Saturday, June 9, 2012

Review of "Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said" by Philip K. Dick

Adhering to the nature of its title, Philip K. Dick’s 1974 Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said is a cipher.  Events unfolding in typical Dick fashion, which is to say in a way that actively propels the plot into the unknown, one irreconcilable event after another, the resulting story creates suspense effectively but at the expense of inter-connectivity.  So many concepts come to underlie the dynamic paranoia that the novel ends up suffering an identity crisis of its own.  

Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said begins with the story of variety show host Jason Taverner and his attempts to re-place himself within the context of a reality he was once positive of existing within.  Waking up from a most obtuse and bizarre murder attempt—death by cuddle sponge—Taverner quickly finds things are not as they were.  Colleagues, lovers, and business partners he once knew intimately do not recall his face or even his name.  The setting strongly Orwellian, pols and nats (police and nationalists) patrol the streets, controlling checkpoints, and taking those without proper ID away to work camps, causing Taverner to have trouble leaving even the run-down hotel he’s awoken in.  An underground of sorts exists, and it is with their help he sets out in search of his identity.

Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said is not one of Dick’s focused efforts.  Taverner’s troubles related in acute and sympathetic detail, the story starts strong as readers quickly develop a relationship with the protagonist.  Slowly but surely, however, things unravel.  More and more characters are introduced, and a river delta of storylines forms.  Some occupy significant stage time only to be discarded abruptly.  Still others hold little of the spotlight, but later play an important role in the overall outcome.  By spreading events in such random fashion, the reader loses track of the story’s purpose and plot direction.  One character, police chief Buckman, is in particular poorly drawn but unfortunately a major player.  One moment kind and logical, the next a deranged lunatic, he closes out the novel as the main character, meek as a lamb, and in late night stranger-hugging mode.  From the attentive outset to the narrative delta of an ending, Dick’s inability to focus the narrative really hurts the novel, leaving readers to wonder: what’s the point?

But plot can be argued.  Dick’s writing style, however, cannot.  Famous for often producing bad prose, the novel is a prime example why.  Sentence structure abominable, at no time is a rhythm established to settle into.  Dick switches randomly between internal monologue, 3rd person narrative, and almost a fourth wall form of address.  As a result, the action scenes are blunted, and worse yet, the moments of emotion that are supposed to affect the reader lose impact in the jumbled mess of text spilled across the page.  The titular tears are the result of syntax rather than character empathy.

Unfortunately, there is a another major issue with the book that must be addressed: the reveal. Without spoiling things, suffice to say the manner in which Dick explains Taverner’s identity problems not only heavily contrasts the mood of the novel, but likewise does not fit the reality underpinning the setting as a whole.  The reader’s willingness to suspend their disbelief is really tested.  Ursula Le Guin in The Lathe of Heaven would later take Dick’s idea, modify it slightly, and apply it in a style allegorical rather than mimetic.  Throughout her story readers are fully aware that Le Guin’s book is a thought experiment and ignore the larger portent.  With his inclusion of so many “real” aspects of society, including celebrity-ism, 1984-ish government induced paranoia, and child molestation, things only become more confused when the source of Taverner’s troubles is revealed.  Satire, allegory, social commentary, personal musing—none know Dick’s intentions, probably not even the author himself, creating a confused narrative in the process.

That being said, the social ills Dick portrays are one of the few strong points of the novel.  There are strong indications that he was attempting to use the darker side of being a celebrity to elucidate his own ideas concerning multiple identities.  This, and a few moments when the narrative congeals into emotive locution are the only positives of the novel.

In the end, Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said is not one of Dick’s stronger efforts.  From the alien murder “device” in the book’s opening pages to the conspiracy theory reveal, the inclusion of sex with 12 year olds to genetically modified humans, late-night stranger hugging to celebrity-ism, Orwellian tyranny to philosophizing on love, jumbled prose to character development, nothing about the book seems to fit within an identifiable umbrella concept.  Thus, the book is not a good starting place for a peek at Dick’s strengths as a writer and is in fact recommended only for fans forgiving of his faults.  How the book won an award is based on something I don't understand.


  1. Bullshit, it's a magnum opus. He has his own style. Read it again, it grows on you.

  2. good synopsis. I had "read" this on audible after completing Ubiq, which I felt was much more a magnum opus. I think I liked flow my tears more than you sounded to have, but I agree with many of your points. The ending fell short as Buckman was synthetically emotional. In usual fashion, he blurred reality. I wasn't enamored with the explanation of how the events unfolded by the coroner. He probably shouldn't have tried to explain. I also wasn't crazy about the epilogue. It felt rushed and unnecessary. If you have further recommendations for those books he did write that were stronger, please let me know

    1. Apologies for the laaaaaaate reply. Before I answer your question, be aware I have not read Dick's ouevre. The following novels, however, are the best of his I've read.

      The Man in the High Castle
      A Scanner Darkly
      Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
      The Martian Time-Slip
      The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch


  3. Well Dick are not Kafka... But this novel (his "come back"), and his Der Process, are are a piece of master = masterpiece!

  4. I tend to agree that this isn't PKD's strongest effort and surely shouldn't have been the title to win an award. Time Out of Joint and A Scanner Darkly are by far my favorite of his.

    Regarding Flow My Tears, the fact that your review seems to totally skip over Buckman's "marriage" to his sister seems odd. You saw him as kind and logical, but he was never either of those things. He has married his sister and produced a son with her, while seeming to hate everything about her, while loving her more than anything all at the same time. He's shipped his son off across the country to save himself the embarrassment.

    1. Thanks for stopping by! Apologies ahead of time for being pedantic, but I didn't say Buckman was kind and logical. I said his character shifted, sometimes it was kind and logical and sometimes a deranged lunatic. Marrying one's sister I hope qualifies as 'deranged'. :)

      I have yet to read Time Out of Joint. If it's somewhere in the neighborhood of A Scanner Darkly in terms of quality, I'll take that as a recommendation. :)

  5. Thank you for the Frank review. I was enjoying this novel up until the last part when I thought the ending was weak and confused - which is why I wanted to read someone else's opinion to check I hadn't missed the point! I agree, there wasn't one