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conceptual fiction
The Man in the High Castle

by Philip K. Dick

Reviewed by Ted Gioia

What would happen if the course of American history had taken a
different turn in the 1940s? This is now a suitable subject for the
literary lions, as demonstrated by Michael Chabon’s
The Yiddish
Policemen’s Union (2007) or Philip Roth’s The Plot Against
America
(2004). But a year before Chabon was born, Philip K.
Dick earned his first Hugo award for his bold alternate history
novel The Man in the High Castle, a work that has gradually gained
acceptance as a modern classic.

This turn of events would have delighted
Dick, who died in 1982 just as his books
were beginning to find an audience outside
of the sci-fi field. During most of his life,
he struggled financially, and while Dick
longed to build a reputation as a serious
writer, he found himself published by Ace
Books, an imprint whose greatest claim to
fame was binding pulp novels together as
“two-for-ones” so that fans could read, for
example, both Mike Brett’s
Scream Street
and John Creighton’s Stranglehold in a
single thirty-five cent volume.

Needless to say, a stint in the Iowa Writers'
Workshop is a much better starting point
for those aspiring to literary fame. Dick himself realized how
difficult it would be to extricate himself from the “genre fiction”
pigeonhole in which he had been placed, but did not abandon his
hopes for a highbrow audience. Around the time he wrote
The
Man in the High Castle
, Dick noted that it might "take twenty to
thirty years to succeed as a literary writer." In a surprising twist
(worthy of his own topsy-turvy plots), Dick did become a
highbrow success thirty years later—but did so posthumously,
largely on the basis of the works he wrote as a young man.

In
The Man in the High Castle, the United States has lost World
War II and is occupied by foreign powers. The eastern seaboard
has fallen under German control, while the West Coast is under the
sway of Japan. The South is a Vichy-type regime with the strings
pulled by Nazi collaborators, while the Midwest and Rocky
Mountain regions are quasi-independent, buffer zones separating
the two occupying powers. Tensions between Germany and Japan
simmer beneath the surface, and the threat of a nuclear conflict
between them is ever present.

In this highly charged setting, Dick develops his several story
lines. We follow the secretive course of “Mr. Baynes,” a German
defector attempting to enlist the support of the Japanese against
the machinations of Joseph Goebbels. He is working through a
contact in the Japanese trade mission, Nobusuke Tagomi, who is
ignorant of Baynes’ agenda, and is caught up in his own private
dramas—including a puzzling visit to another alternative universe.
A third sub-plot concerns Frank Frink, an aspiring jewelry
designer who is trying to hide his Jewish ancestry in order to avoid
arrest. Robert Childan, an American dealer in collector items, is
another significant character whose ability to internalize the
speech and behavior patterns of his mostly Japanese clientele has
helped him achieve a degree of success in the occupied territories.

Dick once claimed that he relied on the
I Ching to help him
develop the plot for this novel—and even blamed it for elements of
the story that left him unsatisfied. As is so often the case with
Dick, the story echoes the circumstances under which it was
written. In this case, the
I Ching plays a role in the plot, as
characters consult it to guide their course of action. The novel
also reminds us of its construction in the character of Hawthorne
Abendsen, who is the enigmatic “Man in the High Castle,” an
author who is writing a fictional account of alternative history, in
which United States and its allies win the war. And Abendsen relies
on the I Ching to write this novel-within-a-novel.

Reality blurs within the story. And the distinction between the
story and outside reality—as manifested in Dick’s personal life—
also grows fuzzy (another trademark of this author’s oeuvre). In a
charged moment in the book, Nobusuke Tagomi finds himself in
Abendsen's imagined world where the United States was the victor
in World War II, and this strange situation of a “true” alternate
history in this midst of Dick’s contrived one, opens up the dizzying
possibility of an infinite regress, a literary equivalent of two
mirrors facing each other.

These are precisely the crazy twists that delight Dick’s ardent fans.
While other works of speculative fiction often seem formulaic,
Dick stands out for the kaleidoscopic and uninhibited quality of
his storytelling. The reader feels that Dick is almost experiencing
these stories first-hand, and has given us a rare glimpse into his
own psyche. Above all, this is a novel that seems as much a dream
or a vision, and when we finally encounter the “Man in the High
Castle” in the closing pages, it is hard to suppress the suspicion
that we have met the dreamer in person, and that it is Philip K.
Dick himself.

