Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K Dick (1974)

I used to think Gary Numan’s song “Listen To The Sirens” was based on Philip K. Dick’s novel “Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said.” What I didn’t know, in those pre-internet days, was that both were based on an early English song from 1600 by a lutist named John Dowland. The song is called a lachrymae, literally translated as "tears," probably because of the falling melody, dropping down in tone like tears falling. Gary Numan’s song is less subtle but still full of angst with a hint of sadness. And Dick’s story is of course a sad, bewildering one: a man mourns the loss of his own life, even as he stays alive.

“Flow My Tears” is essentially “It’s a Wonderful Life” except that instead of the main character wishing he had never existed, someone else has wished it upon him. Jason Taverner is the man without a life. One day he’s a world-famous crooner with a Tuesday night TV talk show, a starlet girlfriend, and mansions in LA and Zurich. The next he wakes up in a flophouse in a sketchy area of town without anything, even fame or identity. No one seems to recognize his face, his music is absent from the jukebox, and even his girlfriend thinks he’s an obnoxious fanboy. When he checks the national police database his name is strangely missing. His only resources are the $5,000 he had sewn into the lining of his suit, and his genetic heritage: he is a six - the result of an experiment in genetic engineering which caused him to be born with good looks, charisma, and a body that ages more slowly. The government has been a police state since the student uprisings, so Taverner needs all of his skills and luck to travel even a few blocks without encountering a checkpoint, let alone staying free long enough to unravel the mystery of his disappearance.

Taverner succeeds for a while, meeting Kathy who is an identity forger and stool pigeon who psychotically believes that the police are forcing her to fink by holding her boyfriend in a gulag in Alaska (he actually died in a car accident). Kathy also has a mental problem where she imagines people to be celebrities and she often imagines these celebrities are stalking her. At first I read this as one of Dick’s normal blind alleys, but in this novel he manages to tie this idea back into the main plot.

Eventually, however, Taverner gets the attention of the police, and is hauled in to the station where he meets Felix Buckman, the Director of Police for most of the US. We learn that Buckman is married to his own sister Alys, a tall, wild woman dressed in leather pants and gold chains and addicted to drugs and sex, although it is not generally known that their relationship is other than husband and wife. Buckman investigates Taverner’s existence with suspicion, but decides to release Taverner after surreptitiously placing trackers and a small self-destruct device on him. Taverner is immediately picked up by Alys, and at this point he and the reader begin to uncover clues explaining his sudden anonymity.

Given that the two previously published novels by Dick, “We Can Build You” and “Our Friends From Frolix 8,” were such wrecks, it’s a surprising delight to read “Flow My Tears.” The tone and style of this novel is somewhat of a departure for Dick. In some ways it harkens back to “The Man in the High Castle” where Dick wrote a mature novel set in a science-fiction framework. But he also seems to have nearly mastered the habit of putting dreams and intuitive events into the novel without derailing the plot. I sawy "nearly" because there are still elements of this. For example, the part where Felix Buckman dreams that Jason Taverner has been killed was pulled from a vivid dream:

“In the writing of Flow My Tears, back in 1970, there was one unusual event which I realized at the time was not ordinary, was not a part of the regular writing process. I had a dream one night, an especially vivid dream. And when I awoke I found myself under the compulsion—the absolute necessity—of getting the dream into the text of the novel precisely as I had dreamed it. In getting the dream exactly right, I had to do eleven drafts of the final part of the manuscript, until I was satisfied. “

Additionally, the odd sequence at the end, where Buckman meets a man at a gas station and hugs him, has the feeling of more intuition than logic. In his essay “How to Build a Universe That Doesn't Fall Apart Two Days Later” Dick attempts to explain that this passage is part of his anamnesis, his “loss of forgetfulness” that means he’s channeling the truth into his novel. Fortunately, in “Flow My Tears” these passages don’t detract from the plot or the characters, and they even add slightly to the surreality of the story.

When the police are trying to determine Taverner’s true identity they give him a test. To me the test feels similar to the Voigt-Kampff tests in “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep.”
After the recording of the footprint he spoke the sentence, "Down goes the right hut and ate a put object beside his horse." That took care of the voiceprint. After that, again seated, he allowed terminals to be placed here and there on his head; the machine cranked out three feet of scribbled-on paper, and that was that. That was the electrocardiogram. It ended the tests.
I wondered if the sentence was a from an actual psychological test, but I couldn’t find any references to it.

Dick has a running theme of crowded, oppressive apartment buildings. In “Flow My Tears,” however, Taverner is brought to Felix and Alys’s wonderful, spacious mansion. They have filled the house with collections of all sorts of interesting nick-knacks like rare stamps, coins, bondage cartoons and pornographic snuffboxes. Alys and Felix are like Virgil Ackerman in “Now Wait for Last Year,” collecting bits of esoteric ephemera in order to build a solid world around them. I have to wonder, does PKD scorn the empty, expansive mansion, seeing it like AM-WEB in “Martian Time-Slip” as a place of death? But, I also gather from his books that he seems to like collecting these bits of esoteric information, so he, too, is a collector. I wonder if he’d find it ironic that collectors are now paying more for first edition copies of books that he wrote, than he was paid to originally write them?

So far I’ve written reviews of nearly thirty PKD books without using the word solipsism. It’s a word from the blurb on the back of my DAW paperback. The definition is “the theory or view that the self is the only reality.” Other reviewers have called many of PKD’s books solipsistic. In “Flow My Tears” he uses science fiction once again to effectively ask these questions: What is life before you? After you? Without you? Everyone is the star of their own world, their own narrative, but Dick brings this idea to the forefront by creating a character who’s a major celebrity, and then bringing him to complete anonymity. The result is a fascinating novel, and an intriguing exploration of Dick’s personal philosophy of solipsism.

From the 1974 DAW paperback edition:
Jason Taverner woke up one morning to find himself completely unknown. The night before he had been the top-rated television star with millions of devoted watchers. The next day he was just an unidentified walking object, whose face nobody recognized, of whom no one had heard, and without the I.D. papers required in that near future.
When he finally found a man who would agree to counterfeiting such cards for him, that man turned out to be a police informer. And then Taverner found out not only what it was like to be a nobody but also to be hunted by the whole apparatus of society.
It was obvious that in some way Taverner had become the pea in some sort of cosmic shell game -- but how? And why?
Philip K Dick takes the reader on a walking tour of solipsism’s scariest margin in his latest novel about the age we are already half into.


  1. One person commented: " What possibly makes you think that Numan's song is based on a work from 1600, other than the line "flow my tears"? There is simply nothing else in the lyrics that I can see that suggests that, and Numan (aka Mister Webb) didn't take his education very seriously. He was a huge fan of PKD, Ballard and Burroughs; his themes of police states and paranoia, along with a bit of cut-up style lyric writing makes far more sense for the source/style of the song than does an obscure lutist from hundreds of years ago."

  2. I don't know whether Gary Numan was influenced directly by Dowling, or indirectly thru Dick. True, he probably read "flow my tears" first, but each section of the book starts with a stanza from Dowling's song. In my paperback edition the lyrics are uncredited, but maybe another edition points to Dowling as the source of the lyrics. So, directly or indirectly, Numan is influenced by the original.