Artizan Library reading group


PK Dick’s The Man in the high tower

man-in-the-high-towerThis time it was back to 1962 in the alternative history of PK Dick’s The man in the high castle. It is some seventeen years since the Axis forces of Germany and Japan won the Second World War. The USA is occupied, its population subject to the victorious powers. One of the strands of a complex plot is the intrigue surrounding the German Nazi succession. The action is largely in Japanese-occupied San Francisco.

Dick’s Japanese are spiritual collectors of Americana antiques, imbued with Chinese and, occasionally, Tibetan lore, including, significantly, the I Ching, a book to be consulted on the toss of a die or coin or little sticks, which provides enigmatic aphorisms meant to guide the tosser’s future actions. Dick’s Germans are technocrats who have killed off their inferior races, drained the Mediterranean and sent rockets to colonise the planets. A quartet of properly American characters – a voluptuous Judo instructor, an Americana dealer, a jeweller, and the author of a best-selling alternative-history fiction (in which the Axis forces are defeated!) – represent the angst of post-war subjection. All regular I Ching users.

Pulp style, according to Malcolm. Dick’s short-story, unrefined eagerness to get the idea down, like in his Do androids dream of electric sheep? But this was more drawn-out and ambitious, with weird results for the most part. Interior monologues in empathic modes of speech – Japanese-inflected English achieved by dropping articles, rambling bits of senseless text to illustrate the influence of drugs, and so on.

There were bits of sensitive exposition in the narrative which Rory had enjoyed, like the extensive range of subservient sensibilities which the Americana dealer articulates when he plans and carries through his visit to the home of a wealthy Japanese couple. Tim had it down as better than Robert Harris’s Fatherland.

One of the oddest features of the story to us nowadays may be the role of the Chinese Book of changes, the I Ching. It had its vogue in the UK. Tim remembered it from the 60’s, Malcolm, slower to catch on, from the 70’s. Both of them had a copy of it at home, though Malcolm blamed his wife. (No blame at all, at all, according to the text.) It made Sara think of the novel The dice man by Luke Rhinehart, another hit of the early 70’s, whose conceit is that the narrative is controlled by the main character’s throw of a pair of dice. A bit different in this novel, whose narrative is controlled by social and political fall-out of a world war. Here it becomes just part of the cultural ambience of the orientalised American West.

What about the motif of Japanese fascination with antiques of American origin, from Civil War memorabilia to Mickey Mouse watches? Rory had it. An inversion of the Western fascination with Japanese stuff. Dick is good here. That’s what the Romans did with Greek culture, a feature of hegemony.

Malcolm was reminded of another genre writer, Raymond Chandler. Why? Because here Dick does what Chandler often did in his detective novels, he drops in notionally ‘high’ culture asides. Take the renegade German, Baynes, singing one of the settings of Goethe’s Der Erlkönig in the shower. Erudition paranoia, he had it down as. Nonsense, Tim responded. A spirit of the time. Pulling in all sorts of cultural stuff. That’s what the 1960s was about. OK but Baynes is supposed to be in a good mood at that point in the story, and Der Erlkönig is pretty grim. Maybe a German thing.

Given that Japanese cruelty during the Second World War was considered as more exquisitely phenomenal, what was Dick’s motivation to portray the Japanese occupation of the Pacific coast as more congenial than the Germans’ of the Atlantic? Sara knew. It was the dropping of the two atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagosaki. Dick was making amends.

A measure of Dick’s effort to somehow make the story ‘deep’ is his invention of an ‘alternative history’ book which is being read by some of the characters during the course of the action, one which postulates an allied victory at the end of the Second World War. Its title is The grasshopper lies heavy, attributed to a passage in the bible from Ecclesiastes giving a gloomy warning about the day of judgement. Its author is the ‘man in the high castle’ of the title, although, when he appears near the end of the book, he has moved to more humble accommodation. As they read it, characters comment on the role of science fiction and the ‘amazing power’ of even cheap fiction. Whether this self-referential device has any success may be debatable. In terms of the plot, the Grasshopper appears to affect our Judo instructor so as to make her believe (with the help of the I Ching, of course) that its outcome, an allied victory, really did occur. Whereupon she rapidly convinces its author of that fact, then warns him, nevertheless, to carry a gun to protect himself from German assassins, such as the one she managed to kill earlier in the narrative. Puzzling, isn’t it?

Sara hadn’t much patience with the whole topic of the I Ching but Dick’s persistence with it reflects the fact which he volunteered in an interview, that he was using it to make decisions about the story as he wrote it. Nor had she much time for the idea that plain little bits of jewellery could emanate the mysterious life-force, Wu, made so much of in the book.

Another bit of information about Dick’s writing at the time might be found, according to Tim, in his dedication in the first edition to his wife ‘without whose silence this book would never have been written’. Possibly she didn’t think much of it. Dick married five times. Possibly didn’t take criticism kindly?

Next time we meet 6pm Monday 20 February at Artizan Street Library to consider the novel My brilliant friend by much in the news Elena Ferrante.

Best wishes

Malcolm Key

City of London Library