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Review: The Man in the High Castle by Philip K Dick

the man in the high castle dick Review: The Man in the High Castle by Philip K Dick

(A warning to the spoiler-averse: this critique does discuss some key plot points, as well as the books ending. You may wish to stop reading after the third paragraph)

Looking back over a series of events, it's possible to make out the numerous junctures at which some other outcome might have eventuated but for some particular choice, some twist of fate. The more one considers these what ifs, veering off in one direction or slipping off into another, the easier it is to see these possibilities spread out, tree-like, into a tangle of possible pasts or possible futures. But while our lived reality necessarily extends through only one branch of this tree, there's always that eerie, niggling feeling that things could very easily be very different'and in fact, may well be. This slippery notion of reality and experience, and the truth of each, is something with which noted speculative fiction author Philip K Dick has explored in a number of his books, including Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and'The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, and a good deal of his shorter work.

It is an idea that Dick also examines in perhaps his most critically acclaimed and most literary work,'The Man in the High Castle. The novel depicts an alternate future in which the Allies have lost the World War, leading to a divided America whose eastern states are controlled by the Germans, and the west by Japan, with the Rocky Mountain states dividing the two acting semi-autonomously and playing the role of a buffer zone. It's perhaps a relief that Dick chooses not to subject us to a microscopic examination of life under Nazi rule: rather, he focuses instead on life under the Japanese occupiers, who are painted as considerably more benign. Dick, in an approach that is consistent with much of his other work, provides us with a plethora of seemingly unrelated characters who are linked in strange and uncertain ways, requiring the reader to piece together the pertinent points of life under the new order through these wildly varied viewpoints. This approach, though, does leave things somewhat nebulous and illusory, with much of the reality of life only hinted at: so much lies tantalisingly out of reach, the big answers being beyond the scope of a narrow third person perspective. But it is this almost inchoate, almost surreal feeling that lends the book much of its strength, hinting as it does at a way of life that is still working itself out, that is still somewhere between the turning point of the old and the new.

Indeed the book fixates on such turning points, and it is at a turning point that each character is introduced. Childan, a dealer of kitsch Americana popular amongst the Japanese, is called upon by the high-ranking Japanese official Tagomi to produce an item for a visiting guest; Mr Baynes, a supposed Swedish businessman, is travelling to America in order to meet with Tagomi and his superiors;'Frank Frink, a Jewish man living under false pretenses begins a jewellery making venture designed to highlight the American ability to create rather than just to replicate; and Julia Frink, Franks ex-wife, meets an Italian man who persuades her to travel across the country in search of the author of a well-known subversive book known as The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. Their narratives are woven together beautifully, with characters seemingly at opposite ends of a narrative thread coming together through a series of events that are both unlikely and likely. There is almost a freeze frame-like sense to the plot, which frequently pauses before turning off to explore another juncture, another possibility. In fact, these narrative plot points are often explicitly highlighted by the characters use of the I Ching, the Chinese Book of Changes, a sort of mystical oracle, to guide their actions. What is particularly intriguing about this is Dicks admission to having himself used the I Ching to determine the progression of the narrative.

The I Ching is used throughout the novel in part to emphasise the ability of the spiritual to live on within an otherwise structured world, but also to highlight the way in which our choices, our agency, are perhaps not within our grasp at all, but rather are the result of some sort of external fatalistic force. Reality seems to happen to us: our experiences are reactive, passive, shaped by external forces over which we have little control. But if this is the case, then are they real, are they true? Indeed, Dick toys with this notion throughout the book, stretching it to apply not only to plot and narrative, but also to characters, and to the otherwise mundane. He incessantly juxtaposes the false and the real, at times applying both attributes to a single item: the cigarette lighter that is imbued with historicity by its owner, but that is for all intents and purposes indistinguishable from a replica. There is also the fake gun, the replica that still functions as a gun otherwise should. Childans antiques, similarly, are the genuine article to those who believe them to be such, but can be transformed entirely by the intimation that this may not be the case. The book is full of true fakes and fake truths. Each of the characters seems at once both real and false: Childan, with his deferential dealings with the Japanese, has in fact internalised a good deal of the wartime racist propaganda; neither Baynes nor the man with whom Julia Frank travels is who either purports to be; and Tagomi, it turns out, is the Buddhist capable of killing.

