13 June 2008

The Man in the High Castle: Dick's postmodern masterpiece

The Man in the High Castle
Philip K. Dick
G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1962

Juliana said, "I wonder why the oracle would write a novel. Did you ever think of asking it that? And why one about the Germans and the Japanese losing the war? Why that particular story and no other one? What is there is can't tell us directly, like it always has before? This one must be different, don't you think?" (p. 216)

I think this one is definitely different. Dick had been writing novels for over a half-decade by the time this novel--his only Hugo Award-winner--was published. Every Dick novel published in the seven years following Solar Lottery shared a similar storytelling style and quality of language. F
or want of a better term I'll say Dick was a "hack"; his novels were cranked out at amphetamine speed in order to pay the bills. This is not to say that these novels are bad--to the contrary, as I've indicated in my previous reviews, even from the beginning of his career Dick was obviously gifted with both an intellect and an imagination that he put to good use in his short stories and novels. It's just to say that his writing really wasn't all that special.

Until he wrote The Man in the High Castle. Here Dick plays by different rules, writing alternate history rather than dystopian speculations about the 1990-2000s. (I read somewhere that he was initially inspired to write an alternate history of the post-Word War II world after reading Ward Moore's 1953 alternate post-Civil War Bring the Jubilee.) Dick, demonstrating the sort of self-referentiality that initially drew me to his work, even has two of his characters chat about alternate history and whether or not it is properly called science fiction:

"[It's n]ot a mystery....On contrary, interesting form of fiction possibly within genre of science fiction."

"Oh no," Betty disagreed. "No science in it. Nor set in future. Science fiction deals with future, in particular future where science has advanced over now. Book fits neither premise."

"But," Paul said, "it deals with alternate present. Many well-known science fiction novels of that sort." (p. 91)

And what an alternate present (i.e., 1962) it deals with. We learn about the history of this alternate world and how it diverges from our own through snippets of conversation and internal monologue. In 1933 President Roosevelt is assassinated and Adolf Hitler becomes Chancellor of the Third Reich. By 1942 the USSR has fallen, with the Slavs joining European Jews and Gypsies in extermination, and the Japanese have devastated the entire US fleet at Pearl Harbor. They subsequently conquer the West coast of the US, and the Nazis have taken over the East coast and begun the extermination of the Jews in NYC by 1948. Between the two coasts the high plains and Rocky Mountains constitute a buffer zone between the two global superpowers of Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany. The novel recounts the chilling German holocaust on the African continent, the policy of high tech Lebensraum through space colonization, and the inevitable tensions in the marriage of convenience that is the Axis. And Dick reveals his suspicion, in the form of an aging and syphilitic Hitler, that literal rot and insanity lie at the root of the Nazi ideology:
And the horrible part was that the present-day German Empire was a product of [Hitler's syphilitic] brain. First a political party, then a nation, then half the world. And the Nazis themselves had diagnosed it, identified it; that quack herbal medicine man who had treated Hitler, that Dr. Morell who had dosed Hitler with a patent medicine called Dr. Koester's Antigas Pills--he had originally been a specialist in venereal disease. The entire world knew it, and yet the Leader's gabble was still sacred, still Holy Writ. The views had infected a civilization by now, and, like evil spores, the blind blond Nazi queens were swishing out from Earth to the other planets, spreading the contamination. (p. 29)

But Dick doesn't just stop with one alternate history of the world from 1933 1962. Within The Man in the High Castle is another novel, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy--a contraband alternate history of the world in which it is the US and the UK, and not Japan and the Third Reich, who are victorious in World War II. This world is not ours either, though, as Dick makes abundantly clear in a section that Freiherr Hugo Reiss reads in his office:
[I]n the U.S.A. the color problem had by 1950 been solved. Whites and Negroes lived and worked and ate shoulder by shoulder, even in the Deep South; World War Two had ended discrimination... (p. 135)

Any white American reading this sentence in 1962, at the height of the civil rights movement, would surely have felt Dick's rebuke. By 1950, "[w]hites and Negroes lived and worked and ate shoulder by shoulder"? In 1960, white Americans in our version of history wouldn't even use the same water fountains and cafe counters! Of course this alternate world has its own problems with colonialism and the like, but to those living under the boot of the Third Reich, the alternative reality presented in Grasshopper appears nearly paradisiacal.

It is interesting to note that this is not the only book which is central to the novel; the other book that continually resurfaces is the I Ching. In fact, as we discover at the end of the book, the I Ching has basically channeled Grasshopper through a man who is little more than a medium, Hawthorn Abendsen, the so-called "Man in the High Castle." Again and again the novel reminds the reader of the importance and power of writers, particularly those who write "what if" stories. The aforementioned
Reiss is captivated by Grasshopper, and his comments reveal the subversive, compulsive force of science fiction:
How that man can write, he thought. Completely carried me away. Real. Fall of Berlin to the British, as vivid as if it had actually taken place. Brrr. He shivered.

Amazing, the power of fiction, even cheap popular fiction, to evoke. No wonder it's banned within Reich territory; I'd ban it myself. Sorry I started it. But too late; must finish, now. (p, 105)

Dick experiments in other ways. Most of the dialog in the novel is in a dialect of English that captures the flavor of Japanese, with the absence of articles, unusual word order, and a stilted choice of words. Those white characters who interact with the Japanese regularly (and so have become internally colonized to some degree) even think in this dialect. And while Dick has regularly written non-linear plots, at least to the extent that the stories begin in media res, this novel is almost postmodern in its avoidance of a single master narrative. Instead, there are collected plot threads interwoven with the various narratives of the POV characters.

