Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said – Philip K Dick (1974)
‘Jason Taverner, idol of thirty million TV viewers, wakes up one morning in a sleazy hotel bedroom and finds himself a complete unknown (with no direction home) – the ultimate unidentified walking object. And that’s just the start of his nightmare adventures in an American police state of the terrifyingly near future that makes 1984 look like the Age of Enlightenment…
Philip K Dick has created the most stunningly scarifying novel of the day after tomorrow. This brilliant but disturbing story is one of the most authentically chilling books of the century’
Blurb from the 1976 Panther Edition
Jason Taverner, world famous singer and entertainer, familiar to an audience of thirty billion, is one night attacked by his psychotic mistress who impregnates him with an alien organism. He awakens to find himself a non-person, unrecognised and devoid of any proof of his identity.
We are in familiar Dick territory here from the outset, a successful if somewhat insecure male central figure, baffled and sometimes bullied by women whose motivations seem illogical or incomprehensible to him.
As is common to many Dick novels the female characters seem far more complex and fully fleshed out than their male counterparts. In this book, three of the female characters have alliterative names; Marilyn Mason, Heather Hart, and Ruth Rae, although apart from providing a tenuous link to the Superman comics in which many women had alliterative initial, usually LL, it seems hard to imagine why Dick should have chosen to do this.
Of the women in this novel, there is his wife, Heather Hart, as successful a star as himself, and like Taverner, rather jaded by the privileged life they live.
There is his mistress, Marilyn Mason who is psychotic and possessive.
And then there is the nineteen year old forger Kathy Nelson to whom he is taken to purchase a new identity in this world that does not recognise him. Deliberately or not she weaves him into a web of dependence which also includes the corrupt police officer McNulty who is using her to imprint imperceptible microtransmitters onto illegal documents.
She too, turns out to be as psychotic as the other two women in his life, believing that her long-imprisoned Jack is to be released from prison as a reward for the work she does for the cops, bringing in holders of illegal IDs. Jack, however, is long dead, something which she knows but refuses to accept.
The final woman in Taverner’s nightmare journey is Mary Anne Dominic, a potter, and perhaps the only character with no real personality disorders. She enjoys her work, makes a decent living at it, and although offered the chance by Taverner to have her ceramics showcased on his TV show, refuses. In the epilogue to the book it is noted that ultimately, although Taverner died moderately wealthy, he died a virtual unknown, while Mary Anne enjoyed a lasting modest fame and success.
Having been given a temporary pass by the police, Taverner determines to seduce a rich woman in order to find a place to hide, and thus encounters the next woman in the novel, Ruth Rae, an old lover from his other life who of course does not recognise him, but agrees to take him back to her apartment.
The police, or rather General Felix Buckman, McNulty’s superior, have now become very interested in Taverner.
Upon leaving the police station he is picked up by Buckman’s sister, Alys, an SM dominatrix lesbian and also Felix Buckman’s ‘wife’ and mother of their child.
Of all the people in this new world Alys knows who Taverner really is and has two of his albums in her vehicle. She takes him back to the home she shares with her brother and gives him some mescaline, after which Taverner finds her body, reduced to a skeleton, but still dressed in its S&M trappings, in the bathroom.
As the novel progresses we slowly learn about this future Police State and the Second American Civil war in which students have been under siege within their universities and black couples are only allowed one child each in order that the black population halves with every generation. Interracial marriage, we presume, is illegal.
Dick obviously intended the background to this novel as an (admittedly caricatured) extrapolation of Richard Nixon’s philosophies and [political] policies into the future. Within the book Nixon by this time has become a quasi-religious figure which we discover from the design on a carpet which the police see when they raid an apartment, hunting for Taverner.
He trod across the wall-to-wall carpet, which depicted in gold Richard M Nixon’s final ascent into heaven amid joyous singing above the wails of misery from below. At the far door he trod on God, who was smiling a lot as He received His Second Only Begotten Son back into His bosom, and pushed open the bedroom door. [p 108]
Criminals and apprehended students are sent to forced labour camps, and pol checkpoints are set up at frequent intervals.
Taverner himself, like his wife, is a six. He is a kind of genetically engineered Homo Superior, the result of a eugenics experiment which was not altogether successful. The subjects of the experiment were indeed successful in that the Sixes are more attractive, intelligent and prosperous than ‘ordinaries’, but they find it difficult to tolerate each other’s company which is why Taverner’s relationship with his wife is a strained one.
The tale is Kafka-esque, in that it explores the nature of identity from two angles. Firstly Dick explores the nature of celebrity and the freedom that being recognised by everyone gives one within a repressive police regime. Without an official identity Taverner does not exist, he has become an unperson.
At the same time he contrasts this with a world in which Taverner is recognised by no one, a world where identity is not a question of recognition but one of possession of various ID documents and presence on a database which covers not only Earth but colonies elsewhere on the Solar System.