April 2015
This issue's contents Current issue Index Search


Reviews by Jonathan Wallace

Guaranteed: many spoilers

I have reread Philip K. Dick's Man in the High Castle (1964) more times than I can count, because its a highly satisfying novel of the kind you can sink into over and over. I first read it when I was a teenager, more than forty years ago. I absorbed it at one sitting last night and have the sense at last of having grown into it. It edges out Wharton's House of Mirth as my candidate for the greatest American novel, no kidding.

It has everything, entropy, karma, history, chance and compassion. Its the novel one of the Jonathans, Frantzen, Lethem or Safran Foer, would deliver like a highly intentional Ph.d. thesis, with great pride and vanity. Philip K. Dick by contrast was an accidental angel, a hack typing after midnight,delivering eight books in a year to stay alive, broke, humiliated, and brilliant. Philip K. Dick in short was a Philip K. Dick character. In an unusual expository speech--Dick usually doesn't explain what you should see for yourself--Abendsen, the man in the high castle, says of Juliana Frink at the end, that she is "a daemon. A little chthonic spirit that roams tirelessly over the face of the earth. She's doing what's instinctive to her, simply expressing her being". Juliana happens, like weather. So did Philip K. Dick; he might be writing about himself.

The novel is alternative history, a genre I usually detest. Dick's brilliance inhabits the details too: he knows which Nazis did what to whom. He is capable of imagining what it is like to be the German consul in Japanese-controlled San Francisco, hating and fearing a rival local Nazi, a thug from another organization. Then he can inhabit a Japanese functionary, traditional, calm, polite, watching the Nazis operate. What is so amazing about Dick's choices are that he pulls off a completely believable alternative present down to the smallest details, at the same time that he knows it doesn't really matter. The novel is not really about history or historical forces; to develop the themes Dick really cares about, he could just as easily have set it on Mars, and not done so much homework.

Embedded within the novel are some dull, didactic, deliberately badly written sections of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, the novel within the novel written by Hawthorne Abendsen, the man who reputedly lives in a high,impregnable castle near Denver, in the free middle of the country. Grasshopper is itself an alternate history. In Man in the High Castle, the U.S. and its allies lost the war; in Grasshopper they won. Another clever choice of Dick's--every detail is amazingly thought out--is that the history in Grasshopper, though similar, is not exactly our history.

Grasshopper, despite its intentionally trite prose, is a book of ideas: each paragraph Dick embeds gets us thinking about capitalism, populism, finance, human nature. But the novel surrounding these fragments, while presenting some hints of these forces in the background, is about something completely different: the old world going down to its death, and a new one being born, essentially in the hearts of several of its characters. In an economy based largely on the manufacture of ersatz American artifacts for sale to Japanese collectors, Frank Frink, a Jewish refugee from the German-dominated east, quits his job to create something completely new, handmade silver jewelry that a Japanese character describes as barbaric but full of mysterious power. Childan, a racist, manipulative American businessman, in the course of the novel becomes obsessed with Frink's product, the marketing of which--its presentation to the world--becomes his life's mission.

There are two important Japanese characters, Mr. Tagomi and Paul. Tagomi is the moral center of the novel, an ox-character who does all the heavy lifting. He is a pleasantly cultural salaryman, serving out his time, getting by, inherently kind but not fully existing until the opportune moment. He is contacted by an undercover German agent of military intelligence, posing as a Scandinavian businessman, who has come to meet an elderly Japanese colleague in Tagomi's office. Dick's burnished, believable story describes Tagomi worrying about what to buy as a traditional present for Baynes, the German visitor, and selecting a Mickey Mouse watch. The moment at which he presents it is a masterpiece of cultural incomprehension: Baynes must stare into his host's face, see the mildness,incipient friendship and anxiety, to know the gift is not a joke. Weeks pass by before the other visitor, who has been delayed, arrives. As Tagomi shakes his hand, he recognizes General Tedeki, the Emperor's former Chief of Staff, and only then understands that he has been asked to broker a historic meeting. The Abwehr is reaching out to the Emperor to prevent Operation Dandelion, a nuclear attack on Japan being planned by other Nazi factions.

We earlier saw Tagomi have an attack of nerves, almost a breakdown, at a briefing about internal Nazi politics; his mind cannot accept the depths of human evil, and slides back to gifts and sunlight. But when SS thugs invade the meeting between Baynes and Tedeki, Tagomi, who blooms into complete moral existence at the critical moment, when he is badly needed, takes a replica Colt revolver from his desk and shoots both attackers. The two men whose lives he saves stare at him in astonishment, but we are not surprised; Dick has drawn Tagomi so well that we knew he would do the necessary thing when the moment came. Tagomi never recovers from having taken life. He goes to visit Childan looking for comfort, and leaves with a piece of the new jewelry, which he examines while sitting on a park bench: he smells it, tastes it, watches the sun glint on it, knows he is looking at something extraordinary but completely fails to make a fundamental connection with it. And then dies of a heart attack. Tagomi the catalyst has engendered the new world, but like Moses he cannot enter it.

The second Japanese character, Paul, is a young man who has a more intense sense of the present, the world, of America, than Tagomi. Childan gives him a gift of Frink's jewelry. Paul returns it to him noting that it does in fact have a strange power, the quality known as wu. He advises Childan, as a sort of moral test, to have it mass manufactured and sell it as charms to Third World poor. Childan, whom we have seen as a sensual, dishonest, bigoted businessman, has his own moment of metamorphosis now; he suddenly understands that such beautiful handmade work cannot be mass produced, and demands an apology, which Paul freely gives. Without further explanation, Paul does not keep the gift: like Tagomi, he can recognize the new world, but even though he is younger, smarter, more sensitive than Tagomi, he too cannot live in it.