Perhaps the most overt device used to examine the issue of the true versus the false is the novel within the novel,'The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, which'plays a strange sort of meta role, depicting as it does an alternative history to this alternative history: one in which the Allies have won the war. But again, the issue of what is true is further problematised: the world depicted in the book is not that of our own; it is not a mirror to our world. Rather, while there are recognisable elements of our reality, there are key points throughout The Grasshopper Lies Heavy where a juncture has been reached and fate has taken up one of the many possibilities available. When it is revealed that the I Ching, the oracle used by so many of the characters to guide their decisions, has been consulted in plotting The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, we are met with the implication that in another world, another equally real world, but one that has simply broken away at one of the many possibly junctures, the Axis was not victorious. This thought is at once comforting and terrible: the possibility of a life not under Nazi rule is indeed possible, and indeed real, but at the same time, it is not the lived reality of any of those within The Man in the High Castle, who despite their knowledge of this other truth, this other reality, are at the same time forced to continue along the path mapped out for them. This is further highlighted in a scene where Tagomi momentarily stumbles upon yet another illusory reality, one that is our own, when examining an item of jewellery and assessing it for its inner truth, but is abruptly thrown back into his own reality.

Its interesting that Dick does not allow his characters to use this ambiguity of truth/reality/fate as some sort of excuse to absolve themselves of poor actions. Rather his characters at each juncture act with strength and integrity, responding in a way that is true to their own sense of self and that helps resolve the complex internal conflict each is experiencing. Childan, for example, who has suddenly gained a sense of self-efficacy and pride in his American status after being presented with the stunning jewellery made by Frank, refuses to bow to commercial interests that would see these exquisite items mass-produced and devalueddespite the potential wealth it could bring to him. Julia, similarly, having determined the true identity of her companion, tries to avert a bloody outcome, while Tagomi ensures that Frank is treated with mercy when he is taken in by the Nazi authorities.

Theres no denying that this is a challenging work, and I think its one that will likely only give up all it has to offer upon subsequent reads. There are so many themes, so many contested binaries, touched upon here, and many in subtle ways that require teasing out. On a prose level its uneven, although less so than much of Dicks other work, and the plot is surprisingly grounded and traditional when compared with the other novels of his with which Im familiar. However, the way in which Dick quietly, deftly sketches out this new world(s) and what it means to live within it is quite remarkable. Still, some readers may struggle with the ending, which is open and ambiguous, and which serves to undermine much of the previous narrative. That said, this is probably one of Dicks more accessible works, and given its subject matter and his treatment of it, Im not surprised that this novel has stood up so well these past fifty or so odd years.

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  1. I totally agree with your view points. The way in which Phillip Dick plays with alternative reality is truly amazing. This is one of Dicks finest works.

    • Stephanie /

      Hi Rishi, thanks so much for visiting the site, and Im glad you agree. Ive always loved his efforts to tease apart whats real and whats not, and whether it really matters what the truth is as long as we experience it for what we *think* it is, and I think he does this particularly well in this book. :)

  2. I must admit, I adore all things Philip K Dick. Any book that makes me ponder it well and truly after reading it, is great in my books.

  3. Stephanie /

    His work certainly does exactly that. Even pieces that I think are his lesser works (Do Androids Dream, for example) still raise so many questions and problems that they continue to haunt for years. I find the same thing with Vonnegut: his books linger long after Ive finished reading them.

  4. I agree, I think Slaughterhouse 5 was a great example of a lingering book. I started off rating it 3 stars but after weeks and weeks of thinking about it; it slowly creepy up to a 5 star rating.

  5. Stephanie /

    Player Piano is the same for me. I still reference it constantly, and I read it back in high school!