Stuart's Reviews > A Scanner Darkly

A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick
Rate this book
Clear rating

's review

really liked it
bookshelves: literature, magic-realism-reality-as-illusion, new-wave-sf, fantastic-weird
Read 2 times. Last read November 16, 2015 to November 19, 2015.

The weird and trippy 1970s drug scene in California ala PKD
Originally posted at Fantasy Literature
If you were choosing any Hollywood actor to narrate an audiobook of PKD about dope users in Southern California in the early 1970s, who would you choose? Random House Audio got Paul Giamatti to read A Scanner Darkly, and who could better? I tried to distill the vibe of the book in the following passage I assembled on my own. Imagine him reading it if you will:

Hey man, it’s not easy for a doper trying to score and get high in a world of chickenshit straights with their dead-end jobs, not to mention narcs trying to bust you. You’d rather light up with some mellow heads and foxy chicks dropping tabs, grooving to acid rock, talking about random shit endlessly, and rolling joints. Once you flash onto this, man, and roll a fantasy number in your head, you’ll be fine unless you run into some psychotic paranoids with a grudge out to kill your buzz. Or even worse, you might get hooked on Substance D and your two brain hemispheres might split into Bob Arctor, doper extraordinaire, and Phil, undercover DEA agent. Things get even more messed up when you do surveillance on…yourself. It’s enough to drag even the most hip cat down.

A Scanner Darkly is a deeply personal fictional depiction of PKD’s early 1970s living in Marin County (setting changed to Southern California in the book) with a bunch of stoners in a big house after his fourth wife Nancy left him. There are moments of hilarity (mainly centered on two crazy housemates named Barris and Luckman, played brilliantly by Robert Downey Jr. and Woody Harrelson in the Richard Linklater film version), tragedy, pure horror, and then long stretches where stoners just ramble on about random stuff.

Bob Arctor is a minor drug dealer and user living in Anaheim with a few other dopers who spend their days trying to score dope, hash, mushrooms, and other chemical substances. Most don’t seem to have any gainful employment except Bob’s friend Donna, who is a dealer of psychedelic drug Substance D, aka Death. But unknown to them, Bob is also Fred, an undercover DEA agent assigned to spy on the house and track down the suppliers of Substance D. The problem is, the drug also causes the two hemispheres of the brain to bifurcate until the user has two separate personalities that are unaware of each other. And since all narcs use scramble suits to disguise their identities, the DEA doesn’t know that Fred is also Bob Arctor. Bob himself doesn’t recognize the situation, but suspects something is strange.

Eventually Phil’s surveillance collapses after watching hours of himself and his roommates. His handlers discover his drug addiction and send him to the New Path rehab facility for drug addicts, but this is also loosely based on some real-life experiences of PKD. The story suddenly turns into One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest as Bob becomes a brain-fried mental patient trapped in the facility, and an elaborate conspiracy is revealed, but this feels forced and not consistent with the main story of Bob Arctor and his stoner friends living their self-destructive, carefree and tragic lives.

Since this is so autobiographical, you might wonder why it needs to be SF. In fact, PDK felt it would be hard to market it as a mainstream novel, so his editor at Ballantine Books helped him add SF elements, particularly the scramble suits that are integral to preserving the deception of Bob/Phil’s split personas. Of note, the inspiration for the scramble suits is explained as an accidental discovery by an employee of Bell Laboratories that was experimenting with “disinhibiting substances” and experienced “a disastrous drop in the GABA fluid of his brain”. This caused him to see an ultra-rapid series of modern abstract paintings from a Leningrad art museum projected on the wall of his bedroom via “lurid phosphene activity”. This is actually a real hallucination that PKD experienced in 1974 as part of his religious interactions with VALIS. But I digress.

