Book Review – The Man in the High Castle by Philip K Dick
When I started this blog a little under two years ago, it was partly with the intention of writing detailed reviews of the ten or so PKD novels I consider to be the most vital. The Man in the High Castle (henceforth TMitHC) certainly falls into this category. I first read this in 1999 during my first exposure to the world of PKD, and at a guess I’d say that I’m up to my fourth reading by 2010. There aren’t many books I’ve cared to read four times, but the best of PKD definitely warrants this kind of attention.
TMitHC is a unique work in PKD’s vast opus for a number of reasons. Written in 1961, when the author was a tender 32 years old, it is in part an attempt to fuse the speculative riffs of earlier SF novels like Time Out of Joint and The Eye in the Sky with the gritty realism of the author’s then-unpublished mainstream novels like Mary and the Giant and Confessions of a Crap Artist. PKD tried to do this a number of times during his career, with limited success, but TMitHC must stand as a very significant exception. The novel is unique in that it is PKD’s only alternate history novel, set in a world where the Axis won WWII. The third unusual thing about TMitHC is that it is much better written than most of PKD’s work. By 1961, the author had written no fewer than 25 prior novels (according to Lawrence Sutin in his indispensible biography Divine Invasions), a staggering number. This is not the work of an apprentice, and nor is it the work of an amphetamine-fuelled madman/genius/hack that pumped out twelve novels in two years. This is a work of craft, and it is the novel I’d point to in defending PKD from the allegation that he had good ideas but couldn’t write. PKD could write, so well that his work is still being pored over nearly thirty years after his death, but he rarely produced something as polished as this. In fact, I feel I can say with some certainty that this is the best written of his forty-plus titles. And the fourth reason TMitHC is unique in the master’s ouevre is that it was the only one of his novels to win a major award, the coveted Hugo in 1963. To an extent, this book saved and remade his career. Without it, he may never have gone on to produce novels like Martian Time-Slip, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, Ubik and VALIS.
Before I go on, I want to explain how influential this novel has been on me personally. In it, several of the characters use the Chinese Oracle, the I Ching, to guide them through their daily lives. I hadn’t heard of the thing in 1999, but I obtained a copy henceforth (the Richard Wilhelm translation with the introduction by Carl Jung) and have used it since. In TMitHC, PKD has his characters actually sitting down and using the I Ching in a way that serves as a good introduction to the Oracle and the ideas contained within. After using it extensively for several months, I became interested in the ancient Chinese philosophy of Taoism and especially the writings of Chuang Tzu (Zhuangzi in pinyin). One version, Wandering on the Way: Early Taoist Parables of Chuang Tzu, translated by Victor Mair, is one of the ten books I’d take with me to a desert island if I was to spend the remainder of my life there. After that, I read some of the classics of Chinese literature, most notably the epic Three Kingdoms, as well as a number of books on Chinese history. This led me, in time, to modern day China and the writings of Ha Jin, Xinran, and my favourite, Ma Jian (whose novel Beijing Coma I reviewed in 2008 – the review easily has the most hits on this blog to this day). Ten years of inquiry, maybe even of enlightenment (even if only of the personal kind), can be traced directly back to Philip K Dick and The Man in the High Castle. Without it, I would not have been exposed to Taoist philosophy in 1999 and may never have proceeded down this path. So if I or anyone else ever questions the value of literature in people’s lives, I need only to point to my own example.
TMitHC opens in San Francisco with an odd little man by the name of Robert Childan, a man of limited intelligence and sympathy who runs an antique shop full of pre-war American kitsch. His main customers are the ruling Japanese, who apparently can’t get enough of the stuff. In the next couple of chapters, we are introduced to no less than four other viewpoint characters (I’ll explain what I mean by viewpoint characters in a minute). Frank Frink is a Jewish man living in the same Pacific States of America who has recently lost his job and prior to that his wife. Nobusuke Tagomi is a high-ranking Japanese official who needs a gift for an important visitor. Juliana Frink is a judo instructor and Frank’s ex-wife, living in the Rocky Mountain States. And Mr Baynes is a Swedish plastics maker arriving by Nazi rocket in San Fran to meet Mr Tagomi.
*This next paragraph relates to the craft of writing. Ignore it if you aren’t interested in this. *
This is PKD’s technique and he makes it work exceptionally well in TMitHC. The technique is to have a large number of characters who narrate shortish sections (there are often two distinct sections per chapter), giving the reader an insight into their states of mind. This is not the same as having an omniscient narrator who has access to the thoughts of all characters and moves in and out of those minds at will. Omniscient narrators tend to impose a certain monolithic narrative that gives precedence to the perspective of that godly narrator, and in turn the author. PKD does not do this. Instead, he sets a number of individual minds into motion, all with differing opinions and concerns, and basically pits their interests against one another. The characters will come into contact with each other in varying ways, and will ultimately directly influence each other’s lives. So Childan and Tagomi are on opposite sides of an important transaction, Frank and Juliana on opposite sides of the country, and the mysterious Baynes ties it all together. I like this technique so much that I’ve spent a decade trying to teach myself to write like this myself.
*Writing section ends.*
What surprised me this time around reading TMitHC is that the narrative moves very slowly to begin with. Largely the early chapters consist of the characters just thinking about their lives while they attend to mundane tasks like shaving or cooking breakfast. The interest derives from the world they are thinking in and about. Very rapidly we are given to understand that the Japanese and Germans not only won the war but have conquered and divided the United States among themselves. The novel is supposed to be set in PKD’s own time (let’s call it 1962, the year the novel was published), meaning that fifteen years have passed since the war ended in 1947. Furthermore, the Nazis have already remade much of the globe in their image: purging Africa of its natives, hurtling across the sky in their super-fast rockets, filling in the Mediterranean Sea, and conquering the solar system. They’ve made it to Mars already, for example. This is supposed to be 1962 or thereabouts. And here we run into PKD in wild speculation mode of a kind that would not usually be found in an Axis Won WWII narrative. This is the same PKD who, in his next novel Martian Time-Slip, had a fully functioning colony on Mars in 1992. If the rapid conquest of the solar system can be explained away in TMitHC, then it is only in imagining the crazed Nazis at the helm.
The story finally gets going in chapter five, but it does so in an oblique way. Frank tries and fails to get his job back, and a colleague called Ed McCarthy tries to convince him to go into business alone. It turns out that Frank has been in the business of making fake Civil War antiques that are eventually sold to the Japanese. When a man supposedly from a Japanese aircraft carrier comes in to Robert Childan’s shop on the pretext of wanting to buy 12 antique pistols, he examines one of the pistols carefully and declares it to be a fake. Enraged, Childan tries to get to the bottom of how he was sold a fake pistol, and the discovery ends up having a negative influence on Frank and Ed’s employer, as was their intention (there was no aircraft carrier). But the employer suspects Frank and Ed of being behind the sting, and vows to pay them off and find a way to get at them subtly. Such as telling the Nazis that Frank is really a Jew (his real name is Fink, not Frink). In this chapter we also have an extended discussion on the nature of the real versus the forged, and the ultimate inconsequence of such categories. Here, too, were are introduced to a book called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy by one Hawthorne Abendsen, which is an alternate history in which the Allies, not the Axis, won WWII. Only PKD could have thought of that. And here is the genius at work, putting the reader into a disorientating bind of reality vs illusion in a far more subtle way than he would do in any of his other novels. I won’t spoil the rest for those that haven’t had the pleasure of reading this yet. Happy reading.