Tricky Dick

By PETER KEOUGH  |  July 28, 2008

When drugs aren’t messing with one’s sense of time in Dick’s universe, they’re subverting the sense of self. Substance D — or “Death,” as it’s known on the street in Dick’s quasi-autobiographical 1977 novel A Scanner Darkly — has the effect of splitting consciousness, so one persona doesn’t know what the other is doing. A mixed blessing for undercover cop Bob Arctor, a/k/a “Fred,” who in the course of his work has gotten hooked on the drug and whose latest assignment is investigating himself. Perhaps his most tragic and moving work (translated into an animated feature with aching fidelity by Richard Linklater), Scanner shows Dick moving from Borges-like paradoxes to the hellish, drug-fueled surreality of William Burroughs. It is also the last of his novels to make sense; it would be followed by the revelatory solipsism and psychotic mysticism of his Valis series.

Should conditions conducive to a Dick revival return — and they always do — plenty of material remains for movie adaptations and Library of America anthologies. He wrote 30 short stories in 1952 alone, and probably not even he could have said how many novels he wrote. (Thirty-six is a conservative estimate.) Yet even the relatively small (2000 pages) sampling Lethem has given us in these two volumes can get a little repetitious, though the writing remains fevered, startling, and hilarious. The same motifs keep popping up: drugs, psychiatrists, dead people, petty capitalism, orbiting disc jockeys, tacky artifacts. And, underlying it all, Dick’s trademark high concept: taking what it means to be human beyond what any human can understand.

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