This is part two of an eight part book/dissertation written by Aaron Barlow.Click here to read the other chapters.
Totalitarianism in the Family
In the third chapter of Philip K. Dick's Confessions of a Crap Artist: A Chronicle of Verified Scientific Fact, 1949-1959 (published in 1975, but written in 1959 and 1960), an unidentified man drives to a store, his young daughter beside him:
"What do we have to get at the store?" Elise chanted.
"Tampax," he said. "And your gum." He spoke with such fury that the baby turned to peer fearfully up at him.
"W-what?" she murmured, shrinking away to lean against the door.
"She's embarrassed to buy it," he said, "so I have to buy it for her. She makes me walk in and buy it." And he thought, I'm going to kill her. (14; ch. 3)
This rather terrifying passage comes on the heels of two opening chapters narrated by a much more benign, though rather peculiar, character named Jack Isidore, who, in a different from the passage above, also moves quickly from innocent thought to other things. In his case, they are bizarre, not dangerous. For example:
In high school I had some nice clothes, and that made it possible for me to step out and be popular. In particular I had one blue cashmere sweater that I wore for almost four years, until it got to smelling so bad the gym instructor made me throw it away. He had it in for me anyhow, because I never took a shower in gym. (7; ch. 2)
The pattern of these passageˇbanality followed by a twistˇis common to DickÝs fiction, and especially so to Jack's narrative. There appears to be little direction or purpose to his prose, making it difficult for some readers to swallow. All we have is a half-wit telling us about his unexceptional, though weird, life. Frustrating. Little of what he says clues us in to the direction the novel will take. Jack mentions his sister, Fay, and her husband, Charley Hume, but we get no hint that their household will become the center of this novel or that its themes will be misrepresentation and domestic domination.
Structurally, Confessions of a Crap Artist consists of first-person narratives by Jack and Fay and third-person narratives focusing on Charley and Nathan Anteil, a young married man who becomes Fay's lover. Jack, who opens and closes the novel, is the only character to have consecutive chapters devoted to him.
Though in his thirties, Jack has the mind of a pre-teen and is the "crap artist" of the title. He narrates chapters 1, 2, 7, 10, 12, 17, 18, and 20ˇalmost half of the novel. Fay, JackÝs sister and Charley's well-educated, sharp-tongued wife (based on Dick's third wife, Anne), narrates chapters 4, 6, and 15. The third-person narration focuses on Charley, whose successful business has brought him (as he sees it) up into the middle class, in chapters 3, 5, 8, 14, and 16. The narration focuses on Nathan, the good-looking student (and, perhaps, a stand-in for Phil Dick), in chapters 9, 11, 13, and 19. The novel takes us through the changes in the relationships of the three men with Fay and through the ones that develop between them, as well.
The lack of a cohesive over-view in the narrative emphasizes, perhaps for the first time within the structures of his fiction, what Dick saw as the superior importance of what he often identifies as the idios kosmos, the personal universe, as compared to the koinos kosmos, the shared "reality." No authorial "truth" exists in this novel. Not, at least, on first examination.
The outlooks of the characters, on life or on each other, differ in the extreme. As do their personalities. The older and embittered Charley sees little of the world in the way the younger and somewhat naive Nat might. Though siblings, Jack and Fay have almost nothing in commonˇshe is intelligent; after all, and he is stupid.
A single question dominates the novel: When can one be confident enough of one's view of the world to impose it on others? In DickÝs view, never. Three of the four main characters attempt to make the others live, or die, in ways consistent with their own personal visions. Fay does this by verbal intimidation, Charley by murder, and Jack by re-building an older, happier world. All three, finally, fail.
Before the end of the book, when Jack reaches an epiphany, recognizing that his own idea of the world is neither useful nor valid, no character is willing to consider that their views might be misleading, wrong, and dangerous. The extent of each one's illusion differs, however. Jack, at one extreme, is almost completely removed from any "consensus" reality and "sees" a world where the idea of the continent of Mu, for example, is a legitimate subject of scientific discourse, a world most different from that of the other characters. His analyses of individuals and their interactions tend to simplify complex emotional situations. Nat, on the other hand, seems rather more aware than any of the others of the implications of an individual's actions. Particularly, in his case, he is aware of the dangers of the complicated domestic situation he is getting into by becoming Fay's lover.
Though the climax of Confessions of a Crap Artist is built on Jack's mistaken belief in the imminent end of the world, this never becomes a novel of earth-shaking events. Instead, it remains the rather sordid story of four little people, one of whom, Fay, cannot keep from attempting to manipulate the lives of the others. Charley dies as a result. Nathan leaves his own wife to become a "pet" husband to Fay. And Jack learns to see himself for what he isˇa nut.
Dick here reduces his examinations of power to a four-person microcosm. After all, totalitarianism exists, he believed, as much on the personal level as it does in governments and large economic entities. By focusing solely on individuals, he is able to explore the dangers he saw without also considering the sometimes peripheral issues that force their way into discussion of these same problems in the macrocosm. Most of his other novels deal with the same issues, but within larger and more complicated political scenarios, though there, too, they are finally reduced to the small and personal.
In that store of the third chapter, Dick's unidentified Tampax buyer mulls strategy: "I can by a lot of stuff, he thought. Get a whole basketful and then they won't notice" (15; ch. 3). But, faced with nearly empty check-out counters, he backs down. Once again outside, he sees a bar across the street, goes in, and has three drinks, leaving his daughter alone in the pick-up truck.
Only here do we discover that this man is Charley, whom Jack has previously described as "a paunchy, beer-drinking ignorant mid-westerner who never got through high school" (10; ch. 2).
By refusing to specify the character at the beginning of this chapter, Dick nudges his readers toward viewing Charley as just an average fellow who happens to have a daughter named Elise, someone acting rather foolishly, and who has dangerous thoughts, but who can elicit sympathy, nonetheless. After all, he is trying to do what his wife wants, though his anger about doing so does seem unwarranted and overblown.
The opening of this chapter, as we have seen, presents a clear change from the narration of the preceding two, those narrated by the nutty Jack. It gives us a chance to evaluate Hume without filtering our opinions through Jack's obviously suspect vision. The prose is suddenly clear, direct, and punctuated with a great deal of conversation. We do not even know, until Hume's name is finally presented, that this new story has any direct connection with Jack.
This delayed naming marks the beginning of the second of a series of careful distancings of us readers from the novelÝs various narrators and characters. The first, of course, comes from the way Jack presents himself, undercutting himself with his own prose, destroying our ability to take even his innocuous statements seriously. Dick's distancing keeps us from identifying with any one character, keeps us removed enough to watch dispassionately, perhaps, the developing drama.
