Review – Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Jason Taverner has it all, a popular singer and highly rated television host, he’s riding high on public popularity. Until one day, he wakes up and discovers no one knows who he is or remembers his TV show or albums. He has become an ‘invisible’ man. Trying to establish what happened, Taverner runs afoul of the police, and the titular Policeman.
PROS: Strong on the alternate reality/true reality/paranoia angle. Decently realized future police state. Well done characters.
CONS: Some clunky writing. Rather preachy in parts. A few anachronisms were jarring.
BOTTOM LINE: A decent effort from PKD, with an ending that, while it may seem abrupt, stays with you.
I’m not exactly sure how to review this book properly. I found that being written in the early 1970’s may have robbed Flow My Tears of some of its emotional impact and shock value. Not because the book is poorly written, but because many of the themes explored here have been written about extensively in the intervening years and the future he posits, while it may not exist in toto today, is certainly one that is easily imagined, whereas in 1974, it may have been difficult to believe. That said, its still quite a good book, but I wasn’t blown away by it.
Jason Taverner is an incredibly popular singer/performer/TV host. He is also one of a handful of people who are the product of a ‘failed’ eugenics program, designed to create forceful, competent, successful humans. One day, after the completion of his weekly show, Taverner wakes up in a decrepit hotel room with no idea how he got there, and with all of his papers, his identity, missing, but with $5000 in a wad in his jacket. Thus begins his journey to discover how he got there, why no one remembers him at all, and how he can get his life back. Along the way, he encounters some truly interesting characters: the delusional forger, the mousy and meek potter, the forceful and high ranking police general and his lesbian sister.
Flow My Tears is nominally about Jason Taverner, but Felix Buckman, the policeman in the title and a high ranking officer, also has a large part. In this version of 1988, the world is ruled by a police state. Everyone must carry ID papers with them and must get permission to travel any great distance. Political dissidents and general malcontents are usually carted off the forced labor camps, if not killed outright. In this world, a person without ID literally doesn’t exist. Jason Taverner discovers that, not only are his papers missing, there is no record of his life, or even birth, anywhere in the computer system. He is a ‘non-existent’ person. Its this fact that brings him to the attention of Felix Buckman, one of the top five police officials in the world. What ensues is a cat-and-mouse game between Taverner and Buckman, as each struggle to understand just who Taverner is and why he seems to be a non-person. Neither character can be classified as a saint. Buckman has some serious failings and Taverner is basically a person of privilege, spoiled by public attention. The present situation allows us to see that both characters do have redeeming qualities and they both try to make the best of their situation. I found these two characters to be well done.
In the midst of all this, Dick explores his familiar themes of reality/non-reality and paranoia. What do you do when everything you’ve know or believed seems to be wrong, or worse, never happened? But, Dick also has a strong theme of love present throughout, that love is what defines us, and love allows us to live on,even after we’re dead. Its this theme that allows us, the readers, to feel, not only for Taverner, but also, and key to the story, for Buckman, who is a true anti-hero. I’ve purposely left out a lot of details about the story since I believe their discovery is integral to the story itself. The ending will stay with you after you’ve read it and will make you think. Again, well done on PKD’s part.
As good as the story is, I can’t help but compare it to my previous reading/movie going experiences. In this light, the story of a man who wakes up and finds his memory either gone or totally wrong, has been done to death, and not just because others have used it, PKD himself used this trope a lot. Its a tired cliche now, and its a testament to PKD that he could write such a story that holds up well 30 years later. Still, my reaction was: ‘Great, another story about amnesiacs’. Secondly, the writing seemed, to me, to be clunky. Some turns of phrase just didn’t work for me. His description of a jet-powered car as ‘idling throbbingly’ just feels wrong to me. Which leads me to the book itself. Its obviously written from an earlier era. Anachronisms abound. From the use of the the words ‘chick’ and ‘dig’ to things like vinyl records being the music medium of choice, they all served to break the immersion for me. And lastly, PKD tends to get a bit preachy in places. Especially when characters start expounding on reality or what love really means. This is also another PKD hallmark and it also breaks the immersion for me. Most people just don’t talk like that.
Overall though, its a good story, probably great for its time. However, being 7 at the time, I wasn’t reading much and so can’t compare it to other like stories, or even the social climate of the time. Did it deserver its nominations? I can’t say. We’ll see how it stacks up to the other nominees.
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