My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This 1962 novel is generally regarded as Philip K. Dick’s literary masterpiece. Its conceit is audacious—not its well-known alternate history setting in which Japan and Germany won the Second World War; Dick picked that up from other pieces of popular fiction. Dick’s brilliance is to think through the cultural effects on American life of the country’s being divided, Cold-War-style, between a Japan and Germany increasingly at odds. Setting his novel in San Francisco, he dwells especially on the West Coast under Asian dominance, which Dick, in the spirit of the Eastern-oriented American countercultures of the 1950s and ’60s, represents as a genuinely civilizing influence.
Dick follows a small handful of characters through a few days in San Francisco as the reverberations of a power struggle in Nazi Germany ripple all the way to the Pacific. What unites these characters is a devotion to “the oracle”—in other words, to using the I Ching both to make their decisions and interpret the events in their lives. Faithful to this idea, and putting himself humbly in the place of his characters, Dick himself used the I Ching to plot the novel.
The omniscient narrative weaves through the lives this somber, anti-heroic ensemble piece’s heroes. There is the enlightened Mr. Tagomi, an official of the Japanese trade mission, increasingly impatient with Nazi brutality. He has a rendezvous with a certain mysterious Mr. Baynes who visits on a rocket from Europe on a secret mission to warn Japan that Germany has marked it for nuclear destruction and domination. But these spy-thriller machinations take place almost in the background of a more mundane story of art and everyday life.
We also meet Robert Childan, an antiques dealer who makes his living selling vintage Americana to Japanese elites who, in a typical indulgence of imperial nostalgia, savor the particulars of the culture they’ve conquered. Metalworker Frank Frink works for a corporation that sells counterfeit antiques to Childan, and Frink leverages this fact to extort enough money from his bosses to start his own metal jewelry company. (Exemplifying the consequences of a Nazi-dominated world order, Frink is forced to conceal his Jewish heritage in a fascist America that has reintroduced slavery and oppresses Jewish, African-American, Chinese, and Slavic people.) Meanwhile, Frank’s estranged wife, Juliana, begins a relationship with Joe Cinnadella, a mysterious, slightly menacing Italian truck driver she meets in a diner.
Tagomi, Frink, and Juliana all rely on the I Ching to direct and interpret their lives. Another text linking the characters is a recently published novel, censored in Nazi territory but permitted under Japanese control, called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy by Hawthorne Abendsen. This is an alternate history book dramatizing a world in which Germany and Japan in fact lost the war and the U.S. consequently globalized the New Deal and lifted Africa and Asia from poverty. Abendsen, described on the book jacket as living in a high-security complex in the desert, is the titular man in the high castle. Juliana and Joe set out to meet him to ask him his purpose in writing the novel—which metafictionally brings us to the question of why Abendsen’s extra-textual doppelgänger and deviser, Philip K. Dick, wrote this book.
Despite The Man in the High Castle’s reputation as a reflection on fascism, or even an Orwellian or Atwoodian warning against fascism, Dick is not very interested in the politics of his alt-history, despite the obvious research that went into its composition. Writing under the influence of thinkers like Jung and before the postmodern critique of essentialism, he has his characters think in the language of ethnic consciousness and sexual perversion, with Germany doomed to its efficient brutality by its endemically abstract spirit, as Baynes believes—
Their view; it is cosmic. Not of a man here, a child there, but air abstraction: race, land. Volk. Land. Blut. Ehre. Not of honorable men but of Ehre itself, honor; the abstract is real, the actual is invisible to them. Die Güte, but not good, this good man. It is their sense of space and time. They see through the here, the now, into the vast black deep beyond, the unchanging. And that is fatal to life. Because eventually there will be no life; there was once only the dust particles in space, the hot hydrogen gases, nothing more, and it will come again. This is an interval, ein Augenblick. The cosmic process is hurrying on, crushing life back into the granite and methane; the wheel turns for all life. It is all temporary. And they—these madmen—respond to the granite, the dust, the longing of the inanimate; they want to aid Natur.
—and by its repressed illicit desires, incestuous and homosexual, as Juliana speculates:
Their trouble, she decided, is with sex; they did something foul with it back in the ‘thirties, and it has gotten worse. Hitler started it with his—what was she? His sister? Aunt? Niece? And his family was inbred already; his mother and father were cousins. They’re all committing incest, going back to the original sin of lusting for their own mothers. That’s why they, those elite SS fairies, have that angelic simper, that blond babylike innocence; they’re saving themselves for Mama. Or for each other.
Japan, by contrast, with its syncretic and highly formal culture, proves a more viable model for a livable life, even if Dick has to resort at times to Orientalist stereotype, as well as to whitewash the brutality of Japanese imperialism, to make this point. This is all very “midcentury” and not how most readers would think of the matter today.