Hume, fortified by alcohol, manages to return to the store and buy the package of Tampaxˇalong with "a jar of smoked oysters, a favorite of Fay's" (17; ch 3). Back home, he presents his gift, and then the Tampax:
"Thanks," she said, accepting it from him. As she took the box he drew back, and, hearing himself give a gasp, he hit her in the chest. She flew backwards, away from him, dropping the bottle of smoked oysters; at that he ran at herˇshe was sliding down against the side of the table, knocking the lamp off as she tried to catch herselfˇand hit her again. (18; ch. 3)
Obviously, something is seriously wrong here. Charley, cannot decide how to react to his wife, Fay, to love her or to hate her. On one hand, he still cares enough about her to want to win her approval by giving her a gift. On the other, he resents even that he can still care for a woman who humiliates him. Frustrated by his inability to come to terms with his own feelings, he lashes out at her without forethought, surprising himself as much as her, matching his desire to please her with his need to hurt her.
In the previous chapter Jack has described what he knows of this tumultuous relationship:
Of course, he and Fay had been quarreling a lot, as usual, and that may have had something to do with it. When he got mad he had no control over the language he used, and Fay has always been the same wayˇnot merely using gutter words, but in the indiscriminate choice of insults, harping on each other's weak points and saying anything that might hurt, whether true or notˇin other words, saying anything, and very loud, so that their two children got quite an earful. (9-10; ch. 2)
Even Jack, never married and not the most astute observer of other people's situations, can see that things are not what they should be in the Hume household.
Later in the novel, after recovering from a heart attack, Charley does try to do what he has often thought about: murdering Fay. First, however, he kills all of the animals they have carefully nurtured at their rural home. Soon, his wife returns to the house:
"Oh," she said, almost with delight; her face shone. "I seeˇyou shot them." . . .
"You motherfucker," she said. "You daughterfucker. You fatherfucker. You turdface. You shithead. Youˇ" She went on steadily, never taking her eyes from him. (132; ch. 16)
At the same time, she retreats slowly from Charley, though he has left his gun in the house and she knows it.
Why? he asked himself again as he slipped a little on the wet slope. And then he realized why. The children and the Silvas stood in the land behind the Silvas' house, watching. Four people. . . . He understood. She wants them to see. God, he thought. She's making them see me. She'll never run, never get away; she wants me to keep on, keep on. . . .
"God damn you," he yelled at her.
She smiled her quick, reflexive smile. (133; ch. 16)
Utterly humiliated, Charley goes back to the house where he finds the gun and turns it on himself. As he pulls the trigger he "saw how she had moved him. Put him up to this" (133; ch. 16).
The commentary, even though presented in the third person, is Charley's. That much has been established through the variety of viewpoints and their associations within the narrative. By this time, also, Fay's credibility has been reduced enough, and Charley's has grown enough, so that we suspect that Charley may have something of a point.
This incident, the heart of the novel, illustrates one of Dick's central themes: the individual, any individual, naturally buffeted by external forces, has little chance of gaining control over the situations he or she falls into. We cannot make our worlds; we can only live in themˇor opt out. Unfortunately, however, most of us try to do more than that. As we cannot control our worlds, Dick might say, we try to control the others in them.
The four characters represent varying aspects of four types of power, according to one model, used in human interaction: Paternalism, or Infantilizing; Transactional; Punitive; and Coercive (Barlow, 20-23). Dick rarely directly identifies his characters with such power types, and, when he does, he points out only those who are, to him, totalitariansˇpeople, that is, who fit into the Coercive category. Still, though he himself may never have made his character patterns explicit, the pattern of Confessions of a Crap Artist, like that of a number of other of Dick's novels, does follow this form.
The Paternalist or Infantilizer gives things to others on the hope of a return, as Jack does, at the novel's end: "I give you this, expecting you to do what I would like in the future." The person utilizing a Transactional approach expects a trade-off: "I will do this for you if you do that for me." Nathan would like to live this way. The Punitive person responds to those who have "wronged" him or her with punishment. "You have hurt me, so I will hurt you in return." Charley tries this. And the Coercive person will stop an action painful to another if that other does what the Totalitarian wants. "Promise to do what I ask, and I will stop your pain." Fay is a Coercive type.
As a great deal of Dick criticism has shown, it is quite easy to present Dick's fiction in terms of oppositions, especially four-point oppositions. Fredric Jameson, for example, uses a square, though one quite different from the one I use here, to show the tensions and oppositions of Dr. Bloodmoney.
A simple linear, or one-dimensional, opposition never could satisfy Dick. Good-against-bad or black-against-white never contains his topics. At the very least, the patterns of opposition he presents are triangular, moving the model into the second-dimension and the narrative into presentation of more complex relationships. More often, as in Confessions of a Crap Artist, the pattern appears as a square, increasing by half the significant relationships or oppositions of each main character.
Starting with The Man in the High Castle, the squares Dick used become three-dimensional, more than doubling possible relationships and making the number of potential alignments almost impossible to consider. Later still, a fourth-dimension of sorts, that of the reader/writer relationship, is added to Dick's model.
Even the three-dimensional cube, however, can be reduced to a number of two-dimensional squares and triangles, as anyone familiar with Orgami, as Dick surely was, knows. Even these squares, in much of Dick's work, will fit the four-point formula of Paternalism, Transactionalism, Punitivism, and Coercivism. Power and its uses, after all, are at the heart of most of what he wrote.
The four-dimensional cube? Well, even it can fit the model, with the reader sitting in the Transactional seat ("I'll buy/read your book if you present me with a reading experience I will enjoy"). The author will probably be a Paternalist ("I give you this book, so you had better buy my next"). Coercion and Punishment, for the most part, act within the book.
Dick provides specific sequences of comment and action designed to show the weaknesses and even the strengths of each character in light of their methodology of power. He rarely condemns anyone for the choice of power politics they make. The initial presentation of Charley in Confessions of a Crap Artist, for example, shows him in a negative light, as a man who uses his physical power when another does something he does not like. Yet Charley, like most who use the Punitive approach, does prove to have a positive side. He becomes his brother-in-law's protector, among other things, even including him in his will. And Jack needs such protection.
Charley will be good to people, as long as they do not cross him. Jack never has crossed him, never would.
Jack's words, and not his actions, show how untrustworthy he is, keeping us from readily accepting anything he saysˇabout the world, himself, or the other characters. But we also learn that he means well, that he wants othersˇeven the readerˇto like him. In the opening chapters, Jack establishes himself as a "bad" writer and a poor evaluator of the world around him. He tells us that, being how we are made primarily out of water, the "problem for us is that not only do we have to walk around without being absorbed by the ground but that we also have to earn our livings" (1; ch. 1) and that "World War Two began on December 7, 1941" (1; ch. 1). Nonsense followed by triviaˇ"crap," as Charley calls it. Jack, believing he acts ironically, chooses Charley's designation for Jack as the title of his narrative. And Dick, not the most astute observer of the publishing business of the time, chose Jack's own name as his pseudonym when first submitting the novel. Not surprisingly, it was rejected.
