Book Review: Philip K. Dick’s “Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said” and the Sham of Fame

Spoiler Alert: If you intend to read PKD’s “Flow My Tears,” but haven’t yet, wait to read this post.

Do you ever purposely shelve a book to build up your sense of anticipation and eventual satisfaction upon finally reading it? Thanks to work, side gigging and parenting, I don’t get the time to read as much as I’d like, so I’m already living under an imposed state of delayed gratification, but I still hold off on reading some books just to sweeten the experience all the more.

Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said” is one of those books. I love Philip K. Dick and delayed reading it until I couldn’t resist cracking the pages.

The reason why I look forward to reading Dick’s stuff is because he stood apart from even the most ambitious of his peers. A ton of sci-fi authors, such as Joe Haldeman, Isaac Asimov, Frank Herbert, and Robert Heinlein, employed the genre to discuss bigger topics such as politics, economics, religion and sociology. However, Dick used sci-fi as a venue to venture off even further into philosophical left field and discussed metaphysics, an artistic endeavor that still grabs my attention and imagination years after his death for its uniqueness, individuality and bravery.

Pondering the nature of identity and reality in settings that are too often the domain of either goofy space opera shoot-em-ups, or agonizing “hard sci-fi” pedantry? I’m in — let’s blow up genre fiction with an ontological IED!

If I had to hunt down PKD’s closest sci-fi storytelling peer, I’d argue Dick is most closely aligned with Rod Serling. Even before Serling’s jaw dropping “The Twilight Zone” series, he used the science fiction and “weird tales” genres to discuss everything from earthly political and cultural topics to way-out philosophical ideas. Both creative minds saw sci-fi — a genre that ironically can be rife with topical constraints — as a wide-open playground, and I deeply admire that approach.

And when it comes to “Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said,” Dick definitely makes a headlong dash into that playground. The novel tells the story of Jason Taverner, an individual genetically designed to become a famous and successful entertainer, who is suddenly grasping at straws after having his identity inexplicably robbed from him. One moment, everyone knows him, and the next minute he is such a non-entity that he’s liable to be locked up by the authoritarian regime running the United States because his lack of an identity would likely indicate he’s a terrorist.

This is classic PKD. Dick frequently discusses the concept of identity, ego and self in his novels, but what I particularly like about “Flow My Tears” is that Dick uses that discussion as an opportunity to also discuss the nature of art.

Taverner is brilliant. He’s attractive. He’s talented. He’s a born manipulator. No wonder he enjoys wealth, fame and women without measure. His sudden erasure from reality comes as much of a shock to the reader as it does our protagonist. But he’s in for another shock: despite that incalculable fortune and admiration, he’s also a fraud. Simply put, his art is pure shit. At the height of his fame, when Taverner is at “peak existence,” the value of the art he is producing is contrarily at such a low nadir that it is non-existent. At best, he’s serving up his television audience with weak, vacuous distractions.

He discovers this fundamental truth when Mary Anne Dominic, a potter, helps him escape the now nationalized police after becoming a non-entity. As Taverner peruses Dominic’s apartment, he sees that her work derives from an artistry and craftsmanship that is as intense and expert as the artist is humble and obscure. Dominic has clients who understand her artistic merit and buy enough of her work to pay the bills, but she’ll never achieve the success that Taverner had enjoyed up until being deleted from reality. Moreover, she’s happy and at peace with that fact. She derives more satisfaction from artistic growth than she ever would from fame.

Taverner, for all his trappings of being “legitimate” in his art — luxury flying cars, perfect-looking starlet girlfriends, bushels of money, mansions dotted across the globe — is actually a failure in comparison to Dominic, who is content to live in a small apartment and mail her clay pots and vases in cardboard boxes to a small cadre of discerning customers.

Just as Taverner starts to grasp this fact, he also starts to get recognized again by people. His fame starts returning thanks to the fact that the KR-3 — a drug that enables its users to move between different realities — has worn off. Sadly, as soon as Taverner starts to get recognized, he can’t get enough of that sweet, sweet fame, and he ditches Dominic, just as she was starting to show signs of falling for him.

The novel’s epilogue ties that distinction into a neat little bow with Taverner dying an ignominious death that barely draws a column inch of obituary. His biggest personal accomplishment amounted to a failed relationship with a starlet who eventually ghosted on him so that she could lead a life as an untraceable hermit. Meanwhile, Dominic’s work is recognized with an international award, and a single vase she made — one Taverner bought and later found its way into a private collection — is not only revered by the ceramics community, but loved.

In fact, the word “love” ends “Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said,” and love is the one thing Taverner’s fame, fortune and genetic superiority could never attain. He might be adored worldwide, but he’ll never be loved.


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