June 16, 2011


by Philip K Dick
249 pages, Penguin

Review by Pat Black

Philip K Dick’s great “what if?” novel isn’t his best-known, but it’s widely regarded as his finest. It looks at the dystopian scenario of how things might have turned out if the Nazis and the Japanese had won the Second World War.

Set in an alternate early 1960s, The Man in the High Castle has the United States partitioned between the two victors. As well as taking the east coast of the US, the Nazis have rolled over the top of Europe, continued their Final Solution into Africa, and reclaimed the Mediterranean Sea for farmland. The book is mostly set in the Pacific Seaboard zone of the US, under the rule of the comparatively benign Japanese, although the Nazis and their behind-the-scenes scheming are an almost constant presence.

There are several main characters. First of all, there’s Mr Tagomi, a high-ranking civic official in San Francisco. A wise and benevolent man, Mr Tagomi consults the ancient Chinese tool of divination, the I Ching, for guidance. He has a passion for American antiques. He seems a fairly calm guy, but he worries about the German regime. He sees it as an ultimate expression of evil, and the thought of it makes him physically ill. Later, he will become mixed up in a daring plot to expose the Nazis’ true aims worldwide.

Then there’s Frank Frink. He’s a bootlegger of antique Americana of the type Mr Tagomi particularly likes. When we meet him, Frank’s been laid off, and his wife is long gone. But Frank has a talent for making jewellery, and he enters into a partnership with his workmate Ed to make some original pieces to sell.

This leads us to Frank’s estranged wife, Juliana. A judo instructor and, it’s fair to say, a lass who enjoys a good night out, she hooks up with an Italian truck driver named Joe and they hit the road. Joe is reading a book – The Grasshopper Lies Heavy – which Juliana becomes fascinated by. It details an alternative future in which the Allies won the Second World War. Together, they hatch a plan to seek out the book’s author, a man named Abendsen, who apparently lives in a fortified compound high in the mountains, safe from German assassination attempts. Juliana also consults the I Ching.

And finally, there’s Mr Childan, a curiosity shop owner. He’s had a good thing going with his antique business, but is horrified to discover that he’s been unwittingly selling fake goods in the past. A man preoccupied with the Japanese notion of one’s place in society, Childan seeks out to rectify this wrong. Along the way, he seeks to cosy up to a young Japanese couple who come into his shop. In particular, he is quite taken with the young man’s lovely wife.

As you can guess, interconnectivity is a big theme of the book. Every single story strand affects another in bigger or smaller ways. And Dick, as in other works, is fascinated by Taoism and the I Ching. I suspect the oracle provides more of a drive for this book than we might expect, even down to the plotting.

But there are so many complexities and paradoxes in The Man In The High Castle that it can be difficult to know where to start. A great example of this is the meta-book, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy; we’re reading a book about an alternative world, where the characters are reading a book about an alternative world. The implication being that somewhere out there, people are reading a book about us reading a book about an alternative world, and so on.

And, in line with Taoism, Dick is also keen to point out the positives and negatives of everything; in a utopian future where the Allies won World War Two, Dick has the nerve to suggest that some of the Nazis’ economic programmes could have been successfully continued throughout the developing world. And he also paints a grim, but all-too-believable picture of a desperate Britain resorting to any means necessary to protect itself against the Nazis. We live in a world of paradoxes and constantly shifting loyalties, Dick is saying. You can’t really write anything off.

And there are common Dickian themes in this book. Firstly, an obsession with junk and clutter and the importance invested in such things. Then there’s confusion and befuddlement on the part of characters whose sense of reality is shifted – with a clear notion that all that we see and experience may in fact be some kind of illusion. Also, the world of the common man is always used to explore big themes, particularly through the estranged couple, Frank and Juliana. Although there are high-ranking German and Japanese officials present in the book, it’s the ordinary joes who make the biggest impression.

Always, lurking in the background, there is a sense of evil forces at work against good, or at least better, ones. There are two moments of graphic violence in this book, but I found them far less horrifying than two scenes where characters are politely ushered into cars, on the understanding that once the doors are closed, there is no hope left for them.

For a writer who thrives on confusion and uncertainty, Dick always introduces a moment where characters decide on a firm course of positive action in his books. Even though they don’t know where they’re going, they make a decision to go for it, anyway. It reminded me of Joe Chip’s decision to take a stand against the unpleasant Jory entity in Ubik; in this book, Childan’s unexpected moment of bravery near the end was the most striking aspect of this Dickian defiance, although in Frank Frink’s permanent underdog there’s a man even more worthy of our sympathy.

Although every single character’s final outcome is uncertain in Dick’s world, we can draw a sense of closure from the fact that they have at least decided to do something about their lot, no matter how futile the act.

Reading Philip K Dick is a little bit like taking a long walk in the snow. After a while, you hear something creak beneath your feet. After you clear away a little of the snow, you discover you’re standing on thin ice, stretched across very deep water.

You could pick out any number of flaws in Dick’s prose, but his concepts and revelations are electrifying, with layer after layer of meaning waiting to be discovered. There was truly no-one like him.

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