Jack has a hard time differentiating between types of information. Unable to sort significance from triviality, he is, as Dick later said:
the most idiotic protagonist, ignorant and without common sense, a walking symposium of nitwit beliefs and opinions. . . an outcast from our society, a totally marginal man who sees everything from the outside only and hence must guess as to what's going on. (Confessions of a Crap Artist viii; Introduction)
He talks like a compilation from popular magazines, cheap encyclopedias, and junior-high papers, saying such thing as "To me. . . the library has been important in forming my education and convictions" (5; ch. 2). Fair enough, though most Americans heard it in seventh grade, but Jack goes on to describe what he does at the library, again undercutting an initially harmless statement: he says he looks for the ads in photography magazines, the ones where "if you send in the dollar . . . [you get] something different from what you see in even the best magazines, like Playboy or Esquire" (5; ch. 2), such as the picture:
in which one girl was lying down on the floor, wearing a black lace bra and black stockings and French heels, and this other girl was mopping her all over with a mop from a bucket of suds. That held my attention for months. (5-6; ch. 2)
Not exactly the stuff of education and conviction. But typical of Jack.
Jack's nutty but benign personality partially masks his role as an exemplar of the Paternalistic or Infantilizing type of power player. Most often, we expect more cunning from the Paternalist and look for ulterior motives behind the offerings. But a "pure" example of the type would operate as Jack does, giving only because he wants to be liked. In this way, the Paternalist is more naive than other types of players, though the desire for manipulation remains as strong.
Though Jack is the hero of Confessions of a Crap Artist, few of Dick's other heros fit the Paternalist mold. Generally, his Paternalists are second only to his Coercivists in the danger they present. Gino Molinari, in Now Wait for Last Year, has taken on his responsibilities as the head of Earth's government to do his best for his people because, he thinks, they will then give him respect and love. Though, later, he heroically keeps Earth from disaster, his own paternalistic (and naiveˇagain, that common trait of the Paternalist) actions have led to the situation he finds himself in.
One important aspect of the Paternalist is that he or she often brings out the most infantile behavior in others. As Jack does in his sister.
Fay, however, sounds, at least, rational and incisive when she comes to narrate. So much so that the reader is tempted to take her as the one character who can honestly view and relate the unfolding situation. Still, Dick has previously presented her, through Jack's opening narration and through the focus on Charley that precedes her first chapter, as an extremely egocentric woman with little patience for what she sees as the foibles of those around her. We are unable to accept the orientation she presents with her own words as the one to follow as we read.
Still, Fay does confirm what we have seen of the others, especially Jack. When she and Charley collect Jack to take him up to their house to liveˇso he can be taken care ofˇFay explodes at her brother:
"You know what you are?" I said. "You're the most ignorant, inept individual on the face of the globe. In my entire life I've never seen anyone with such rubbish in their head. How do you manage to stay alive at all? How the hell did you get born into my family? There never were any nuts before you." (25; ch. 4)
Her words reflect exactly the image of Jack that has so far been builtˇby his own words. Yet her reaction is childish.
Fay's desire for control is accented in the second "Charley" chapter, in which she sees Nathan and Gwen Anteil for the first time:
"I have to know them," she said. "I think I'll get out and go ask them to come up to the house and have a martini." She started to open the car door. "Aren't they beautiful?" she said. "Like something out of Nietzsche." Her face had become remorseless; she would not let them get away, and he saw her keeping her eyes on them, not losing sight of them. She had them in view; she had located them. (31; ch. 5)
Dick might have added that she had already taken control of themˇin her own mind, at least. Her mention of Nietzsche accents her viewˇshe believes she knows the world and can take from it what she will.
When Fay narrates, the prose is straight-forward, clear, and economical, though somewhat slangy. She talks in dates, names, and places, as her first narrated sentence shows:
In the spring of 1958 my older brother Jack, who was living in Seville, California, and was then thirty-three, stole a can of chocolate-covered ants from a supermarket and was caught by the store manager and turned over to police. (22; ch. 4)
Fay prides herself on her rigorous, intelligent mind. By trying to be honest and reportorial, however, she does give glimpses of the darker side of her character, showing her Coercive side. After Charley has talked her into accepting his plan to bring Jack, whose ridiculous action has finally made clear the fact that he needs supervision, to live with them, she recounts that "Charley did the actual work [of loading Jack's belongings]; I sat in the front seat of the car reading." (26; ch. 4) She never lifts a hand to help another.
Later, disgusted by Jack's acceptance of what she and we see as nonsenseˇfew of us, certainly, are any more willing to accept predicted dates for the end of the world than is Fayˇshe contemplates the junk that her brother had collected, that Charley had packed and brought up to their house without her help. Junk sitting in a room she never used, hurting her not in the least. Soon, she manages to transfer her anger at her brother's stupidity to those things he has so carefully collected:
Getting madder and madder, I threw it all together into the cardboard carton we had intended to use as a cage for the girls' guinea pig. Taking hold of one end, I dragged it out the back door of his room, and onto the field and over to the incinerator. And then I did something that at the time I knew was wrong. Getting the gallon jug of white gas which we used with the roto-tiller, I poured gas onto the carton, and, with my cigarette lighter, ignited it. In ten minutes the whole thing was nothing but glowing embers. Except for his collection of rocks, the whole thing had been burned up, and I for one was relieved. Now that I had done it I ceased feeling regret; I was glad. (123; ch. 15)
She describes even her own childish action with care, showing that she understands exactly what she has done by destroying her brother's cherished "junk."
Never feeling guilt, never looking at the other side, and extremely intelligent, Fay is almost the archetypal Totalitarian character. When she wants someone to do something, she makes them so miserable for not doing it that they eventually cave in and do what she wants. Fay is recognizable in most of the central women characters of Dick's novels, up to and including, to some degree, Angel Archer in The Transmigration of Timothy Archer. Dick, with reason, has been accused of harboring sexist attitudes; his women, certainly, are rarely nice people.
Nathan, the character we get to know least, is the last to be the focus of a chapter. A nice young man, a student, he appears particularly malleableˇespecially once Fay has gotten hold of him. As he goes to her house alone for the first timeˇat her requestˇhe thinks, "I shouldn't be doing this" (65; ch. 9), but makes no move to stop what he has intuited will be the start of a rather bad situation. Fay soonˇand quite clearlyˇpropositions him:
He said, "Are you propositioning me?"