The language is pure 1970s hippie/stoner/counterculture slang, and the world he depicts is pretty close to what I imagine 1970s Southern California was like. And herein lies a problem. If you’ve never been a part of this subculture, these stoner conversations are just as ridiculous as the real versions they were based on. And while literature exposes readers to all kinds of unfamiliar worlds, this one can get fairly tedious at times. The junkie mentality is perfectly depicted in its total fixation on getting the next fix at any cost, and there is no hesitation to steal, betray, or even stand by idly as your other junkie friends choke on a piece of food, die from overdoses, or go through painful withdrawals. But for us straights who aren’t hip to the stoner life, you may have trouble feeling sympathy.

In fact, the most powerful message is the afterword dedicated to all PKD’s friends who have suffered from their drug use, resulting in “death, permanent psychosis, and brain damage.” As he states clearly, “"some people were punished entirely too much for what they did," and "drug misuse is not a disease, it is a decision, like the decision to move out in front of a moving car." This was rampant in the 1960s and 1970s and sadly still persists to this day, as depicted in drama series like The Wire and Breaking Bad.

The 2006 movie version is directed by Richard Linklater, an indie filmmaker from Austin, Texas. It stars Keanu Reeves (Bob Arctor/Fred), Woody Harrelson (Ernie Luckman), Robert Downey Jr. (James Barris), and Winona Rider (Donna Hawthorne). It is done in digital Rotoscope, a process which animates live-action film footage, creating a unique look to the film (the earlier non-digital rotoscoping technique was used for A-ha’s classic 1985 video “Take on Me”, Ralph Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings and Wizards, and parts of 1982’s Heavy Metal. Considering the mind-altered states of the characters in the film, it is the perfect visual medium to depict their slippery grasp of reality. It makes each scene fresh and interesting to look at, and yet all the actors are unmistakably themselves. The casting of Harrelson and Downey are absolutely spot-on as Bob’s totally paranoid and ridiculous junkie roommates, and the bug-eyed looks and uncontrolled body ticks of Rory Cochrane (Charles Freck) are hilarious and scary.

Having read the book before watching the film, I felt like all of the best scenes of the book were picked up for the film while the some overlong stoned conversations ended up on the cutting room floor. My favorite scenes in the book were done to perfection, like Freck getting pulled over, the discovery of the still-lit joint, the stolen mountain bike, the home-made silencer, and the clowning around of Luckman and Barris were brilliantly captured by Downey and Harrelson (I wonder, did PKD write the parts just for them, seeing into the future?).

The screenplay (also by Richard Linklater) also interspersed more hints of the New Path rehab clinic earlier in the film to make the final part of the film more cohesive than in the book. It also made a crucial change in the real identity of one of the main characters (no spoiler from me, don’t worry), which made the ending more believable perhaps. And Keanu Reeves? Well, most people lambaste him for his wooden, emotionless delivery, but who better to play a conflicted, schizophrenic undercover cop and heavy drug user. He is perfect in the role. Another important decision was to modernize the language so it doesn’t sound like 1970s hippie slang, and still preserve the tone and intent of the author. I even think I detected the distinctive red stripe of a Costco superstore when they were driving along the highway. Far out, dude.
30 likes · flag

Sign into Goodreads to see if any of your friends have read A Scanner Darkly.
Sign In »

Reading Progress

Finished Reading
April 3, 2013 – Shelved
April 4, 2013 – Shelved as: literature
May 30, 2013 – Shelved as: magic-realism-reality-as-illusion
June 1, 2013 – Shelved as: new-wave-sf
April 12, 2014 – Shelved as: fantastic-weird
April 16, 2014 –
page 145
November 16, 2015 – Started Reading
November 19, 2015 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-8 of 8 (8 new)

dateDown arrow    newest »

Penny I didn't realise this was partly autobiographical! Now I have to bump it up my to-read list.

I really enjoyed the film when I watched it many years ago. I thought the digital Rotoscope visual was very well suited to the story.

