“'He's crazy. Took drugs, saw God. BFD.'”
A Scanner Darkly was finally published by Doubleday in 1977. By then, Tessa was gone, their marriage ending in 1976 as Nancy and Phil's marriage had ended in 1970: “His wife, their child in her arms, leaving him alone in a house filled with memories,” says Sutin. Tessa says he left her and told everyone she had left him—part of a bitter separation that earned her a debut as a Phildickian character in Dick's next novel, Valis (“Yeah, 'Beth' was a bitch; that's okay,” she sighs now. “He was mad at me, and I said worse things that didn't get published!”), and served as prelude to the most determined suicide attempt of Dick's life. As legendarily recounted in Valis, he overdosed on pills, chased them with wine—this is itself a suicide method that appears in Scanner—and then slit his wrists and staggered out to the garage to sit in his car with the engine pumping out monoxide. And then a new case of divine intervention: he hadn't cut deep enough, and his wrists clotted shut; he puked up the half-digested pills, and the little car stalled out. “The infinite mercies of God,” he wrote, “make no sense whatsoever.”
Soon after this, he moved to his last bachelor apartment—a condo near Main and Civic Center in Santa Ana—and left suffering schizophrenic Bob Arctor behind in Anaheim. He began a new book in which one character was “Philip K. Dick,” a freaky sci-fi author in Nixon country who found God in a way he never expected. It included moments so autobiographically detailed that, says Tim Powers, Dick made sure it was raining on days in Valis when it had really rained in Santa Ana. There was little of the obvious trauma that characterizes Scanner. Until his death from a final serious stroke in 1982, he spent most nights at his typewriter or notepad, still theorizing about how and why and what it meant if he had talked to God. These new questions would inspire his career-capping books. “It's disturbing to read this stuff because it just seems way over-the-top,” says Paul Williams, “but nevertheless, he was a real happy man at the time. This really fit his nature, and he enjoyed it a lot.” By the time Scanner was on shelves, Dick was no longer the man who was once Bob Arctor: somewhere in the pain of the past four years, a kind of purgation had occurred.
And in some ways, it had started in Scanner. Though Dick would later write Valis and Radio Free Albemuth as explicit explorations of 2-3-74, as well dedicate much of the last years of his life to a titanic and still mostly unpublished catalog of his theories that he titled the Exegesis, Scanner includes some of the earliest and most contemporaneous descriptions of what he had experienced during 2-3-74: the streams of phosphene sparks, the perfectly geometric doorway to the serene desert paradise, an all-night slide show of Kandinsky-style hallucinations (which inspired Scanner's sci-fi “scramble suits”). Scanner is one of Dick's first attempts to understand—if that was possible—what happened:
[Donna thought] of a guy she had known once, who had seen God. He had acted much like [Arctor], moaning and crying, although he had not soiled himself. He had seen God in a flashback after an acid trip; he had been experimenting with water-soluble vitamins, huge doses of them. The orthomolecular formula that was supposed to improve neural firing in the brain, speed it up and synchronize it. With that guy, though, instead of merely becoming smarter, he had seen God. It had been a complete surprise to him.
“After he saw God, he felt really good, for around a year,” [Donna tells Arctor]. “And then he felt really bad. Worse than he ever had before in his life. Because one day, it came over him, he began to realize, that he was never going to see God again; he was going to live out his whole remaining life, decades, maybe 50 years, and see nothing but what he had always seen. What we see. He was worse off than if he hadn't seen God. He told me one day, he got really mad; he just freaked out and started cursing and smashing things in his apartment. He even smashed his stereo. He realized he was going to have to live on and on like he was, seeing nothing. Without any purpose. Just a lump of flesh grinding along, eating, drinking, sleeping, working, crapping.”
“Like the rest of us.” It was the first thing Bob Arctor had managed to say; each word came with retching difficulty.
Donna said, “That's what I told him. I pointed that out. We were all in the same boat and it didn't freak the rest of us. And he said, 'You don't know what I saw. You don't know.'”
Related story: Rob NelsonreviewsA Scanner Darkly.