realization that David Foster Wallace has already said nearly everything that needs to be said about addiction and that everything else is just so much icing on the cake. There are better books out there dealing with this same difficult subject matter, Carr's is just not necessary.(less)
Highly overrated piece of fiction masquerading as a true story. Yet for all of Castaneda's insanity, some interesting bits. Not worthy of its cult sta...moreHighly overrated piece of fiction masquerading as a true story. Yet for all of Castaneda's insanity, some interesting bits. Not worthy of its cult status, however.(less)