"No," she said. "Of course not. You propositioned me. Don't you remember?" She said it with absolute conviction. "Isn't that why you came over? Good god, I wouldn't dare let you into the house. That's why I'm driving you back." (68; ch. 9)
In spite of his recognition of the dangers of getting to know her, Nathan calls Fay the next day. He suffers further verbal abuse (her way of establishing domination over him) then agrees to a rendezvous. His life, though he does not yet admit it, is now controlled by Fay.
Nathan is suffering the fate of most Transactional players. Honest himself, he discounts what he knows to be the manipulative qualities of others, expecting them to operate as he does. Perhaps thinking he can change people by example (the most benign form of manipulation possible), he is more easily manipulable even than Jack.
Nat, as I mention above, is based in part on Philip Dick himself. Fay is an even closer depiction of his third wife, Anne. Dick left Anne when he could no longer stand the control she had over him. The reason for the gentle, distant treatment of Nat in Confessions of a Crap Artist may simply be that Dick saw too much of himself in him, and did not want to criticize him too harshly for foolish actions that mirror Dick's own. It may also be, however, that Nat tries the Transactional approachˇand never rises above it, as Dick himself never manages to do.
There is at least one thing beyond power that is of central interest to Dick. And that is the possibility that one might do something for another without any expectation of return. Not a fifth corner of the model, this is something completely outside. Though never appearing in Confessions of a Crap Artist, the "best" characters of the novels that follow act for none of the reasons the four-fold formula I present provides.
As Dick himself would doˇif he couldˇthese characters have stepped outside interactive patterns of action. The child Manfred Steiner, for example, in Martian Time-Slip, cannot even communicate with those around him. Manfred and those like himˇthough most of them have more contact with the "real" world than heˇdo not consider others. They act because they want to. Not for any response. Somehow or another, they have escaped the scheme, the model, that ensnares even Dick and, in his view, his readers.
Though each of the four main characters of Confessions of a Crap Artist has qualities differentiating each from the others and making them familiar to most Americans, Isidore, I suspect, for all his nonsense, seems a little too real. He cannot be acceptedˇand distancedˇmerely as an idiot. Instead, he reminds us of the friend, cousin, brother who embarrasses us before our more sophisticated friends. When we laugh at Isidore, we are laughing at something somehow related to our own lives. Through Jack, Dick adds an aspect to his novel beyond its central considerations of power, making Jack much more than a failed Paternalist.
Jack ends up with our sympathy. We cheer him at the end, even though his actions never have much of an impact on the putative plot. Oddly, we have learned to respect him, though, as Charles Platt says, he is:
an anal-obsessive mystical crackpot, a devout believer in the psuedo-science he reads in pulp magazines, a bumbling psychic who thinks he has an inside tip on the date of the Day of Judgement, a screwball who, in Dick's words, is "Totally fucked up." (Platt, Introduction to The Zap Gun, ix)
Jack's weaknesses cannot be over-stressed. Dick says, "I liked Jack Isidore (the perceptive idiot) as a character" (In His Own Words 145) for Jack rises above his nuttinessˇyet remains completely what he was before, a marginal being. At the novelÝs end, he sees the world with a clarity no other character, not even Fay, manages. But, finally, he can never change, never really do anything with this sight. Still, he will make it, will survive somehow, perhaps because of that. In a letter quoted in Paul William's Introduction to Confessions of a Crap Artist, Dick comments:
In reading the novel over now, I am amazed to find that. . . Jack. . . is no dummy. . . .
Jack has insight into himself and the world around him to an enormous degree. . . . From a purely survival standpoint, maybe he willˇand ought toˇmake it. Maybe... he is one of God's favored fools. . . .
I am pleased at my inner model, my alter self, Jack Isidore of Seville, California: more selfless than I am, more kind, and in a deep deep way a better man. (viii-x)
Nobody in the bookˇafter all, they are all caught up in their own quests for powerˇever recognizes Jack's heroic qualities. Still, he remains, even before his final revelation, the only person presented who really cares about others, or who acts on that belief:
In the end, it seems that Isidore's condition is preferable, for although he is all kinds of a fool, he is gentle and tries as hard as he can to do what he knows is right. And he, at least, does knowˇthough practically everything else he things he knows is false. (Stableford )
That, to Dick, is all one can do, attempt what one knows is right.
Even though, as in Jack's case, the actions are not always appropriate. While his brother-in-law is in the hospital recovering from his heart attack, Jack, wanting to please him, presents reports to Charley on the situation at homeˇin what he considers a scientific and clinical manner:
On this particular occasion, I referred to my notebook to get my facts in order, and then I said, "Your wife is beginning to become involved with Nathan Anteil in extramarital relationships."
I had intended to go on, but Charley stopped me. (70-71; ch. 10)
Charley, though he would rather not hear about them, really does not care about his wife's infidelities. Nor, now, does he hide his growing desire to kill Fay, a desire that had come rather strongly to him immediately before the heart attack. Right and wrong have disappeared from his life. He has joined his wife in egocentric drive to control the world. The last thing he wants, at this point, is information extraneous to his purpose, information of the sort Jack presents. For Charley has made up his mind.
Charley, seeing no reason to hide his determination, tells Nathan Anteil of his intentions when Nathan comes to visit him at the hospital:
Nathan said, "Suppose we break up. Suppose I stop seeing her."
"That doesn't make any difference. This has got nothing to do with you. I like you; I have nothing against you. What do I care if she wants to go roll in the hay with you? She doesn't mean anything to me. She's just a lousy shit of a woman that I happen to be married to that I've got a lot against. . . . " (113; ch. 14)
Nathan, always willing to make a deal, as any Transactional person is, propositions Charley. But Charley will not listen. Like Fay often does, Charley has come to center on his goal to the expense of all other considerations, even to the extent of ignoring what others, what society, might think of what he wants to do. Unlike Fay, however, his goal is punishment, not gain. And, again unlike his wife, he fails to achieve his purpose.
The Totalitarian, after all, succeeds more often than does the manipulator of the Punitive type.
At the end of the novel, Jack waits for the "day of judgement" he had come to believe in through contact with a local group of "flying saucer" nuts. He has spent the money he received through Charley's will by restoring the animals to the Hume residence, matching those Charley has killed:
My reasoning was that I wanted everything set up the way it was supposed to be. It seemed to me that there was a very good chance that on April twenty-third Charley Hume would come back to life. Of course, this was not a certainty. The future never is. Anyhow, I felt this increased the chances. (167-168; ch. 20)
Even though Charley is dead, Jack wants to please him.
Later, the date for the end of the world comes and goes, and Jack admits that he "was never so disconcerted in my entire life" (169; ch. 20). Later still, he tries to think seriously about his situation:
Not only had Charley Hume not returned to life but the world had not come to an end, and I realized that a long time ago Charley was right in what he said about me; namely, that I was a crap artist. All the facts that I had learned were just so much crap.
I realized, sitting there, that I was a nut.
