Tuesday, June 21, 2011

On Philip K Dick and the "vile" Victorians

[Snippets from my Sunday Guardian books column]

“We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold,” goes the famous opening sentence of Hunter S Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Immediately after this the near-delirious narrator sees enormous bats swooping around in the sky above his car and hears a voice screaming, “Holy Jesus! What are these goddamn animals?” The voice is his own, but he doesn’t know that. Never mind. This is just the start of an unforgettable road trip where the line between what is real and what isn’t soon becomes irrelevant. The labyrinths of the drug-addled mind are so much more interesting than anything Las Vegas can offer – or perhaps it’s all the same anyway.

Philip K Dick’s A Scanner Darkly begins on a comparable note, recounting absurdities in a seemingly calm and collected narrative voice. “Once a guy stood all day shaking bugs from his hair. The doctor told him there were no bugs in his hair.” The guy in question, a relatively minor character named Jerry, is addicted to a drug called Substance D (for Death), and after some extensive "research" he's figured out that the bugs are aphids and that they are in his lungs as well. Naturally it makes perfect sense to stand under the shower all day with his dog (who also has the bugs).

The partly science-fiction world of Dick’s novel is populated with dope addicts as well as narcotics agents trying to convict them. But can you really tell one from the other? The agents wear identity-concealing “scramble suits” (which turn a wearer’s body into an amorphous blur) and even their superiors don’t know their real names. Besides, their jobs require them to engage in the sort of substance abuse that can quickly disorient their minds. So what happens when a narcotics agent named Bob Arctor is assigned to spy on the activities of a suspected drug dealer named... Bob Arctor?
Arctor is understandably confused by this development, and by the suspicion that the two halves of his brain are concealing things from each other. (If he can’t trust himself, how can he possibly trust anyone around him?) At one point, contemplating his dual role as the watcher and the watched, he wonders, “Which of them is me?” In Dick’s hands even this profound philosophical query is laced with wryness. He was a genre writer – and one of the cult heroes of modern science-fiction – but his best books are every bit as demanding as high-quality literary fiction. They deal with questions of identity, with the paranoia of being an individual in a cold, corporation-dominated world, and the ways in which people interact with technology. If he were alive in the Internet age, I’m sure he would have written some fascinating stories centred on social networking and virtual role-playing.

P.S. In addition to being one of the most imaginative novelists of the last few decades, Dick was astonishingly prolific. As A D Jameson pointed out in this masterful skewering of Christopher Nolan’s film Inception, Dick wrote dozens of far superior “psychological/postmodern/mind-fuck narratives” – and even produced five novels in a single year, 1965, including the excellent The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch.


A straight history and a “horrible history”, best read side by side

One of the best books I’ve read about a historical period is A N Wilson’s The Victorians – a sprawling, magisterial account of seven decades that came to shape the modern world in so many ways. Wilson examines the political, social, scientific and cultural developments of the Victorian era – and their resonance for our lives today – in detail, and his mini-biographies of figures like Robert Peel and Charles Stewart Parnell make a fascinating tapestry. This is the sort of biography that wins highbrow literary awards, gets multiple mentions in “Books of the Year” lists, and is described in blurbs as “a magnificent portrait of an age” – all of which is well-justified.

But now consider another book about the Victorians that is never likely to be feted thus, though it provides its own special insights: The Vile Victorians in the “Horrible Histories” series. The series motto is “History with the nasty bits left in”, and true to form this wicked little book is a collection of unsavoury facts about epidemics, infant murders, gruesome sports and military disasters, mostly related in a faux-scandalised tone; there are stomach-churning anecdotes such as the one about the young Queen Victoria walking by the Thames and wondering about the pieces of paper floating in it. (Hundreds of sewers used to empty untreated waste into the river.)

You start reading something like Vile Victorians in a very particular mood – perhaps you want something that’s easy to flip through, or perhaps you’re in a masochistic mood. And indeed, the tone of much of the book is deliberately mean-minded and the drawings are a little juvenile (though a few are genuinely funny). But it would be a mistake to think there’s nothing to be learnt from it. When I read about “the vile Victorian Dr Meyers” and his infernal Tapeworm Trap (a small metal cylinder which had to be swallowed by patients – eventually resulting in the deaths of more humans than tapeworms), I was convinced it was a made-up story until I looked it up and discovered it was true. There is much good trivia here, even if the presentation is offbeat (to say the least).

At times – as in the short story “The Monster of the Mine”, which illustrates the horrors of children being made to work in coal mines – the book’s tone becomes almost sympathetic. It doesn’t last though. The very next page is about another manifestation of Victorian cruelty to children – by giving them “vile” names like Abishag and Lettuce!

[Some earlier odds and ends from my weekly column: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5]

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