2014 was a highly controversial year for the police force and people of color in the United States of America. (Maybe it was the start of everything, maybe not.) The year brought forth one of the largest political rights movements in recent history: dubbed as the #blacklivesmatter movement. This movement was formed through public outrage to the injustices behind poorly investigated and racially-tense cases of police brutality, particularly against unarmed black men. Just for references, some of those cases include:
- Michael Brown Jr., Ferguson, MO – shot by police officer
- Eric Garner, New York, NY – illegal chokehold
- Ezell Ford, Florence, CA – mentally-ill man, shot by misunderstanding police officer
- Tamir Rice, Cleveland, OH – 12-year-old boy, shot by police officer mistaking toy gun for real gun
- Freddie Gray, Baltimore, MD – died of spinal cord injury during police custody (potentially nickel ride homicide)
In retrospect, it seemed as if the world was only beginning to unravel that year. And while global events and tragedies built up, I was in a private little world of my own, a vacation wrapped in an escapist-mind-trip, of sorts…
On a bright and windy day, in a park nestled within the city and leafy canopies, I sat with someone who affected me deeply, on the stone ledge by the wishing fountain, talking about life. Our “life” discussions then included her paints and my clumsy attempt of discussing books, about whether or not we were happy, and somewhere within it all we’d also mentioned going to the city-wide protest that day (#phillyisbaltimore, Philly’s own response to the violence of that year).
I remembered her telling me about Rembrandt, and I’d said something stupid. I remembered the tree dust falling, all the world was moving, and everything was leaving, except for her. A strand of hair brushed her face; green leaves resting gently upon her shoulders. And I remembered thinking she must have known, and she was so kind, and this would never work, because the timing all was wrong, or we were too much of this, too little of that…
She was looking at me intently, in a strange way (this might also be my own delusion) like she actually sees me, is rooting for me, and believes in me in all the ways I want to be believed in. It could be this is the way she looks at everybody, and I admire that. In fact, I was so affected by her, that when I said goodbye, I had to steady myself so that I didn’t start screaming or jumping up and down in public.
I fled to the bookstore, which was fortunately next to the park. To calm myself down, I wandered the shelves there for a long while, texting a friend about where to meet her for the protest, and reveling in the company of books. I wound up buying Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, simply because I had a weird anxiety about walking into places and not buying things, because it feels rude or something…and I thought the title was ironic for the day.
Afterwards, I attended the protest which unexpectedly lasted right up to the end of the night, and took me three loops around the city with a crowd of emotional Philadelphians. When I got home that night, before falling asleep I started Flow My Tears…
The dystopian world imagined by Philip K. Dick in 1974 was one of a U.S. ruled by a police state after the second civil war. Students were hunted for their pursuit of truth/knowledge being problematic for the government. Identity cards and paperwork were everything for individuals from prostitutes to celebrities, as police and National Guard checkpoints are everywhere.
TV show host Jason Taverner goes from being a celebrity one night to waking up the next morning stripped entirely of an identity—his hometown doesn’t even have records of him being born. This fatefully brought his path to intersect with (possibly title’s policeman) Police General Felix Buckman. Taverner’s trying to get back his life of stardom, meanwhile Buckman is baffled at his world/reality collapsing around him.
I cannot compliment my favorite aspect of this novel without spoiling the ending, which was remarkable. I suppose this is a time to warn you to skip the next section…
As it turns out, Taverner’s path crossed with Buckman’s because Buckman’s sister, Alys, was a huge fan of Jason Taverner. She experimented with a new drug—which, in their society, drugs and escapism were common—and that drug BENT REALITY (?!), bringing her dream man, Jason Taverner, to her fetishized reality, which happened to also include her brother, Felix Buckman, because she was also incestuously sleeping with him (?!).
It’s so twisted and dramatic! Imagine being ripped out of your normal life, just because someone somewhere decided to go on a world-bending drug trip. That’s so arbitrary and terrifying, but also fascinating, and PKD did a wonderful job exploring this wildly engaging story.
The novel’s emotional appeal for me rested upon its address of human loneliness. With great sincerity, PKD painted a touching, solipsist depiction of our loneliness through the fateful afflictions befalling Taverner and other characters.
Upon the novel’s end, after each experiencing loss in his own ways, the policeman included, we see an over-pour of human empathy. The policeman’s actions felt like a genuine, desperate attempt at a too-late apology from PKD to those tormented by police prejudice and brutality, as well as a plea for us all to see the humanity within each other.
The characters in PKD’s novel cried for the things they have lost, reminding us to hold onto and protect what we have. This novel reminds us not to become so distracted that we forget what is reality, and what is a dreamt up fantasy; it reminds us to address the issues we face, and see this same struggle in everyone else. It’s a highly emotional novel, and a convincing plea for greater empathy. It was also a compelling read, as Taverner’s adventure through the city’s underbelly during his time without an identity felt like a film by The Wachowskis, and I’ve always enjoyed those.
Thinking back to the protest I attended, the conversation with the girl I liked at the park, I felt like all those events warped themselves together to make me like this novel a little bit more. I have a small, personal bond with this novel—it warped reality, it bent time, it made me feel, and it reminded me of 2014.
It reminded me of that year’s cold winter, of the protest (that turned out to be the beginning of too many), the park, and the fleeting dreamlike trip with someone more powerful than PKD’s world-altering drug.
This book and what surrounded it was quite an awesome journey.
🕵️ 🕵️ 🕵️ 🕵️ 🕵️
“Reality denied comes back to haunt.”