What a thing to realize. All those years wasted. I saw it as clearly as hell; all that business about the Sargasso Sea, and Lost Atlantis, and flying saucers and people coming out of the inner part of the earthˇit was just a lot of crap. (169-170; ch. 20)
Jack's last line, and the last of the book, sums up what he has learned: "it seems pretty evident that my judgement is not of the best" (171; ch. 20).
Through the death of his brother-in-law, through the futile concern he has for others, and through the denial of his expectations, Jack learns that he has failed as an interactive member of the human race, learns that, in terms of ability to negotiate everyday life, he is a fool, an idiot. But he has come to see his limitationsˇpossibly bringing about a start toward becoming someone who can be a positive force in the lives of others. He has the possibility, if not the likelihood, of changeˇunlike Nathan, who can see what will probably happen to Fay, but who refuses to face his own situation:
He thought, She could bring about everything that she wants and still be wretched. Out of this I could emerge as the prosperous one, the peaceful one. And neither of us can possibly know. (166; ch. 19)
An optimist, Nathan cannot see what has happened to him, that he has become just one more of Fay's victims, and opts out of considering the possibilities with a cheap denial of the possibility of knowledge. He achieves nothing of the dignity Jack finds, Jack, who realizes his own situation exactly and thus opts out of any further playing in power politics. Nathan, though he has come to love her, sees Fay realistically enoughˇbut the blinders around his own being remain.
Jack's rather even-keeled realization of his lack of sense reflects a comment made by Michael Tolley about Dick's characters in general: rarely are they surprised by surprises. They make a quick readjustment and carry on, rationally or obsessively as the case may be ("Beyond the Enigma: Dick's Questors" 210).
What Jack has done, what the favored characters in many of the other novels do, is learn that individual belief has limited value. That striving for a "political" success vis-a-vis others has little worth. Still, the character will continue to live, to strive toward a personal success. When belief fails the individual's world need not be destroyed, just re-adjusted. When power fails, those not committed to it will shrug, and continue on.
Like Jack, the other Dick characters who bumble through what seem to them to be incomprehensible worlds do learn something, even though what they have learned (generally that the sort of power most people aspire to makes nothing better) may have no impact at all on their own livesˇor may affect it negatively. Never would a favored Dick character say, as Benny Profane does at the end of Thomas Pynchon's V., "No, ... offhand I'd say I haven't learned a goddamn thing" (454). Yet, though he does finally understand himself, Jack cannot stop being the idiot he is. What we learn does not change us. At best, it only changes how we react to the world.
In what Dick might call "a very real sense" (he liked such phrases), Jack has torn the mask from his own existence. The image he has seen in the mirror, the image he had tried to present to the reader, has been destroyed. For the first time, he faces the "real" Jack: an idiot. Thereby, his perception of the "real" world becomes much greater than that of many smarter people. Now knowing himself, he no longer has reason for trying to impress a false personal vision on others.
Charley, the common man with common Punitive tendencies, has been destroyed by the mask he sees on Fay, created and ratified by himself, though Fay helped. Her image of what he should be certainly controlled their relationship. He saw neither enough of himself nor of others to do more than react violently to situations that had become too much for him to bear.
Nathan too, though he does not yet know it, exists now only as a mask Fay has created so that her world might live up to her expectations. He has, at least, ceded his self-image to her.
Only Fay, the Coercive person, the most dangerous of all of the characters for her ability to get them to believe in the masks others wear, lives without an obvious mask, without overtly basing her life in response to the masks others create. Unlike the others, also, Fay will not accept the masks others present. She knows just what she is, and just how she affects others. And she cannot imagine her life without others to manipulate.
With her husband in the hospital, nearly killed by a heart attack, she has to find another lover, another man she can bend to her will, thereby verifying her own existence. She knows it, makes no bones about it. She seems to have convinced herself that Nathan has propositioned herˇnot the other way aroundˇbut that is for his benefit. He will feel somehow responsible for the situation, thus will be more comfortable within it.
When Dick talks about masks, he rarely mentions those who make them, concentrating instead on those who wear them, those who see them. But his fiction contains a number of mask makers, Coercivists like Fay, who creates masks for her husband and lover. These are the people who convince others to live within a conception of the world quite different from that the others would have either chosen or viewed on their own. These are the Fascists, though they may not have the overt political philosophy Fascism normally represents.
Though not the first of the type, Fay is the archetype for many of the women in Dick's fiction, many of whom, like Fay, force people to operate within frameworks unnatural to those people, many of whom represent the worst of the Totalitarian personality. As Kim Stanley Robinson, in The Novels of Philip K. Dick, points out:
Dick has said that he modeled his female characters on the two main characters from Thackeray's Vanity Fair: Becky Sharp and Amelia. The Becky Sharps are ambitious, manipulative, attractive, and dangerous to the men who are attracted to them. (5)
Fay, who manipulates Charley so easily, who draws in Nathan to replace him, has all the characteristics of a Becky, at all times. She destroys the prior lives of two men (Nat Anteil had been happily married until she came into his life) to satisfy her own desires. She will not let her man, whoever it is, be what he would like to be, but tries to make him live up to her vision of what he should be, thereby making him miserable. Charley was happy with what he was doing, with the way he lived, but Fay could not let him continue on that way. Nothing was wrong with Nathan's marriageˇuntil Fay stepped into it.
The characters who do this to people in Dick's novels are certainly not always women. The women are only representatives of a type, the type of person who would mask impressions of others with their own needs then demand that the others act in accordance with those masks. The Totalitarian, the Coercivist. Like the manipulative Fascist, Fay and those like her can exist without any fictional formulation of her own personality, for they, and she, put the masks on others, not on themselves.
Those who purposely wear masks wear them to fool others. An evil mask most likely covers a benign visageˇotherwise, why the mask? Just so, a benign mask covers an evil face. These particular masks, though, are straightforward in their deceit, for the wearer has chosen them. The ones behind them are more trustworthy than those, like FayÝs victims, who have masks forced on them.
Significantly, Jackˇwho never has been able to recognize the masks presented to him for what they are, but who finally sees through the mask he, himself wearsˇis the brother of Fay, who has no reason to wear a mask herself, having placed them on others, having convinced those others (for the most partˇfor Charley, finally sees through it) to look at her through the mirrors that are the masks she has created for them, rather than at her. These siblings are the two ends of the spectrum of characters found in Dick's novels: Jack, at one end, learns to see people as they are. Fay, at the other, never lets them be other than her own personal expectations. Those like Jack learn that interpersonal relationships contain an element of chaos, of unpredictablity. Those like Fay insist on confining others by their expectations, forcing them to conform to a pattern.
