A Review of Philip K. Dick's The Man In the High Castleby Ian Mathers
When I first started thinking of writing a review for PKD's The Man in the High Castle, I confess I was intending to make it a mainly negative one. Something to the effect that the reason that this book, out of all of Dick's, won the Hugo because it was a diluted version of Dick's vision and prose style. But, I would also have said, there were certainly many redeeming bits to the novel. As I began the list these all in my mind, my opinion shifted. I began thinking of Dick's attempts to break into mainstream literature (culminating in a series of failed though excellent realist novels), and I realized that The Man in the High Castle might just have been the closest Dick got to achieving that dream.
In a perfect world, American literature would be not nearly as ghettoized as it is, and PKD's realist books would have no doubt had much more of an audience. Considering TMitHC was written after those attempts, and deals with parallel worlds while at the same time being his most realist novel out of his major works is quite significant.
This was not all that changed my opinion, however. While I was listing all the well-written parts of TMitHC mentally, I realized they composed the vast majority of the book. Is it not rather unfair to Dick to assume that simply because he is writing in a different style than some of his other works, he is "diluting" himself? Is this not more of the ghettoization PKD himself hated and resented during his lifetime?
So I came at it again, from a different angle. And as I worked on this, my appreciation for the book grew. It is possible to say that broadly Dick's works can be divided into two main groups: his Realist works (such as this novel, and other like Confessions of a Crap Artist), and his Surrealist ones (generally more famous than the others; hallmarks include Valis and Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said). As a matter of fact, this division is neatly presented in the Valis trilogy, with The Divine Invasion being prime Dick Surrealism, and The Transmigration of Timothy Archer being superb Realism, with almost no fantastic/science fiction elements. In this case, TMitHC fits neatly into the Realist novels; except for the device of the Axis winning World War Two, there are virtually no fantastic elements in it (Mr. Tagomi's experience with the crystal being the exception that proves the rule). As a matter of fact, you could call into question whether books like TMitHC are even really science fiction; many mainstream fiction (under the guise of "magic realism") have gotten away with more. Even P.D. James has written a SF novel (the Children of Men), but in Dick's case he was restricted to this subsection of literature, not taken seriously, because he started out in science fiction.
But, even to the reader unfamiliar with Dick's struggle to be taken seriously, or the history behind TMitHC (including the fact that Dick claimed that he used the I Ching whenever it was used in the novel and took the novel wherever the results lead it), it stands up. This is because, contrary to what Dick's critics say, he was a master of characterization.
One need look no farther than TMitHC for proof of this. Mr. Tagomi, Ed and Juliana Frink, Joe Cinnadella, Bob Childan; we get a serious feel for the psyche of each through Dick's writing. Most SF writers depend on setting and action to propel their books; in PKD's case we have a situation set up, with no resolution in sight, and various characters' choices advancing them half-way across the field only to end up dead, lonely or betrayed. As with the vast majority of Dick's books, TMitHC does not proffer explanations; it is, to paraphrase Marshall McLuhan, not a novel but a "do it yourself kit". The ending is maddeningly inconclusive, loose ends popping up everywhere. Dick has taken, in a literal sense, slices of life and left them as they stand. They begin messily and end messily, just as in "real life" (a phrase every serious reader of PKD should have doubts about).
So, all we really have to go on is Dick's deft characterization. A perfect example is Joe Cinnadella and Juliana Frink; even from the beginning a subtle air of menace lays over their situation. It builds and builds, though the reader is not quite sure why, mostly voiced through Juliana's internal dialogue. Then it is revealed who Cinnadella really is, and all becomes clear. The menace does not let up, however, and a sense of panic is added. On the other hand, we have Juliana's ex-husband, Ed, and his travails. No menace here, no killing, nothing. Just the crushing despair of life in this world, bad job, no love, no hope. Even when he begins his new job his actions and thoughts retain a keen edge of despair. Similar in tone is Bob Childan; petty racist, selling fakes for a living, kowtowing to the Japanese (whom he secretly hate/loves), miserable. His endless worries about place taint the book even more than the Frinks' - the whole novel has a distinctly unsettling feel.
And then there is Mr. Tagomi, the center of the book in many ways. The two best parts of the novel belong to him; his defense of his own office and his experience with the crystal and our world. The first has more of the heartbreakingly ordinary moral choices forced on all of Dick's characters, though as usual couched in more entertaining, dramatic variants. Mr. Tagomi does what he has to, and feels thoroughly sick for the rest of the novel. The situation is as drastic a critique as anyone could lay against the "ends justify the means" way of thinking. Mr. Tagomi discovers that evil exists, but that is not what really troubles him; he had to know it in some fashion already. What disturbs him is the knowledge that the road to Hell really is paved with good intentions, that evil exists in everyone, good and bad, and it takes distressingly little to bring it to the surface. In pain and despair he buys a crystal, takes it to the park and attempts to understand.
This is where Dick pulls off his most impressive conjurer's trick; some sideways-tilted prose, and Mr. Tagomi is gaping at our world. This is done both to reinforce how truly bereft and sterile the world of TMitHC is, and also to show how much better they are than us. Mr. Tagomi gapes at the pollution and overcrowding, and nearly goes mad before returning home. Dick has constructed a world where monstrous things have happened, but is unwilling to let us off the hook; he reminds us how far we still have to go, how unhappy people here are, and whose fault that is. We may not have depopulated Africa, he might be saying, but we do not have the sense to try to protect the environment.
In addition to the unrelenting feeling of gloom and unreality present in the book, however, there are many of Dick's trademarks. Sudden shifts in the reality, made possible by the way print works are accomplished; simply by inserting a single line of text suddenly Joe Cinnadella is no longer Joe Cinnadella, or Ed Frink is free to walk the streets again. Dick also maintains his strong sense of the absurd, postulating a book titled The Grasshopper Lies Heavy wherein the Allies win, of all things. This reverse of the reverse really means nothing, but it serves to generate an unconscious feeling in the reader that the author, Hawthorne Abendsen, knows what should really be happening, that he can help. But in reality he is just a man, a writer like PKD, and he has become so tired of the whole thing he cannot even be bothered to try to save his own life.
But even in this blasted land hope still holds sway; even when attempts at happiness like Ed's attempts at reconciliation with Juliana are fruitless, things never become totally bleak. Dick is at heart an optimist, and idealist whose ideals still have some mileage left in them. The Man in the High Castle struck me at first as one of Dick's lesser works, but in its unaffected despair and hope it may be one of his greatest. It lacks the literary pyrotechnics of a Valis, but makes up for it in possibly the deepest characters Dick has ever written.
Deeply deserving of that Hugo, then.
December 24, 1999