No doubt you’ve had the experience of reading a highly-rated book that just didn’t work for you. That happened to me many years back when Philip K. Dick’s The Man In The High Castle ended up in my eager hands. I read this brilliant novel of alternate history and drew a blank. Prepared for a bizarre thriller, I was mystified by the odd intricacy of what I was reading. Yet I sensed that the problem lay in my own view of how a novel should unfold — plotting, characters, climax and resolution — rather than with the author’s elusive and complex reflections on the truth. So a few months ago, in an act of ritual renewal, I purchased an unneeded brand-new copy of the novel and set out to read it once again.
High Castle is stunning, one of those rare books that still has the power to shock us. Published fifty years ago, it describes a world in which Japan and Germany are the victors in the Second World War. The U.S. has been divided into the Pacific States of America (ruled by the more civilized Japanese) while the East Coast is dominated by Nazi Germany (“All we get in New York is heavy German bombastic Wagner…” says one character, apparently nostalgic for a good Broadway musical). Slavery has returned to the South, Germany dominates outer space, Africa no longer exists (“that huge empty ruin”) and a cold war pits the victors, Germany and Japan, against each other. Fears and horrors long put to rest will stalk your psyche once again as you read (reminding me of the prophesy of the rats’ return at the end of Albert Camus’ The Plague). Yet life has adjusted to the status quo, and what we see is the bland, workaday routine of West Coast society — enough like our own to disturb us.
The book’s title refers to a man named Hawthorne Abendsen, the author of a popular underground novel (The Grasshopper Lies Heavy) which provides a disorienting story-within-a-story — an alternate history in which the Allies win the war through a series of events that is not quite true to historical fact (all facts being rather slippery in this fictional context). This inner story belongs to the multiple-mirrors complexity that structures this book, a disturbing confusion of realities and falsehoods. The book abounds with deceptions; the antique dealer Robert Childan understands that much of what he sells to his Japanese overlords (hungry for “American culture”) is counterfeit; secret agents with false personae inhabit the story, including Frank Frink, a Jewish man disguised as a Gentile and fearing deportation and death; a judo instructor, Juliana, who becomes sexually involved with Joe, an alleged Italian war vet who’s in fact a Swiss assassin out to kill the novelist Abendsen; the latter, for his own safety, creating the deception that he lives in a fortified dwelling. Picking apart the strands of truth and falsehood is a provocative challenge for the reader.
Apart from the author’s intellectual acumen, it’s wonderful to read work written with such technical skill. Dick moves in and out of the minds of his characters with voices that range from sarcastic (“Work the sentences, if you wish, so that they will mean something,” says Mr. Tagomi to his secretary. “Or so that they mean nothing. Whichever you prefer.”) to English renditions of beginner’s Japanese (“I hear it on many lips,” says Childan to his Japanese host regarding the underground novel, “but pressure of business prevents my own attention.”) A delicious element of satire is never far from the surface (try not to laugh — however ruefully — at the fawning responses to the selection of a new German dictator).
Yet Dick’s alternate history functions as a kind of twisted metaphor. It is of course, untrue that the Axis powers won the Second World War, yet in fictional terms, the alternate history within the novel which describes an Allied victory is no less untrue. Truth — whatever it may be — may depend on which side of the looking-glass we stand. In a world of illusion, Dick does not allow us crisp, tight-knit conclusions. As a younger reader, I think I must have found this distressing.
High Castle is a novel of ideas with a fascinating story as the pages turn. Yet one read — or re-read — won’t do it. The book is packed with nuance and insight. If you’ve read it already, go back and read it again. And again.
Philip K. Dick’s The Man In The High Castle won the Hugo Award in 1963. This edition was published in New York by Mariner Books (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) in 2011.