When Isidore re-appears as a peripheral character (both in terms of his life and the novel) in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) he no longer has a Charley to look after him or a Fay to make him look like an idiot. Yet the later Isidore, too, feels the importance of interpersonal relationships and acts on themˇeven though the "people" this later Isidore protects turn out to be androids, machines masked as humans. And, again, he is finally oblivious to the mask, accepting what he sees at face value.
The new Isidore, however, has less of the Paternalistic aspect of the original. Though he does want to please people, he approaches situations more as Nathan would, as a believer in Transactionalism. Lonely, he wants friendship, and will trade assistance for it.
Still, because the later Isidore faces a situation much more dire and ambiguous than that of the earlier manifestation of the character, a look at him can shed light on the Jack of Confessions of a Crap Artist.
This later Isidore is a "chickenhead," someone whose mental faculties are deteriorating, who therefore cannot leave Earth to join the masses in their attempt to build a new human society elsewhere. He must remain amongst the refuse others have made ofˇand onˇthe home planet.
Dick says that he found the original Isidore to be an important character. The later Isidore, though not so central to a novel (his main purpose is to provide a distorted Transactional mirror image of the protagonist, Punisher Rick Deckard), reflects more clearly Dick's vision of how one should face the worldˇeven if one lacks the tools for successful manipulation of it. He is Jack, but a Jack who has learned that whatever progress he has made is illusoryˇthat he becomes stupider instead, not more able to deal with his situation. He takes over where the original Jack leaves off, but without the optimism finally present in Confessions of a Crap Artist.
When first shown, this Isidore, John R., already knows that he operates at diminished capacity, recognizing himself as a lonely cast-off from human society, just as, perhaps, the original might be forced to after the end of the action shown in Confessions of a Crap Artist.
In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Dick describes the newer Isidore's situation:
He lived alone in this deteriorating, blind building of a thousand uninhabited apartments, which like all its counterparts, fell, day by day, into greater entropic ruin. Eventually everything within the building would merge, would be faceless and identical, mere pudding-like kipple piled to the ceiling of each apartment. And, after that, the uncared-for building itself would settle into shapelessness, buried under the ubiquity of dust. By then, naturally, he himself would be dead.... (17; ch. 2)
Later, this Isidore, who has stumbled across the apartment where a group of fugitive androids hides, explains to one of them what he means by "kipple":
"Kipple is useless objects, like junk mail or match folders after you use the last match or gum wrappers or yesterday's homeopape. When nobody's around, kipple reproduces itself. For instance, if you go to bed leaving any kipple around your apartment, when you wake up the next morning there's twice as much of it. It always gets more and more." (57; ch. 6)
Kipple is the outward sign of entropic movement. Isidore's world seems headed that way, Isidore, getting stupider and older, with it.
But Isidore, like his earlier incarnation, likes and cares about people, animals, and thingsˇeven spider-killing androids in a world where almost all animals, like most everything else, have died. The masks, the way they present themselves, do not, ultimately, concern him. At the end of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, he refuses to tell android-killer Deckard (androids are considered a danger on Earth by the authorities) where the "evil" creations are hiding. Deckard does not seem to be offering enough of an exchange, to be offering an appropriate transaction. Deckard appears to Isidore as a threatening force, someone operating on a Punitive basisˇas he is, of course.
Deckard, who does not see how he appears, reacts initially with disgust. Immediately afterwards, however, having been brought to a point of confusion over 'appearance' by prior events in the novel, he reconsiders: "The chickenhead knows they're androids; he knew it already, before I told him. But he doesn't understand. On the other hand, who does? Do I? Did I?" (194; ch. 19) Oblivious of masks and personal power politics, Isidore helps Deckard toward further consideration of his own attitude. He is, perhaps, one of the best of those Dick's character's who base their interactions with others on a Transactional ideal.
Though merely a chickenhead, Isidore has already realized what Deckard only now is learning: it matters little what something is. What it does, what it believesˇeven the fact that it isˇthese are the central facts governing our relationships. And negotiations with others must recognize that.
Lacking the culpabilities of other charactersˇdue to their limited brain-powerˇthe two Isidores combine to provide an exemplar for all of Dick's "good" characters. They do not let their worlds mold them, but manage to rise above mere temporal events and even above their own serious limitations, achieving a kind of understanding of their places in the world. Though others consider them only as marginal beings, their complete and serious consideration for othersˇeven animals and androidsˇmakes them more actually and consistently human (in the best Transactional sense of that term) than all but a few of Dick's characters.
Totalitarianism From Both Ends
Bob Arctor, a narcotics agent and drug addict in A Scanner Darkly (1977), does not start out as a marginal being like the Isidores. Nor does he seem at all interested in Transactionalism. Yet he ends up being destroyed, made much more marginal than they, so that the source of a drug can be found, making him, more than either of the Isidores, a man willing to make personal a trade-off for the good of others.
By the last pages of the novel, Arctor is the Isidore-type taken to its furthest extreme, a being with absolutely no ability to negotiate the world, yet one who can still care for those considered "friends," one who wants to be liked though almost everything else in his personality has been destroyed.
Though the presentation of Arctor's story lacks the fragmented narrative structure of Confessions of a Crap Artist, A Scanner Darkly provides readers with a world no more encapsulated in a singular or personal vision than the world of Confessions of a Crap Artist. This time, however, Dick uses the distortions brought about by drug use and an anecdotal narrative formula to paint a picture showing the limitations of individual being and perception. The failing struggles of Bob/"Fred"/Bruce, the drug user/narcotics agent/destroyed ex-addict, show a world that can never be trusted, where people never are what they seem, where what one thinks may be occurring may not be happening at all. Where what one remembers may not be what one has done. Everything is or can be a deception, either imposed from without or self-made, a maskˇone constructed, primarily, through drugs.
The title of A Scanner Darkly is probably a combination of "through a glass darkly" from First Corinthians and the title of Cordwainer Smith's classic science fiction short story "Scanners Live in Vain." Smith's "scanners" are men "turned off" mechanically from all emotionˇso they can protect space ships. Both Dick's "scanner," Arctor, who uses electronic devices to scanˇthat isˇto watch, and Smith's scanners both end up as cast-offs from the societies they "protect." Used up and left behind.
A Scanner Darkly grew from Dick's own experiences with the drug culture in the early seventies. The language, the slang, that is, comes from that time, as do, Dick says, many of the incidents. His "Author's Note" at the end explains:
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. . . . Drug misuse is not a disease, it is a decision, like the decision to step out in front of a moving car. . . .
This novel is about more people than I knew personally. Some we all read about in the newspapers. . . . [But] I loved them all. (221-222)
Significantly, Dick does not discuss the overt polemical nature of his work until after the body of the novel. First and foremost, A Scanner Darkly is a part of Dick's continuing consideration of the meaning of the individual and individual action within an illusory world. The characters are not meant to be taken as examples or stereotypes, but are to be approached as unique individuals, though fictional ones. None of them falls easily into categories, as do those of Confessions of a Crap Artist.
