The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
For some insane reason, I thought that my final finals season at Agnes meant that I would have tons of time for reading. This was not only a lie, but a damned lie. I checked out every book I could only get at my college library and a handful of books from the local library. Fines piled up on the school books and the local books went home, unread, save for one: The Man in the High Castle. I’d only known Philip K. Dick by reputation, and I had confused The Man in the High Castle, the “Nazis won World War II” story, with another “Nazis won World War II” alternate history short story that was much more dour and depressing. Well, not that this isn’t…
The Man in the High Castle takes place in an alternate universe, where the Axis forces won World War II. The United States is divvied up between Japanese occupation on the West and German occupation on the East, with the ignored Rocky Mountains remaining the only place reminiscent of pre-World War II America. While the Japanese tend to their holdings, the Nazis travel to Mars and decimate Africa. Against this backdrop, a Japanese trade commissioner in San Franscisco meets with a man who claims to be a Swedish industrialist; a man attempts to conceal his Jewish identity and make a living; a woman picks up a suspicious lover; and the whole continent is secretly reading The Grasshopper Lays Heavy, a novel that imagines history as if the Axis had lost.
Even in novels you don’t enjoy, there are sometimes images that stick with you and haunt you. Late in The Man in the High Castle, Juliana, the novel’s sole female character out of the ensemble that functions as a protagonist, has functionally killed a man. She contacts the wife of the man who wrote The Grasshopper Lays Heavy, and reads her a reading of the I Ching. It’s a fleet moment in the text, but a human one that just expands: the darkness around Juliana, the closeness of the booth, the battered copy of the I Ching splayed against the glass, and the phone tucked against her shoulder by her head. In that image, I think you can get much of the darker meat of the novel: the desire for and impossibility of authenticity (Juliana must prove that she’s not an average fan, but Mrs. Abendsen isn’t a believer), the darkness of this strange, oppressive world, and the unstable despair of those who try to think outside it to correct it. The West Coast may be Japanese, but the East Coast is all Nazi Germany, and eager to expand. (They’re described almost like automatons.)
And all of this hinges on the idea that there is something inherently American being beaten out of Americans under Japanese and Nazi occupation. Occupation such at this is obviously oppressive, so I’ve no issue with that. What I do have issue with is what Dick argues is inherently American. One character in the novel, Robert Childan, an antiques dealer specializing in Americana, tries to assimilate the best he can to this new world order. The next generation of the Japanese occupiers is wild about Americana. At dinner with a client and his wife, Childan is offended when they want to listen to jazz: “Was he supposed to deny the great masters of European music, the timeless classics in favor of New Orleans jazz from the honky-tonks and bistros of the Negro quarter?” (109)
I think it’s a perfect illustration of what is considered American here, throughout all the perspectives offered, which include Americans, Japanese, and one supposed Swede. Jazz is one of the rare things that is wholly and utterly American—and Childan, one of the various men throughout the novel that commodifies American identity, is offended by it. Of course, Childan is more racist than the other characters, but there is a constant refrain of America and the American culture worth saving being not only white, but Anglo-Saxon: the gifts given in the novel include Civil War-era pistols, comic books featuring lantern-jawed white men, and a Mickey Mouse watch. Race isn’t particularly explored here in any significant manner: while black slavery has been reinstated (!), it’s never explored (unlike several other passages of straight worldbuilding), and we only see concrete evidence of a segregation system where the Japanese are on top fleetingly at the end of the novel.
And that’s, I think, why I couldn’t ultimately connect with The Man in the High Castle and could only see it as a product of its time. Juliana, the lone female character, doesn’t fare particularly well and it feels like Dick doesn’t have the best handle on writing women. The meandering plot designed to focus on the world didn’t help, although the ending was heartrending and economical. It feels much more, especially considering the ending, a particularly thoughtful worldbuilding exercise, than a novel I will come back to time and time.
The bottom line: Alternate history classic The Man in the High Castle feels like a particularly thoughtful worldbuilding exercise than a novel. And its concept of what constitutes “American” is particularly dated. Worth checking out for its reputation, but maintain a grain of salt.
I rented this book from the public library.