Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 525
Fred is an undercover narcotics agent who poses as drug user Bob Arctor. Bob shares his house with two other users, Barris and Luckman, and has a girlfriend, Donna, who is a small-time dealer. Bob is addicted to Substance D—the “D” standing primarily for Death—and is ostensibly using Donna to...
(The entire section contains 525 words.)
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Fred is an undercover narcotics agent who poses as drug user Bob Arctor. Bob shares his house with two other users, Barris and Luckman, and has a girlfriend, Donna, who is a small-time dealer. Bob is addicted to Substance D—the “D” standing primarily for Death—and is ostensibly using Donna to find the source of this drug. To prevent corruption, the government uses scramble suits to protect the identity of agents; not even supervisors know who they are underneath. Fred is assigned to monitor the group at Bob’s house, but by necessity, that means he must monitor himself as Bob or blow his cover.
When surveillance of Bob’s house intensifies because of suspicious behavior, so do acts of sabotage occurring against Bob. On the same day that the government installs monitoring equipment in his house, Bob and his housemates almost die from somebody tinkering with his car. As Fred, he finds himself reviewing the recordings of Bob and his friends, finding himself in knotty discussions with his supervisor and fellow agents about the results. Fred also finds himself disassociated from Bob, reaching a point where the two are unable to guess each other’s actions. The title of the novel refers to the surveillance tool and the consequences when Bob/Fred cannot comprehend what he sees.
Government agents conduct tests on Fred and discover Substance D has damaged his brain, splitting his personae. At the same time, Barris comes to the police and offers information that will get Bob busted as a major drug dealer-conspirator. Fred’s cover is blown, and he is placed in the detoxification program of New-Path, where he takes on the name Bruce, his mental functions severely deteriorated.
Donna turns out to be a government narcotics agent, now using her former boyfriend to trace the source of Substance D, New-Path. The novel closes with Bruce pocketing Substance D, unwilling to give up his junkie habits as Bob or perhaps fulfilling his previous role as Fred, keeping evidence for Donna’s bust.
The novel is loosely plotted, often going on tangents that help reinforce a sense of the drug community’s frame of mind. Along that line, the paranoia that Bob/Fred suffers is never confirmed. Was Barris the one sabotaging Bob’s belongings? Dick refers time and again to the capricious behavior of people on drugs and how one betraying whim does not necessarily link to others. Indeed, the odd behavior Bob must engage in to protect his Fred persona may have been the impetus for Barris’s deal. Further, why is New-Path growing Substance D—outright greed and opportunism, or perhaps a means of gaining control of people who otherwise would resist being told what to do?
This is as much a story about a community of drug users as about the split personality of one man. The first chapter focuses on a friend of Bob who must cope with hallucinatory aphids, mirroring Bob’s own descent at the end. In an author’s note, Dick dedicated the book to friends from his own drug-using community, not condemning their choice but fully cognizant of the consequences suffered.