Donna, a retired third grade teacher, was very familiar with rudimentary “paint by numbers” poetry, but she was charmed by how publicly Mack was composing his, given the subject matter. How modern, to write bad and lusty poetry openly on the N train. Ah, what the younger generation could do. Immediately she sensed a conscious smugness about him, but she let it go. Donna guessed, judging by his incredibly loud tie and very ugly shoes, that Mack probably had a more anatomical than personal understanding of his creative focus. And she didn’t judge. She never did. “I’m just looking,” Donna would say while doing a polite lap around a useless and overpriced gift shop. And she meant it.
She’d recently taken to writing lists on the train.
Sometimes she endeavored to make a new list every subway ride she took. It was a small goal. Obtainable. One Saturday, when she had absolutely nothing to do, she decided to take the train from one end of the line to the other and compose the most daunting list she’d ever undertaken. “All the lists I want to write in the next year.” While the train had passed over the Queensboro Bridge, she had written “What I want people to say about me when I’m dead.” Donna wasn’t sure how many more years she had left, but she assumed that once she’d departed that the word “nurturing” would be a common descriptor. Accurate but lazy, considering she’d spent 40 years as a teacher. That’s why it almost felt like an act of defiance not to say anything encouraging to Mack as she read his poetry over his shoulder. She was lucky she had her glasses on, otherwise she wouldn’t have been able to read anything at all.
So she read it all, but didn’t say a word as she got off at 30th Avenue. No judgment, of course. “I’m just looking.”
Sleeping on one side of the bed was Adam’s preferred method. He’d never been one to spread out and claim the center fold of the mattress. Of course, as a 32 year old, he’d never admit it, but he was almost frightened of it. He pictured a great big hand coming up on either side of the frame and snapping it closed shut to make a sandwich out of him. Swallow him whole and swallow him whole wheat.
What resulted was a sort of “reserved” sign on the unoccupied side. Meanwhile, he preferred the spot closest to the window where he could hear the rumble of the subway. He’d slept that way so long his bed had acquired a little divot in it to make way for his shoulders and hips.
Sleeping on one side of the bed had the unintentional effect of transforming it into a playground attraction. Years of catering only to his own needs, whims and cravings, and wearing down the original springiness of his personality with habit, had transformed his bed into a see-saw. Adam had been keeping space for a companion, but he never understood that he also had to give that companion weight. Preferring to sleep on the left, his side perpetually sank down to the floor. The right side was airborne. So when Emily leaned over and asked what he was reading, Adam was oblivious.
“I’m only halfway through.”
“It gets better. The last one hundred pages are gorgeous.”
“Well, I read a lot.”
Instead of engaging, Adam collected his belongings, tucking his book away, and prepared the exit the train at 59th street. Adam let the invitation to ask “what do you read” remain painfully unasked. And Donna was suspended.
Name of Book: A Scanner Darkly
Author: Philip K. Dick
Year of Publication: 1977
Characters in the excellent A Scanner Darkly are dying a Slow Death. Slow Death is just another street name for Substance D, or straight Death, an organic drug that has turned almost every American into an addict. Often cut with meth or heroin, D usually comes in tab form and eventually causes the brain to split into two separate hemispheres. This is where Philip K. Dick takes his habit of writing drug trips to a new level; complete neurological and personality deterioration where the mind begins to wage war on itself and the reader. It’s a psychosis induced schizophrenia, and we’re in the middle of it.
Most known for writing the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the basis of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, Philip K. Dick is one of the most celebrated sci-fi writers of all time. What makes him unique is his ability to plonk the reader directly into the world as if they’ve always lived there. There’s no time for exposition or concept explanation, so there might be a learning curve, but you get the benefit of never feeling condescended to or cynical about the world’s realism. Current writers like Ted Chiang, most notably in his series Exhalation, do their best to do the same. What makes A Scanner Darkly a more terrifying reading experience is the exploration of addiction and loss of self to the most extreme and irrevocable. It's a creative use of form, as well. As Fred/Bob’s brain begins to split, the warring hemispheres speak less and less to each other. To demonstrate what that “cross-chatter” would feel like, Dick employs a disorienting mix of regular prose, disorienting paragraphs written in German, and script formatting.
Fred, a federal narcotics agent, is ordered to pose as drug user Bob Arctor to discover who has been flooding the streets of LA with Substance D. Committing to his undercover job, however, makes Fred vulnerable to the side effects of Substance D, and loneliness, paranoia, and hallucinations begin to plague him. At first, Dick uses a series of anecdotes to make us laugh at the absurd paranoia of kooky characters suffering from addiction. Of course, these anecdotes aren’t remotely funny, and the more we care about Fred/Bob and his own deterioration and isolation, the more we understand the ugliness of his addiction and loss of self. Fred/Bob ruminates in a particularly bleak passage about looking through a futuristic Scanner (“What does the scanner see?”), and wonders if he’s looking at a mirror image or a photo or a mirror of a photo of himself. It's as disorienting as it sounds, and a sorrowful and heartbreaking moment where a protagonist’s identity has been completely removed. Once deemed unfit to work, Bob/Fred is sent to a withdrawal center and given a new name. It doesn’t matter; he’s a husk with no history or personality. Dick also uses this point in the novel to comment on the cyclical nature of capitalism and exploitation to great effect.
This might not be Philip K. Dick’s most accessible novel, but it might be one of the most successful at exposing primal human needs. Perhaps because he was one, Dick never condemns drug users. Instead, he exposes the void that each of them is trying to fill. Even if it’s as simple as a want of friendship and platonic companionship and community. Our enemy is loneliness and capitalism, which leeches off the individual. Ultimately, it's a sympathetic look at humanity, and he doesn’t punish characters for their own self-destruction. A Scanner Darkly is a trip, not a morality tale.
Mack had a penchant for writing dirty haikus.
Spreading glistening suckle
Inhale then exhale
He enjoyed writing them in public places like the subway most of all, counting out the syllables on his badly bitten fingers until it was a perfect 5-7-5. It made him warmly smug to be counting out something so intimately anatomical among oblivious passengers. If he was lucky enough to get a seat, occasionally he would catch the person to his left or right reading over his shoulder, their eyes bulging. Perhaps they’d become invested and start counting out the syllables too, as if checking an answer to a crossword. “14 Across: The folds of skin bordering the vulva.” La-bi-a. He thought that was an evocative word for a haiku, but if he was honest with himself he just liked the way his mouth remained open after he finished saying the last syllable quietly to himself. It hardly mattered that Mack had never slept with anyone before. “Write what you know” was an old adage he’d heard somewhere, but those haikus would have been pretty dismal.
The fridge is starting to smell
Crumbs in my butter
Nobody wanted to read those, not even the nosiest of subway companions.