Because several of his books sparkle with incandescent genius, I will read pretty much anything by Philip K. Dick and do eventually want to read everything by him. The latest addition to that pleasure in my life is his novel Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said. If I had to get literary critical about it and rate the book as a reading experience, my conscience would demand the admission that for me the book was thin in terms of commanding my attention with either plot or character development and something unusual happens in the first chapter that never integrates much later, leaving a puzzling non sequitur where a denouement ought to come. That said, I still feel great love for the book and its camp satire of celebrity worship.
Written over 40 years ago, the book rings more true today than ever. Its world is an advance vision of ours. The main character is a TV and music celebrity whose success is defined by how many million audience members he has, not unlike racking up “views” on YouTube or “likes” on Facebook and Instagram. Quantified popularity makes the man, or breaks him. But the only ones who get a shot at it in the first place have a revealing common trait: they are good looking. Dick basically calls out the heavy social bias for attractiveness and the privileges it provides in terms of access to wealth and luxurious lifestyle. Good-looking people are superior members of society and everyone worships and fawns over them. Witnessing this treatment as a fiction really brings home that in real life it isn’t one.
The book also plays with the idea that its privileged class is a political experiment gone wrong, as if by karmic necessity. Celebrities are part of a genetic engineering cycle in its sixth phase: “an elite group, bred out of aristocratic prior circles to set and maintain the mores of the world, who had in practice drizzled off into nothingness because they could not stand one another.” Apparently if you are fed with a silver spoon, that good luck makes others like you too repugnant to bear, as if Dick is noting the narcissistic pitfalls of popularity. That the original aim for his celebrity class was to set the moral compass of the world, an aspiration now lost and inoperative, makes for a rich point of reflection on the influence of celebrity in ours. At the very least, the book helps to open our eyes by holding this mirror before them.
Days later, the book has an afterglow for me that makes me grateful to have spent time with it, as if it taught me about life. How strange and fundamentally senseless it really is that my culture worships good looks, that good looks give you chances at a life other people can’t often aspire to, that attaining such a life puts you in the public eye, where inevitably you have direct and indirect influence on cultural norms and mores, despite lacking real qualifications to. The situation is alternately laughable, preposterous, and pathetic. The book stirred me to get in touch with those responses to the craziness in the world around me and I feel the better for deeper contact with them. I reflected on my own longing to be beautiful by societal standards and how I too worship those who most clearly are. I looked at that tendency as a projective response, whereby people live that longing vicariously through celebrities.
That said, the best advice in the book lands for me with a disquieting irony as a result, because the main character offers it, himself a celebrity: “If you’re afraid, you don’t commit yourself to life completely; fear makes you always, always hold something back.” On the other hand, unrecognized longing for perfection makes you do the opposite: project it onto others as false idols.