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Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said by Philip K. DickUK edition4 stars
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Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsOnly Philip K. Dick could spin a parable about loneliness and disaffection with as much heart and wit as displayed in Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said. His themes here are familiar ones. A near future America — which, in this early ’70s narrative, means 1988 — that unsuccessfully tries to hide its cultural decay and social dysfunction behind empty celebrity worship and self-gratifying class boundaries. But the problem with living in a rigidly stratified society is that, when you’re radically removed from your accepted place in it, you effectively lose everything, including you.

Jason Taverner is a Leno-esque television host who takes no end of smug pride in his viewership of 30 million. He’s the top, he’s the Colosseum! And then it all, somehow, goes away. Quite literally overnight, he finds himself an unperson, awakening in a flophouse in the bad part of town with little more than the clothes on his back and the cash in his wallet. He tries to call his agent and lawyer, and even his girlfriend with whom he spent the previous night. They have no idea who he is. In short order, Jason learns to his horror that his hometown hasn’t even got a birth certificate for him on file. Jason Taverner does not exist.

DAW Books editionBut this doesn’t send him into a tailspin of despair or anything. Like any entitled person who’s enjoyed wealth and fame and is reluctant to let it go, Jason treats his situation like a setback to be resolved. His ensuing odyssey will lead him to encounters with denizens of a world he’s never seen, like a neurotic young woman who both provides fake IDs and acts as a police snitch to ensure the release of a boyfriend, who may not even be alive, from a forced labor camp. It will offer glimpses of his former life from a perspective he’s never had before. Throughout this strange and ingeniously imagined dreamscape, Dick returns to some of his favorite thematic concerns: the relationship between objective and subjective realities, and the undeniable human need for connection and companionship. Flow My Tears is mostly a story about subjectivity, and how one’s personal sense of the world can be affected by external influences (including, but not limited to, drugs) outside one’s control. I’m not entirely certain that Dick ever thought there was much distinction to be made between objective and subjective realities. Even though what’s happening to you may be all in your head, the point is that, while it’s happening, it’s real enough to you, and has to be dealt with as such.

The backstory reveals a frightening world that embodies the anxieties that would inform Dick’s growing sense of paranoia over the years: the notion of a surveillance society that monitors its citizens’ every move while keeping it docile and compliant through vapid entertainment, material reward, and drugs drugs drugs. The most disturbing facet of this novel’s future is its renewal of eugenics, exemplified by a political movement to “breed out” the black population in America. Dick is responding here in a very forthright way to the systemic racism that has always been at the bedrock of American society and continues to cause turmoil to this very day. When the policeman of the novel’s title experiences his epiphany at the climax, embracing a black man whom he has encountered randomly at a gas station, it’s as if Dick is trying to make amends for centuries of racial injustice in one weak but desperately earnest gesture. 

Politics aside, Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said is, in the end, a deeply humanist novel, which questions the roles life requires us to play, and the way in which those roles may in fact inhibit rather than enhance our growth and our ability to connect to each other meaningfully. It does get a bit maudlin toward the end, and Dick doesn’t always concern himself with strict logical continuity in his plotting either. (At the end of chapter one, it seems as if Jason’s loss of identity begins after an encounter with a disillusioned ingenue, who does something to him with what we’re told is some kind of alien parasite. But from that moment on, that explanation, and that character, are utterly abandoned by Dick.) But as always, a journey through the mind of Philip K. Dick offers a unique experience that will enrich your own perceptions of our world and move you in ways only the best fiction can. Dick’s characters’ tears flow for what they have lost. They remind us to hold fast to what we have.