The book betrays it genre origins at every turn. The writing is
covered by a pulp fiction veneer, and the prose is (as is often the
case with this writer) less than Proustian. Yet if you care about
literature, don’t think for one moment that you can dismiss this
novelist as a sci-fi hack. Dick’s fingerprints are everywhere in
contemporary culture—books, movies, television, video games,
graphic novels, you name it—and spending some time with
The
Man in the High Castle
will help you understand why.
Philip K. Dick Enters
The Library of America


Can this be for real? Have I entered some
alternative universe? Do I actually see the
pulp sci-fi novels of Philip K. Dick
infiltrating the distinguished shelf of classics
published by
The Library of America? Yes,
there it is, “DICK” emblazoned across the
discreet black background,
with red, white and
blue trim - sitting
between James
Fenimore Cooper
and John Dos
Passos.  What
planet am I on?

Yes, this feels like
a scene in one of
Dick’s alternative
reality novels, where somehow history (lit
history in this case) gets re-written and all
familiar guidelines disappear into the fifth
dimension. But Dick’s arrival in the
pantheon of American novelists is no
sudden plot twist. No American writer has
seen such a dramatic turnaround in
reputation over the last half century. But the
shift has happened gradually, fueled by the
interest of film-makers (Ridley, Scott, John
Woo, Paul Verhoeven), younger writers
(most notably Jonathan Lethem, who edits
the Dick volume for
The Library of
America
), and a growing cadre of fans and
admirers.

Today, the film rights to a Dick short story
can bring in close to $2 million to the author’
s estate. But during his lifetime, Dick was so
poor he bought horsemeat from a pet shop
for dinner. His drug habit — Dick would pop
pills by the dozens — also ate into his
income, and fed his paranoia and psychotic
episodes. As a result, Dick churned out
novels and tales in mad rush to stay
financially afloat, and set down the
visionary images and concepts of his over-
heated imagination. His fervor resulted in a
oeuvre of 44 published novels, countless
short stories, and (most intimidating of all)
his so-called
Exegisis, some 8,000 pages of
journal writings, documenting his mental
strife, visions and metaphysical
speculations.

Even his best known books, including the
four novels featured in
The Library of
America
collection, reflect the haste with
which they were written. Dick’s prose is
often lackluster, his plot lines full of holes,
his characters as flat as a cardboard cutout.
Why, one might ask, do such works merit
recognition as American classics?

But Dick does matter – perhaps even more
now than during his lifetime. He showed a
different way of responding to the growing
awareness that reality in literature (and life)
is problematic. While other writers
retreated into word games and an
exploration of “discourses" (to use the
fashionable term for this linguistic
approach), Dick accepted the challenge
head-on. If reality was constructed,
confused and beset by issues, Dick would try
to map the maze, especially the most
labyrinthine corners of it.

His books revolve around one grand truth:
namely, that things are not what they seem.
The idea is a simple one, but Dick builds it
into grand superstructures of ontology and
epistemology translated into sci-fi
narratives. In Ubik, the reader is still
uncertain halfway through the novel
whether the main protagonists are alive or
dead. (See how many students in Creative
Writing 101 can pull that off!). In
The Man
in the High Castle
, we shift into an
alternative universe in which World War II
turned out differently. In
Do Androids
Dream of Electric Sheep?
and The Three
Stigmata of Palmer Eldrich
, we explore the
foundation of religious beliefs and the
nature of human existence, but in fanciful
ways never anticipated by the philosophers.

Today we see both serious fiction and
popular culture moving in the same
directions that Dick so brilliantly explored
in his writings. Even when he is not listed in
the credits or acknowledgements, Dick’s
influence is palpable. Films as different as
The Matrix and The Truman Show reflect
distinctive Dick twists in their storylines.
Recent novels by Michael Chabon and Philip
Roth also build from an “alternative reality”
version of World War II that is very much in
the spirit of Dick’s work.

The Library of America volume offers a
excellent introduction to this visionary
writer. Jonathan Lethem is the ideal editor
for this work, although I am disappointed
that he did not write a lengthy introduction
for the volume (or at least include his great
essay “You Don’t Know Dick” – with its
answering opening line: “Not like I know
Dick.”) Let’s also hope that the publisher
follows up with Dick’s later novels, including
his unfairly neglected
Valis trilogy, which
ranks among the finest experimental works
of fiction of its era.

In short, with some 50 books to his credit,
Dick cannot be appreciated in a single gulp.
But if you haven’t yet experienced the mind-
expanding writings of this seminal author,
The Library of America collection is the
right place to start. But be forewarned: once
you let Dick into your head, things will
never seem the same again.


This review originally appeared on
Blogcritics.