I always get annoyed when people say that Keanu Reeves is a bad actor. I think he's very under-rated. I have lots of fun now that we all have the internet at our fingers all the time just listing his best films and watching people go "Hmmm, I didn't realise how many brilliant films he's been in". My apologies for the slightly off topic rant :P

Stuart Yes, A Scanner Darkly was a deeply personal book for PKD (see the Wikipedia entry), and I'm midway through his exegesis VALIS right now, where he really dives off the deep end in his exploration of homoplasmates, Logos, hyperuniverses, cosmogony, deranged creator deities, pink laser beams of pure information, salvation, pain, death and entropy, told as the story of alter-ego Horselover Fat and narrated by a SF writer named...Philip K Dick. Drugs don't begin to explain how this bizarre exploration of existence and reality (or maya as the case may be) came into being...

Stuart Brad, this review will be getting a major revamp soon, so stay tuned~

aPriL does feral sometimes PKD wrote of a culture I grew up in. He has it nailed. I escaped it because of two lucky circumstances: 1. I apparentally do not have an addictive personality or gene set; 2. Since I was a cowardly wimp, I learned instead how to fake taking drugs to avoid being attacked as a 'Narc' or ostracized.

message 5: by Stuart (last edited Nov 25, 2016 06:13PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Stuart So he hit it on the nail then? That's good and scary at the same time. Did you see the Richard Linklater rotoscope movie version. I thought it was spot-on, especially casting Keanu Reaves, Woody Harrelson, and Robert Downey Jr.

aPriL does feral sometimes No, I did not see the movie, but I plan to!

If it is the generic experience of drug culture, and not the one that PKD embroiders, we are talking about:

Beat/Hippie/baby-boomer youth rebellion has been incredibly romanticized and bent out of shape. It also was in fact, truly an awesome amazing social liberation and helped a lot of YA break out of shells. The snake in the garden was the sad event of getting addicted to drugs and alcohol, and excessive extended indulgence. It didn't help that some pushers (friends!) lied about what drugs were and what they did that they gave away for free for awhile until demanding money later, or what they intentionally snuck into food and then let you drive off unaware you were about to lose reality.

Most people with previous, even undiagnosed, mental disorders cracked open permanently like Humpty Dumpty and went on to be way more insane than they had been, but some confused unhappy unfulfilled kids became wildly successful and creative from the ideas that came from their delusions under the influence - but there was no way to tell how drugs would affect anyone, and certainly no way to make sure every 'trip' or indulgence would be like the previous one. Pets and babies sometimes died or were hurt by kids thinking they were behaving within boundaries.

I can't help lecturing people sometimes. I'm annoying on this subject to YA, mostly, and a bore to my peers. But the truth of it is drugs are a two-edged sword. If you have a family of addicts on both parental sides, it is better to fake indulging at parties or stick to water.

But - the most fun I ever had on the fourth of July in 60+ years, for instance, was the one where I was almost dead drunk with other near dead-drunk friends (no family members attended) during a firework display which was taking place directly over my head. I laid down on grass (lawn) to see it, and it was at the Seattle Center in the middle of Seattle. Most of us were drunk and high as far as I could see, most of us being young adults. I lived within a ten-minute walk of the Center. The Center never did that again because they got sued and fined when a firework came down into the crowd and killed a girl. The authorities were firing off the rockets directly overhead of us! I didn't know a death happened until the next day. But being honest, I have never had such a fun Fourth before or since - my first non-family one.

However, one of the friends I was with went on to being a destroyed alcoholic. Another ended up in prison for dealing, which, at least, I was completely ignorant of.

Stuart Yeah, it's dangerous to glorify drug use (including alcohol) the way many movies and TV dramas often do. PKD said it poignantly at the end of this book:

This has been a novel about some people who were punished entirely too much for what they did. They wanted to have a good time, but they were like children playing in the street; they could not see one after another of them being killed - run over, maimed, destroyed - but they continued to play anyhow.

I just finished Lawrence Sutin's biography of PKD, Divine Invasions, so I know a lot more about his chaotic, paranoid and depression-filled personal life and how it shaped his writing.

aPriL does feral sometimes I will put Sutin's book on my TBR stack.

back to top