Dick ventures a more original thought through Joe Cinnadella’s critique of Abendsen’s fictional world-socialist American utopia:
‘“You know what [Abendsen’s] done, don’t you? He’s taken the best about Nazism, the socialist part, the Todt Organization and the economic advances we got through Speer, and who’s he giving the credit to? The New Deal. And he’s left out the bad part, the SS part, the racial extermination and segregation. It’s a utopia! You imagine if the Allies had won, the New Deal would have been able to revive the economy and make those socialist welfare improvements, like he says? Hell no; he’s talking about a form of state syndicalism, the corporate state, like we developed under the Duce.”
In Dick’s later, more paranoid and visionary days, he turned against the political left and even declared his own allegiance to “fascism,” though what he describes as fascism is more akin to anarchism. Cinnadella proves himself an untrustworthy character, but his disparagement of socialism as indistinguishable from much of what is popularly called fascism—the state requisition of the whole populace for its industrial and warmaking ends—anticipates the anarchist critique. As another anarchic ‘60s sci-fi poet of paranoia, Robert Anton Wilson, put it: “Socialism is the counter-revolution.”
But Dick’s real interest, pursued both through the metafiction of the novel-within-the-novel and through the forgery-and-jewelry plot focused on Childan and Frink, is in the nature and purpose of art. For all his political essentialism discussed above, Dick is customarily labeled a postmodern writer; he earns this designation not only by way of his metafiction, but also because he mocks the very idea of authenticity. Childan, the antiques dealer, understands that the value of the “authentic” historical object is an illusion manipulated for profit, that there is no such thing as inherent historical value (a thesis that undermines, even if Dick doesn’t see it, the novel’s essentialist portrayal of race and ethnicity, not to mention gender):
The girl gingerly picked up the two lighters and examined them.
“Don’t you feel it?” he kidded her. “The historicity?”
She said, “What is ‘historicity’?”
“When a thing has history in it. Listen. One of those two Zippo lighters was in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s pocket when he was assassinated. And one wasn’t. One has historicity, a hell of a lot of it. As much as any object ever had. And one has nothing. Can you feel it?” He nudged her. “You can’t. You can’t tell which is which. There’s no ‘mystical plasmic presence,’ no ‘aura’ around it.”
“Gee,” the girl said, awed. “Is that really true? That he had one of those on him that day?”
“Sure. And I know which it is. You see my point. It’s all a big racket…”
If the worth of an object is not in its history—another point against socialism, by the way, since the left-Hegelian position understands no merit beyond the historical—then what is its true worth? When Frank Frink moves from forging historical artifacts to creating contemporary art, art that makes no pretense to authenticity, Dick provides a clue. Late in the novel, heartsick at his having had to kill Nazi agents even in self-defense, Mr. Tagomi buys one of Frink’s items and meditates on it until he has an epiphany of its transcendence:
Metal is from the earth, he thought as he scrutinized. From below: from that realm which is the lowest, the most dense. Land of trolls and caves, dank, always dark. Yin world, in its most melancholy aspect. World of corpses, decay and collapse. Of feces. All that has died, slipping and disintegrating back down layer by layer. The daemonic world of the immutable; the time-that-was.
And yet, in the sunlight, the silver triangle glittered. It reflected light. Fire, Mr. Tagomi thought. Not dank or dark object at all. Not heavy, weary, but pulsing with life. The high realm, aspect of yang: empyrean, ethereal. As befits work of art. Yes, that is artist’s job: takes mineral rock from dark silent earth transforms it into shining light-reflecting form from sky
Writing science fiction rather than realism, Dick makes this epiphany literal: when Mr. Tagomi looks up, he finds himself in a world where the U.S., not Japan, won World War II—from our point of view, the real world. Art, then, cannot embody the authentic, but can, like the I Ching, in collaboration with an open-minded and sensitive interpreter, show us the way and the truth.
This epiphany is echoed at the novel’s conclusion when Juliana finally meets the novel’s other artist-figure, Abendsen, and asks him the meaning of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. (Insofar as Abendsen is Dick’s surrogate, she is also meeting her maker.) At first truculent, he eventually admits that he used the I Ching to write the novel (as Dick used the I Ching to write his novel) and agrees to consult the oracle with her. Together they discover that the meaning of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, a meaning that chimes, though they do not know it, with the meaning of Frink’s jewelry as revealed to Mr. Tagomi:
“It means, does it, that my book is true?”
“Yes,” she said.
With anger he said, “Germany and Japan lost the war?”
Perhaps wishing only to have written a potboiler, just as Frink makes art to make money, Abendsen might not want the responsibility of having told the truth. Yet this is the burden, not of authentic objects, since there are no such things, but of true art.
While Dick allows us to take Abenden’s and Frink’s truths science-fictionally—their artworks open a rift in their false universe through which the real universe, ours, might be glimpsed—I would prefer to take it metaphorically and extract from Dick’s brilliant artifice a wiser political truth than we’ve yet gleaned. “Germany and Japan lost the war,” says Abendsen, in a world where they won it. But what if Dick’s point—let’s concentrate not on his later avowed fascism, but on his persistent anarchism—is that whoever won the war, Japan/Germany or America/Russia, would have found itself in the totalitarian position of trying to exercise the global control over all life that extinguishes the individual and makes art impossible? That whoever wins in fact loses in truth?