The Man in the High Castle

People know Philip K. Dick through film adaptations – Total Recall, Minority Report, Blade Runner, Scanner Darkly. The fact that he’s been such a deep treasure-trove for Hollywood says a lot about his imagination, but not much for his actual writing.

The Man in the High Castle is one of his best novels, and (perhaps thankfully) has yet to experience the Hollywood treatment. It’s set in an alternate universe, where the Axis powers won World War II. The Nazis control all of Europe, Africa and the eastern United States; Japan the rest. The narrative is split between a number of characters in San Francisco, now occupied by the Japanese Empire.

Nobusuke Tagomi, a Japanese bureaucrat.
Frank Frink, an out-of-work metalworker, a Jew in hiding.
His ex-wife, Juliana Frink, a Judo-instructor in the mountain states of Colorado.
Robert Childan, the owner of an American antiques store, and Mr. Baynes, a mysterious Swiss businessman.

And then there is Hawthorne Abendsen, author of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, the literal man in the high castle. Grasshopper plays a key role – it’s an alternate history novel where the Allies win the war. Many of the characters read or mention it, and it serves as a launching point to discuss their current plight (in a racist, totalitarian world-empire).

Dick doesn’t follow any sort of central plot, instead weaving between the multitude of loosely connected characters. The writing itself is unique, at times minimalist and functional, other times moving into a sort of inner-speech of fragmented thoughts and musings. This gets incredibly nuanced. Childan, for example, goes to paranoid depths to internally reconcile his new position – selling antique fakes to rich Japanese conquerors. Not only must he suffer the humility of subservience, he constructs a sense of false-pride in his status as an elite salesman of “authentic” American art. Each of the characters moves through these moments of internalized spiritual/metaphysical dilemma. At first it can be a bit odd, with its stilted flow, but by the end it’s a great strength of the book.

Dick’s mastery comes from his ability to illustrate the nested tiers of reality. Man in the High Castle presents questions about authenticity (are exact replicas really “fakes”?), history (what’s the true history? Does it exist only in our minds?), creativity (why must we create art? How does beauty arise, does it exist outside of culture?), and how racism and power permeate and warp even the nuance of thought.

One of the most brilliant books I’ve read all year.

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