With a lot of Agatha Christie fans — Puzzle Doctor included — throwing their hands up at yet another televisation taking excessive liberties with the source material, I’d like to make you all feel better with the following words: I am a Philip K. Dick fan.
No author in the history of film and television has seen their visions diluted, bowdlerised, and treated with as much disrespect as Philip K. Dick, which is all the worse for him being one of the few genius SF writers the 20th century produced. Blade Runner (1982) with Harrison Ford, Total Recall (1990) with Arnold Schwarzenegger, Minority Report (2002) from Tom Cruise and Steven Spielberg, the Ben Affleck-starring Paycheck (2003), and the Matt Damon/Emily Blunt thriller The Adjustment Bureau (2011) are probably the most famous examples of his work being represented on the screen, but arguably the little-seen Peter Weller vehicle Screamers (1995) is the one that comes closest to Dick’s particular obsession with the chaos wrought by an over-reliance on technology and the games played with an increasingly fractious sense of what it means to be human.
[To cover all the bases, I’ve not seen A Scanner Darkly (2006) because so much emphasis is put on how faithful it is to the novel that I can’t help but feel they’ll’ve missed the point in being so slavish, and nor have I checked out the TV series of The Man in the High Castle (2015-present) because it’s on one of the many streaming services I’m too old to try to understand, and I simply cannot watch TV in the sorts of quantities such an undertaking seems to require.]
Where Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov used the 50s Golden Age of SF to peg out a secure core for the genre to stablise around, Dick was always an innovator, pushing the limits of what the genre could represent while still remaining unmistakably a genre writer. He was always a writer of devastatingly stark prose, able to pull the most hallucinogenically-tumbling apparent nose-dive into something that could really punch you in the guts even from very early in his career — see ‘The Gun’ (1952), ‘Roog’ (1953), ‘Expendable’ (1953)…and never overlook the fact that Anthony Boucher was a fan, and was, I believe, the first editor to buy one of Dick’s stories. The great thing about Dick was his ability to reduce a universal theme down to a small action, or to make a small action scale up into some far grander and of far more moment than it ever seemed possible.
Crucially, his stories — and especially his short stories — are superbly, ingeniously relatable, dragging in imperfect people or technology gone awry by a simple expedient of the people who created it allowing it to function so well that it o’er-reaches itself and falls on th’other. He was remarkable for the ease with which he created a nightmarish dynamic out of a lack of appreciation for how the human outlook and machine outlook on things will inevitably meet an impasse and the machines will, with their inexorable logic and faultless operation, end up becoming the very means by which the humans are caught short and forced into fatal compromise. It’s not cheery stuff, and even when he’s funny — ‘Prominent Author’ (1954), say — he’s not funny, he’s mainly making you sad at the idiocy of his analogy, a sort of graveyard chuckle as you’re forced into that ending realisation and have to shrug and go “Yep, that’s…that’s probably true.”
“And your point is…?”
We’re not here to talk about Philip K. Dick, but he’s on my mind because I’ve just read A Eulogy for Reason (2019), the third novella — actually, it’s probably long enough to count as a novel — from DWaM, and I have to be honest: it’s a head-melting experience, unlike anything I’ve ever read in the genre, and probably the finest Philip K. Dick story that Dick himself didn’t live to write. The red-robed, red-eyed horse-faced figures on the cover should probably act as a hint that you’re not in for a standard country house whodunnit, and yet the locked room murder here — victim burned to death, not only behind a locked door but also taped into the room from the inside (eat your heart out, Rawson and Carr) — fits into a classic pattern and has the sort of multi-layered solution that makes the genre such fun to play around in. And yet there are also occasions when a sinister red sky splits open and a huge black arm descends, intent on ill will towards the blind and ignorant population below.
It is, for want of a better word, weird.
I must stipulate, however, that there are different kinds of weird. The likes of The Red Right Hand (1945) by Joel Townsley Rogers always struck me as the kind of weird that’s just made weird to hide the fact it’s pretty dull. I don’t think Rogers’ prose in that book is up to much, and I don’t believe for a second that anyone would be confused by the events therein if experienced in the actual order they occur (as the characters do, naturally). Or take Memento (2000) which, if you do that thing with the DVD where it plays in chronological order, is actually quite a boring film. Using a fractured narrative to jumble a series of events is pretty much always going to be used on a simple plot playing dress-up, since the audience needs to be able to put it together come the end. Probably the last time multiple narrators and points of view was used to truly devastating effect was Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950) — which is not to say that it can’t be done well (see The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle (2018) by Stuart Turton), but when you take away the framing, the plot is often pretty hokey and simple.
A Eulogy for Reason is weird, and weird in a way that is a deliberate decision to tell a story from multiple perspectives — some of which don’t match up and so feel even odder for their little inconsistencies (the relating of events when Akane hands Charles the box in the first part, for instance, and then Charles’ far less arresting telling of the same thing in the second part). The narrative isn’t quite chronological, but the overlaps are meaningful until they stop being familiar and turn into odd divergences like the online conspiracy community, or the paranoia over the same man standing in the same place at the same time every day. And just as you think you have a handle on it…the sky splits open and that giant hand appears and…yeah, I don’t want to say too much about that.
Amidst all this oddness, however, the sense of DWaM having a hold on the narrative never falters. I simply did not understand parts of this at times, but the skill with which different character are brought in to contribute, and the virtuosity brought to taking so much that’s eldritch and uncanny and fashioning it into a narrative that does not release its grip on you is…honestly, pretty spectacular. Not everyone will like this, I can believe that even people who would say they quite like “something a bit different” won’t go for it, but if you can get under the skin of what’s happening here — and if it speaks to your desire to experience something densely plotted and loosely realised all at once — you’re gonna love it to bits, and be raving about it for a long, long time.
There’s even that quiet moment of devastation when things are brought home with the sort of simplicity PKD would have revelled in — not the locked room, that’s the sort of multi-faceted complexity we’re learning to expect from DWaM — and leaves a sort of quiet desolation behind for how simply it distils the preceding craziness. I won’t say it left a lump in my throat, but I did sit back very sharply and let loose an expletive with a long vowel sound when I got there. And I can’t stop thinking about it now, in much the same way that the key moment of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974) quietly lulls you into a sort of misbegotten sympathy and then reveals that there was no carpet to whisk out from under you in the first place. Yes, I know there’s a lot of pontificating about things other than A Eulogy for Reason going on here, but it’s shaken up such an unusual response in me, it’s like some dragging the base of the water in my brain, and stirring to recall a bunch of experiences I didn’t quite recall having.
In short…look. A Eulogy for Reason is a legitimately fearless piece of work, emblematic of the sort of invention and bizarro world-building that made David Lynch such a household name, which a rip of dystopian discomfort, and a stirring of impossible murder to go along with the other, frankly impossible craziness that makes up the remainder. It’s an experience like little else, and I have to say that if this is the sort of thing that self-dictated writing is able to deliver, then long may it continue. You can download it here for free, but if you enjoy what it does then please go back and throw some financial support DWaM’s way. Love me a traditional detective story though I do, I’m extremely excited to see what this guy does next.