Archive for July 2014

The Man in the High Castle: Thoughts on the Winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel, 1963   Leave a comment

It’s been at least 30 years since I first read The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick. The only detail I could recall, when I picked it up to read for this series of reviews, was that someone got his throat cut. Strange, the things that stay with you from a book.

Stranger still, now that I’ve reread The Man in the High Castle. It has a solid, well-developed plot and the story moves right along, as all good stories do. The characters are well-developed, with motives readers can relate to, even if the alternate history setting might seem hard to grasp more than sixty years after the Second World War. Even so, the only moment of familiarity offered during the rereading was that incident involving a single-edged razor blade.

The first thing that needs to be kept in mind, when reading this novel, is that WWII was still all too fresh in the minds of many people in the early 1960s. As always, when reading an older novel, a modern reader needs to keep in mind the context provided by the times in which it was written. Dick’s presentation of Japanese characters, in particular, might strike today’s readers as somewhat racist, but the way he handles those characters, and the culture they represent, doesn’t really support a racist interpretation.

In this alternate reality, the war ended with the United States of America and its allies defeated. Japan has control of the west coast, while Germany occupies most of the eastern third of the nation. In the middle is a shadow nation that is to various degrees under the influence of the war’s victorious Axis powers. The world as a whole seems divided between the sophisticated influences of Japan, and barbarism of Nazi Germany. In this setting, a tale of cultural conflict and survival unfolds in parallel with political intrigue that threatens to set off a holocaust, while people ponder a popular novel that seems to reflect our own reality, the one in which Germany and Japan were defeated. It’s a post-war slice-of-life alternate history, with elements of what might these days be called magical realism. The book easily held my attention to the very last page, and then left me wondering just what the hell happened.

This is a strange book, a story that at first left me with the feeling that my copy was missing chapters at the end. It took me a while to understand that the book actually ends as it begins. It fades in, and then fades out, without a sharp hook at the beginning, and no dramatic stroke of the pen to underscore The End. I find myself thinking of the story between the covers as comprised of a single object, instead of a flow of ideas. Or a flow of words and ideas that became, when I was done, a single thing in my mind. It’s as if this story were a small wood carving or a bit of jewelry you could hold in the palm of your hand and appreciate with one long look. This concept comes to mind because of a plot element in the book itself. A purveyor of historic Americana (the Japanese in the story are crazy about the stuff) tries to interest a Japanese client in something different, jewelry made by local American craftsmen who create designs like nothing seen before. The Japanese client (and later another of the main Japanese characters) is at first inclined to dismiss the item, but finds himself unable to do so. There’s a quality or property possessed by the thing that simply cannot be ignored. The Japanese client declares that the object contains “wu,” a concept from Chinese philosophy that seems open to a certain degree of interpretation. As the character in the book expresses it, an object that has wu is complete in itself, balanced in a way that cancels dualities. It isn’t one thing or another, it doesn’t begin or end; it just is. (It can also apparently mean that a thing is lacking in distinguishing characteristics, not necessarily something an author would want associated with his work.) A quick bit of research in Daoist philosophy more or less supports this, though – not surprisingly – it would seem there’s a bit more to the concept than what is employed in the novel. But if I stick with the explanation given by the character Paul to Mr. Childan, I seem to have a concept that fits the underlying oddness of The Man in the High Castle.

Like the bauble that mystifies the Japanese client, and later entrances – literally – one of the primary characters, The Man in the High Castle would seem to be a book possessed of wu, that certain something that makes it work as a whole, even though the components seem to be a little hard to distinguish. Since the author was obviously familiar with the concept, it’s natural to wonder whether the novel itself was an attempt to imbue a work of literature with wu, or if that knowledge informed the writing process as the story unfolded, and wu was the result.

Or the concept of wu merely caught my fancy, and became a straw to grasp while trying to comprehend this strangely compelling, well-written tale. Or both. I can’t really say. In any case, a rereading of this winner of the Hugo Award has given me something more subtle than a single-edged razor blade to carry away in the end.

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