Thursday, April 16, 2009

I'm a Dick-Head: A Review of Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle

Philip K. Dick's Hugo Award winning masterpiece, The Man in the High Castle, was recommended to me by a new friend who reads more than pretty much anyone I have ever known and whose intellect would be intimidating if he weren't so Goddamn humble and easy to talk to.  This was the first bit of literary reading advice I took him up on and post-read, I am now a "Dick-head."  Please notice the capital "D" there in the last word of the previous sentence, though some may argue that I am indeed a phallus brain or whatever, the word refers to my newly acquired love for the science-fiction writer.

Reading Sci-Fi, the genre that got me "into" literature and made me want to be a writer/English major, is something I have gotten away from over the years having little time with the pretentious stuff I had to read for school and with my taste evolving into the works of the postmodern novelists.  However, after meeting this new chum and having read this book, I am likely to be reacquainting myself with that species of lit.  

The novel follows the lives of individuals living in an alternative America during the early 1960s occupied by the Axis Powers (Japan the West, Germany the East, with a sort of lawless-no-man's-land separating them naturally in the Rockies) having won WWII, all the while threatening the planet in each other's quest for world domination.  It focuses on the story lines of five characters--Juliana, Frank Frink, Mr. Tagomi, Robert Childan, and Mr. Baynes--who have to live in the nightmare that is for them the reality of living under Fascist control.  Their lives intersect, some more overtly than others, in numerous ways, but there are two that are most important and are what makes the work a literary treasure--(1) the I Ching and (2) The Grasshopper Lies Heavy--both of which are books.  

Several characters in The Man in the High Castle have in their possession an illegal book called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy penned by the fictional novelist Hawthorne Abendsen.  To write the book, Abendsen consulted the I Ching, something Dick did while writing his novel as well (when he stopped getting answers from it, he stopped writing the book, which explains its "open" ending).  The story-within-the-story tells a version of history that is similar, though there are several major differences,[i] to the one that actually occurred where the Allied Forces won the war.  The implications are pretty straightforward here: history is deceptive.  

Here is where things get tricky.  Like Abendsen, several of the characters consult I Ching when making decisions and such, it is used as and sometimes called an oracle.  A Buddhist text, the I Ching, I understand, though I have not read it, is all about reality and how it is an illusion--sort of your standard Taoist/Confusian/Chan stuff here.  The implication of this, and the books overall message, is that one can never really know can they.

The events in The Man in the High Castle are not our reality, the past retold in The Grasshopper Lies Heavy aren’t either, but presumably our factual world does make an appearance—when Mr. Tagomi has this weird heartattack like out-of-body-experience that nearly kills him while meditating[ii]—but that is not the reality in the book nor can we be sure this is really supposed to be our reality.  The whole thing gets pretty meta.   

In forcing its characters and readers to question what really is this thing reality, the book has a great deal in common with the so-called existentialists like Camus.  We can’t really be sure what is real, and like the characters,  we are all searching for something authentic.  That search doesn’t really end, for any of us, thus Dick leaves the novel’s ending a quote unquote open book.  In doing so he is being, ehm, authentic.  Sure it is a little disappointing to finish the novel and not find out what becomes of the whole impending dooms day scenario unfolding between Japanese and German forces.  But hey, that’s life.



[i] For example, FDR only serves two terms as President, the U.S. conflicts with China and overthrows Mao Zedong, the U.S. and Great Britain oppose one another in a Cold War that Britain emerges from as the world’s lone superpower, apparently, and bizarrely, by being racist, and Hitler doesn't kill himself and has to stand trial for his war crimes.

[ii] I base this assumption on a tidbit from Abendsen’s book that talks about the previously noted Cold War between the U.S. and Great Britain.  There it was said that the Jim Crow laws were abolished in the 1950s while in our reality this didn’t happen until the 60s.  Mr. Tagomi, while crossing worlds, tries to get a seat in a obviously segregated diner; therefore, Dick seems to have Tagomi enter our 1962 rather than the fictitious one in the fictitious book.  

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