Last night I finished reading A Scanner Darkly, by Philip K. Dick. Six months ago I finished watching Richard Linklater’s rotoscopic adaptation of the book. Three weeks before the film played in my town, I borrowed the book with the intent to read it first. But after a lot of deliberation and discussion with friends who’d both read and seen it, I came to the conclusion that it was going to be okay for me to not put down the other books I was reading in order to squeeze in A Scanner Darkly. But in general I prefer to read a book before watching the movie version. In fact, if I plan on reading the book at some point in my life, then I practically need to read it before seeing the movie.
Previously–as an example of when it didn’t work for me–I watched and then read Fight Club. I saw that movie probably five times before reading the book. And while reading it, my imagination was completely taken over by the imagery of the movie. I saw everything through the eyes of the film — the characters, the settings, the dialog. The book didn’t stick with me at all, the style wasn’t effective or exciting, and each scene was depreciated by the knowledge of what comes next.
But I absolutely enjoyed reading A Scanner Darkly. Despite the fact that I knew the ending and most of the scenes, I was still swept up by the story and the writing. I mean, the characters were still, in my head, celebrities (though disguised by rotoscope, which helped to scramble them in my head). When I read, “A girl walked along now that made him take notice. Black hair, pretty, cruising slow; she wore an open midriff blouse and denim white pants washed a lot.” the image that immediately came to mind was: Winona Ryder! As with other of Dick’s later books, the strength of this one stems less from bogglingly-creative plots and more from the study of characters and their relationships to themselves, the world, and to God — and also, in this case especially, to what they’re going through as they’re falling into a drugged-out, disassociate existence, a death without sleep. The woah-crap spin at the end wasn’t as important or as crazy as other Dick books. So the story and effects weren’t depreciated by foreknowledge of the ending.
Last week, for example, I read Ubik. It is very much steadily thrusted by plot and action. It’s a plot that continuously spins the reader around. You don’t know where it’s going, everything is twisted and everything you thought you knew was wrong, and it never stops. When reading Ubik it’s important and exciting to not know the whole story and ending.
I was very happy to find that I could enjoy A Scanner Darkly so much after having already seen the movie (and I think the movie is great, by the way). Plus, I could tell the story was a personal one. The writing is executed with grace and respect, and I could glimpse his own relationships to the characters. My first foray into PKD came in high school, when I was presented with VALIS as a b-day gift. Although as a first foray this book was a bit overwhelming, I still felt a strong connection to him and his work–to his style, his dialog, his ideas. I remember being disappointed that the Exegesis hadn’t found publication. I remember being saddened and even more deeply connected to him by the fact that he died on my second birthday.
But thereafter I for some reason fell out of PKD-land, with many many of his books still left to read. Then, while working at an arts library, I found a duplicate holding of the Summer 2002 issue of Bookforum. The cover story was a wonderful essay by then-unknown to me author, Jonathan Lethem*, about his love for PKD. I manipulated the catalog record and then took home that duplicate! The article brought PKD back to my full attention, and since then I’ve been steadily going through the irv. While I know that I can, like Lethem, read and reread everything by him, I’m also very excited to still have so many books that I can read for the first time. I can’t wait to read them!
*Worth checking out is the new Virginia Quarterly Review Fiction Supplement. The theme of the stories is writers on writers — new fiction that features authors as characters. Lethem wrote a story featuring “writer of Ubik“, Philip K. Dick. Read: Phil at the Marketplace.