We have Ms. Nobusuke Tagomi with the Japanese Trade Mission in San Francisco, a regular patron of Robert Childan's high-end antique boutique American Artistic Handicrafts. Here he purchases a "genuine Mickey Mouse watch" for Mr. Baynes, a Swedish businessman who turns to be an officer of Reich Naval Counter-Intelligence who has travelled from Germany in disguise to meet with Tagomi and a mysterious Mr. Yatabe, who is himself en route from the Japanese "Home Islands."

Then there is Frank Frink (born Frank Fink, a Jew) who works at Wyndham-Matson Corporation creating fake Americana for such unsuspecting antique dealers as Mr. Childan. Frink's ex-wife Juliana is a judo instructor living in the Rockies, in the neutral zone between Japanese and Nazi spheres of influence. Frank and his coworker/friend Ed McCarthy quit their jobs at Wyndham-Matson and begin a jewelry business, creating beautiful, original pieces of American art. At roughly the same time, Juliana begins an affair with an Italian truck driver.

Mr. Yatabe arrives for his meeting with Mr. Baynes and Mr. Tagomi, who are surprised to find that their visitor is actually Japanese General Tedeki, formerly of the Imperial General Staff. Baynes reveals himself to be Captain Rudolf Wegener of Reich Naval Counter-Intelligence, whose mission is to warn the Japanese about Operation Löwenzahn/Dandelion. It turns out that Goebbels plans, once he assumes control of the Reich as the next Chancellor, to nuke Japan ("The Home Islands") and consolidate Nazi control over the entire world. After the death of Hitler's successor, and the possibility of Goebbels becoming new chancellor, Baynes seeks Japanese support for a different Nazi leader. After the meeting, Nazi agents attempt to attack Baynes and are instead killed by Mr. Tagomi using the Colt Army revolver that he previously bought from Childan.
"Part of personal collection," Mr. Tagomi said. "Much fooled around in vainglorious swift-draw practicing and firing, in spare hours. Admit to compare favorably with other enthusiasts in contest-timing. But mature use heretofore delayed." (p. 162)

Tagomi also retaliates against the local Nazi authorities by directing that Frank Frink, who is scheduled for deportation and subsequent execution as a Jew, be released. It turns out that Frink's artwork, which had been taken on consignment by Mr. Childan's store and subsequently mocked by a young Japanese client as being suitable for export to the Third World, is actually possessed of a soul stirring power and beauty, and that this power has made quite an impression on Mr. Tagomi.

Frink's ex, Juliana, gets more deeply involved with Joe, the truck driver and Italian veteran of war. He wishes to meet Hawthorne Abendsen, author of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, and so the two of them embark on a road trip to find his fortress home. As they approach their destination, she discovers that Joe is actually a Swiss assassin whose target is the Man in the High Castle. Juliana attempts to leave their hotel room. and when Joe bars her way, she slashes his throat with the razor with which she was previously going to kill herself. She makes her way to Abendsen's home and induces him to reveal the truth about his novel--it was written in collaboration with I Ching--and about life.
"The terrible dilemma of our lives. Whatever happens, it is evil beyond compare. Why struggle, then? Why choose? If all alternatives are the same...

Evidently we go on, as we always have. From day to day. At this moment we work against Operation Dandelion. Later on, at another moment, we work to defeat the police. But we cannot do it all at once; it is a sequence. An unfolding process. We can only control the end by making a choice at each step...

We do not have the ideal world, such as we would like, where morality is easy because cognition is easy. Where one can do right with no effort because he can detect the obvious." (p. 207)

As always, Dick explores some deep themes in this novel. The role that the tiniest chance has in determining larger outcomes is evident throughout the story. For one thing, it is built into the genre of alternate history; whether Franklin Roosevelt lived or died in 1933 had long lasting repercussions for the people of the US and the world. So it is with the I Ching which is used by several characters throughout the book to make sense of and determine the appropriate response to a given situation. Dick also interrogates the distinction between reality and artifice, particularly in regard
to antiques and a slippery quantity an object's "historicity":She said,
"What is 'historicity'?"

"When a thing has history in it. Listen. One of those two Zippo lighters was in Franklin D. Roosevelt's pocket when he was assassinated. And one wasn't. One has historicity, a hell of a lot of it. As much as any object ever had. And one has nothing. Can you feel it?" He nudged her. "You can't. You can't tell which is which. There's no 'mystical plasma presence,' no 'aura' around it."... "It's all a big racket; they're playing it on themselves. I mean, a gun goes through a famous battle, like the Meuse-Argonne, and it's the same as if it hadn't, unless you know. It's in here." He tapped his head. "In the mind, not the gun." (p. 52)

Embedding Grasshopper's alternate history of the world within his own alternate history allows Dick to take this question about reality and simulation to the next level, leading the reader to speculate on the meaning and possibility of multiple simultaneously interpenetrating realities and on the role of the individual reader in pinning it all down.

1 comment:

S. Scott Craft said...

I haven't read the Man in the High Castle yet. I hope to read them all someday. Dick's writing style is that of a pulp fiction writer, which one could call hack. But most fancy writing styles usually hard to read and quickly forgotten once read. Good luck with your reading.