Dick provides no character for reader sympathy and identification, here, something he had consistently done since writing Confessions of a Crap Artist fourteen years and twenty-five novels earlier. Arctor, the main character, is both a drug user and a narcotics agent, both unpleasant roles to most American readers. As a drug user, he gives up individual responsibility within the world. As a narcotics agent, he acts, disguising his "real" nature, toward Punitive results. To make matters worse, the mask he wears over his being as a "narc" is also his "real" face. Arctor likes the life of the drug cultureˇuntil it begins to destroy him, that is. The novel is the chronicle of Arctor's destruction.
Though the characters of A Scanner Darkly live in a drug culture removed from the lives of most readers both by time (its setting is 1994, twenty years in the future at the time of composition) and lifestyle, the implications of the book stretch far beyond the types of lives presented. Though drugs have amplified the problems and delusions the characters face, these are different only in degree from problems and delusions in the lives of "normal" people.
Arctor has to chose between his friends and his societyˇand cannot. He is also a victim of forces, both good and bad, that he can neither comprehend nor control. His problem, like Jack Isidore's, like our own, is to find a way to negotiate a world he can only grasp in the smallest way. Before he finally succumbs to "slow death," he faces a situation, brought on by viewing a film of his own prior activities, where what he believes is directly contradicted by what he sees. Something like this can happen to any of us, though rarely as dramatically as in Arctor's case.
As the novel opens, Dick presents an illusion brought about by drug addictionˇas if the illusion were "real":
Once a guy stood all day shaking bugs from his hair. The doctor told him there were no bugs in his hair. After he had taken a shower for eight hours, standing under hot water hour after hour suffering the pain of the bugs, he got out and dried himself, and he still had bugs in his hair; in fact, he had bugs all over him. A month later he had bugs in his lungs. (5; ch. 1)
The authorities soon take this "guy," Jerry Fabin, away to a hospital. Not only because of the supposed bugs, but because Jerry has come to believe (on no legitimate basis) that a three-foot-tall legless man on a cart is coming after him, to murder himˇcuriously, something that can "actually" happen in a Dick novel (as it does in Dr. Bloodmoney, where Hoppy Harrington, a three-foot-tall legless and armless man on a cart, kills). Perhaps Fabin has been reading Philip K. Dick, and has taken the novels too much to heart.
That may not be as far-fetched as it seems. In two novels, Radio Free Albemuth and VALIS, Phil Dick himself appears as a characterˇand various Dick novels are discussed. Dick could be using Fabin's fantasy to ground the slightly science fiction world of the novel in our "real" world, where Philip K. Dick books are read, where they could, conceivably, spark a fantasy. He may be commenting offhand on what he sees as the power of fiction, a power he now wishes to use in an anti-drug crusade.
Fabin's illusion is a warning to the reader: Whatever their reality, the bugs are an important factor in his existence. If we cannot accept this, we will have trouble negotiating the rest of the novel. For much of what happens in the book has the exact epistemological status of Fabin's bugs.
Still, Dick gives us enough information to evaluate the situation from another point of view, from outside of Fabin's own vision of the world. A doctor, a prima facia authority, finds no bugs. And the changing nature of the bugs fits no pattern we know from our own experiences. Thus, though the bugs are presented as fact, we are not drawn into belief in themˇunlike Charles Freck, another character, who fell into Fabin's illusion, who:
" . . . was up two nights and two days counting bugs. Counting them and putting them in bottles. And finally when we crashed and got up and got ready the next morning to put the bottles in the car, to take to the doctor to show him, there was nothing in the bottles. Empty." (17; ch. 1)
Fabin's paranoia eventually causes his incarceration, proving its truth, after a fashion. And he is being deliberately killed, after his initial cooperation (taking the drug), by those who manufacture Substance D, known to its users as "slow death."
Fabin's story throws us directly into the milieu of disintegration permeating the novel. Though the situations surrounding drug use are unnecessaryˇthey could be avoided with avoidance of drugsˇDick presents them without judgement. What someone believes his or her world to be deserves some respect. Even if, like Fabin, they do not understand just what they have gotten into or see that they are losing their ability to deal with the world they live in.
By opening with the Fabin story, Dick also provides an encapsulated view of what will happen in the main story he presents in the novel, a story to which Jerry himself is relatively unimportant. Jerry has already reached the point toward which Arctor heads. His destruction, comic though it may be, is intended to make the later comedy in and of the lives of the other drug users appear as something much greater than mere gallows humor. Because it starts the novel and quickly presents Jerry's mental end, the destructive nature of drug use cannot later be forgotten or laughed off.
Unlike Jack Isidore, who struggles, and fails, toward understanding of his world (though he reaches understanding of himself), the characters of A Scanner Darkly have accepted their slide toward oblivion. By the time the book opens, most have nearly reached the point where they cannot effectively deal with the world around them. Though they may once have been competent, they have retreated into Isidore-esque relations with their environment. And each is perilously close to Fabin's fate.
No longer are the events of their lives kept in perspective. No longer can they judge the things happening around them.
An incident retold in A Scanner Darkly tells how a woman bought a stamp from a stamp machine:
" ... and the machine went dingey and just cranking out stamps.... Well, that was cool, except what was Donna Hawthorne going to do with them? She never wrote a letter in her life, except to her lawyer to sue some guy who burned her in a dope deal." (107; ch. 8)
So, what does she do? She steals the stamp machine, and sets it up in front of her house, with the stamps re-installed, ready to collect the money at the end of the day.
One of the people hearing the story, a drug addict named Barris who could care less about the government, who has probably never paid taxes, reacts in anger:
"That girl is disturbed. She should be forcibly committed. Do you realize that all our taxes were raised by her stealing those stamps?" He sounded very angry again.
"Write the government and tell them," Luckman said, his face cold with distaste for Barris. "Ask Donna for a stamp to mail it; she'll sell you one."
"At full price," Barris said, equally mad. (108; ch. 8)
Through this comedic situation framed by anger, Dick here shows just how little of Barris and Luckman's ability to discriminate remains. Both should see the humor of the situation. Each would do what Donna had done. But they allow their vision to be clouded by frustration at the world they live in. The humor has gone out of their lives, replaced by desire to punish one who has done what they cannot do.
A final joke on them is that, unknown to them, Donna is a government agentˇa narc. Barris and Luckman are reacting to nothing but a mask, an illusion.
Early in the novel, Arctor, in his "scramble suit" (which keeps anyone from identifying the person within), tries to give a talk about the drug problem to a civic organization. He makes a mess of the talk, for he sees the audience too much as a member of the drug culture would. He can no longer separate his two worlds to the degree required for relating to his audience. At one point, he tells them that, seeing him without the suit, they would think of him as just another doper. Later, as he wanders around town, trying to come to terms with the experience, he thinks:
You put on a bishop's robe and miter, he pondered, and walk around in that, and people bow and genuflect and like that, and try to kiss your ring, if not your ass, and pretty soon you're a bishop. So to speak. What is identity? he asked himself. Where does the act end? Nobody knows. (25; ch. 2)
Immediately afterwards, he ruminates on the situation of an undercover agent when faced with a beat cop, one who does not know that the man he is facing is also a cop. The agent must act like a doper, must accept the abuse, even though he may, himself, have once been a beat cop. "What am I actually? he asked himself." (26; ch. 2) This becomes one of the core questions of the book, as it often does in Dick, for it is the question many of his characters ask when faced with chaotic worlds. The reality of the self goes hand in hand with the reality of the world. Just as perceptions of the self intertwine with perceptions of the world.
The question, of course, is also the one Jack Isidore finally directly confronts at the end of Confessions of a Crap Artist. Fortunately for Isidore, he finds an answer, though a painful one. Unfortunately for Arctor, no answer ever comes. Yet Isidore, for all that he has found an answer, accomplishes nothing through it. Arctor, on the other hand, accomplishes something concrete by secreting in his shoe one of the flowers from which slow death comes. Though it is of no use to him any longer and teaches him nothing, he will get it to the authorities who are using his destruction for their own ends.
One of the problems for Arctor is that of any agent, if he or she would be effective, who must spy on friends:
If you had to spy on and report about someone, it might as well be people you'd see anyhow: that was less suspicious and less of a drag. And if you did not see them frequently before you began surveillance, you would have to eventually anyhow; it worked out the same in the end. (28; ch. 2)
Arctor, two things, two people, an addict and a narc, must be the one to be effective as the other. He has to like the life as the one, and the other. Yet they are incompatible.
Still, the effective falsehood has as much truth in it as possible. So Arctor has to be both.
The problem comes to a head when Arctor, as "Fred," the agent whose identity is unknown to his superiors, is told to concentrate his undercover activities on Arctor. He must spy on himself: "He felt totally spaced out from all this; he wished the debriefing session would end and he thought: If only I could drop a couple tabsˇ" (51; ch. 4). Unable, momentarily, to cope with his life as a narc, he wishes himself back into his life as a drug addict.
But Arctor does spy on himself, and discovers that heˇalreadyˇhas been acting against himself, though without conscious knowledge of what he has done. That is, he has been sabotaging his own lifeˇperhaps the most ultimate of paranoid situations. The films from cameras he, as "Fred," has set up inside his house show him ruining his own belongingsˇthough the cameras, too, are suspect, for they also seem to have recorded hallucinations. "Slow death" has driven a wedge between the parts of his schizoid being, making him totally unaware of what he, himself, is up to.
Late in the novel, "Fred"/Arctor becomes a third person, a reconstructed but minimal personality called "Bruce," a burned-out drug addict living in a supposed rehabilitation center, suspected to be a part of the network supplying "slow death" to those still under its influence. He has been sacrificed so that the authorities can, through him, get at the source of the drug. Two narcs discuss the situation:
Donna said, "I think, really, there is nothing more terrible than the sacrifice of someone or something, a living thing, without its ever knowing. If it knew. If it understood and volunteered. Butˇ" She gestured. "He doesn't know; he never did know. He didn't volunteerˇ"
"Sure he did. It was his job."
"He had no idea, and he hasn't any idea now, because now he hasn't any ideas. You know that as well as I do. And he never again in his life, as long as he lives, have any ideas. Only reflexes. And this didn't happen accidentally; it was supposed to happen.... " (205; ch. 14)
They are banking on Bruce's reflexes to get them information about the source of "slow death." Only a truly destroyed person can penetrate the organization surrounding the drug. Bruce can and does, finally being put to work harvesting the strange plant from which "slow death" is made. They hope that enough remains within Bruce of Arctor to remember that he had promised something:
Stooping down, Bruce picked one of the stubbled blue plants, then placed it in his right shoe, slipping it down out of sight. A present for my friends, he thought, and looking forward inside his mind where no one could see, to Thanksgiving. (220; ch. 17)
So ends the bookˇon a strangely hopeful note for what is left of Arctor. That Thanksgiving will be the next time Bruce will be allowed to see his friends the narcs is, of course, rather poignant, a sad little irony for him, yet an idea of hope for the world around him.
Arctor, with his two lives, has been caught up in a power struggle between two great forces, both of which have taken to totalitarian methods. One is the "legal" establishment which sacrifices one of its agents. The other is the mysterious group supplying the drug, which has trapped him, through the drug, into becoming one of its minions
Confessions of a Crap Artist and A Scanner Darkly give us the pathetic and then make it somehow heroic. More heroic, somehow, than those existential strugglers of Samuel Beckett and Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. who keep going on in the face of meaninglessness. For both Arctor and Isidore manage to rise above mere meaninglessness, the first in order to make a contribution to his fellows, the second to understand his relationship with his world. These characters have learned that they interact with others, and have made decisions based on the power politics they see around them. The decision destroys Arctor. What its implications are for Isidore we are only left to guess.
Isidore and Arctor face their worlds with handicaps, complicating their attempts to negotiate their worlds. Isidore lacks the ability to integrate and judge the information he receives. Arctor, though a narcotics agent, is addicted to a drug that makes him schizophrenic even as it kills him. Though few of Dick's other characters live on the fringe of society, as these two do, Isidore and Arctor, perhaps because of their positions, present most clearly the problems all of them face.
Can involvement in the power politics of the world make one better or happier? No, the novels suggest, through these characters, their actions, and the results of what they do. Is what we are a sufficient justification for human existence? Yes, if Isidore and Arctor can be considered as human exemplars, though their state may be demeaned. Though lacking the potentialities of most of us, they still manage to reach out to help others. To Dick, that is the justification of existence.
Though people, like Isidore and Arctor, as he finally appears, can overcome the limitations of their livesˇimplying that all of us, though our limitations are less, can do the sameˇwhat can we do when faced with limitations from the other extreme? With those not within us, but placed upon us?
Human perception, even for the best of us, is circumscribed by our senses and the limitation of individuality. We are, therefore, easy prey to those who would deceive us, those who use our limitations to make us believe in something other than the "reality" we are "meant" to live in. How can we deal with this possibility?
This, of course, is the other side of the coin that landed, forgiving Dick's authority, making Isidore and Arctor less able than most of us. Their limits are parts of their personalities. Other limits, and deceptions, can exist as well.
Isidore and Arctor rise above themselves. Can other humans, those at full human potential, do the same? Can they see their own limitations and operate in light of them? Or will they accept the masks placed around them and look at the world from their own conceits, the idea that they, if no one else, sees things as they "really" are?