The Colt Tagomi fired is a fake, one of the replicas Childan unknowingly sold; despite his fundamental dishonesty and cruelty, Childan's pride in himself was based on the authenticity, the "historicity" of his merchandise. Childan'sconversion to the new world of Frank's silver jewelry is driven by his discovery that his main supplier has been providing forged antiques. He is a bad man with good motives who by novels's end, is becoming a good man.

Before dying, Tagomi performs one more action of consummate nobility: he unknowingly saves the life of the maker of the jewelry. Frank, who is Jewish, has been targeted for extradition to New York by the German consul,which destines him as everyone knows to be murdered on arrival. Tagomi, not knowing who has been detained, not caring, refuses to sign the authorization. It is his final act of magnificence. Frank is set free and we last see him like Candide in the garden, seated at his workbench. It is a magnificent unpretentious descriptive sentence of a kind of which only Dick was capable: "He screwed a wool buffing wheel onto the spindle, started up the motor; he dressed the wheel with bobbing compound, put on the mask to protect his eyes, and then seated on a stool began removing the fire scale from the segments, one by one". Science fiction specializes in making the extraordinary ordinary; we see through the eyes of people who routinely fly through space and look at alien planets out the porthole, and may be a bit bored with the exercise. Dick was able to do the opposite as well, make ordinary things extraordinary. That sentence seems to be a metaphor for Dick's own creative process. In writing Man in the High Castle, he too was "removing the fire scale from the segments, one by one".

Another instance of the genius of this novel is that the characters exist in parallel compartments and most never encounter each other. The connections between the compartments are made by chance, and yet are of the profoundest importance to the novel. Tagomi, though he admires Frank's jewelry and saves his life, never meets him. Childan and Tagomi know each other, but Childan, who makes the jewelry his life's project, does not know he met Frank once for a few minutes. Juliana, Frank's ex-wife teaching karate in Denver, makes a phone call to Frank once in the novel, but does not reach him. He plans to send her a piece of the jewelry in the hope she will recognize its beauty, and return to him. Without knowing about the existence of the jewelry, Juliana is already thinking of going back to San Francisco and Frank.

In nominally free Colorado, Juliana picks up Joe Cinnadella, an undercover SS assassin planning to kill Abendsen, but who tells her he is just planning to ask an author he admires for an autograph. Abendsen's audacious book, in which Germany and Japan lost the war, is highly disturbing to the Nazis.Juliana is to be Joe's way of enticing Abendsen to open the door. In the days they spend together, Juliana gradually becomes aware who Joe really is and what he is planning, and the moment the information finally comes together, has a sort of psychotic break. Without any forethought, she picks up a razor blade from the hotel sink and cuts his throat. There is a remarkable extended scene in which Joe, holding his wound shut, congratulates her on her skill, and asks for an ambulance. She promises to call one but still momentarily schizophrenic, is in the car and on the highway before she realizes she has forgotten to do it. Dick in all his work avoids the predictable, and always goes for the least expected but completely believable choice. As I write this I am reading David Mitchell's The Bone Clocks. Mitchell is a first rate writer clearly inspired by Dick. But there are a series of moments in his novel when you know exactly what is going to happen: a character who just confirmed to a friend that he took the latter's girlfriend to the train, returns to his bedroom and the girlfriend is there. A teenage girl running away from home pays an unexpected visit to her boyfriend's house and finds another girl in his bed. These women in beds are highly predictable. Dick does not do that. At every moment we are in a new world.

A lesser writer might have ended there. Juliana goes on to visit Abendsen, to tell him she has killed an assassin seeking him and to ask him to take more precautions. It turns out he lives in an ordinary house, not a high castle. Through-out the novel--I forgot to mention this crucial element--many of the characters (Frank, Tagomi, Juliana) have been throwing the yarrow stalks and interpreting the I Ching. Juliana asks permission to do this at Abendsen's and discovers that Abendsen's "book is true," that "Germany and Japan lost the war". Every time I arrive at this scene, I feel a tremendous click. In most of his novels, Dick rang changes on the real and sur-real; those of his novels which are not completely hallucinatory tend to have a set-piece or two in which characters experience--usually sink into--an alternate world of entropy and death, and then return to their own. Dick always leaves one detail, one thing which shouldn't be there, to make you wonder how real the real world is. In an early novel, a military planner, a brilliant mathematician who can predict where the alien enemy will attack next, has gone insane and the only way the authorities can keep benefiting from his skill is to make him think that, living in a peaceful world, he is solving a puzzle in the newspaper. So it is natural to think that this too is a meta-novelistic moment, that Dick is bringing us back to the realization that we are living in a world in which we did win the war, and maybe suffered a terrible loss of soul, of compassion, of life, as a result. But the subtlety of the moment--most of these scenes of Dick's in other novels are not subtle--does not demand that we leave the novel. The characters may also simply be discovering that in a world of entropy and death, victory is loss. We know that the Nazis are empty and cruel, that they have killed the best and brightest of Europe and depopulated Africa, that their economy is faltering. The Japanese are doing better--they are not instinctively cruel and dishonest and still honor their parents and ancestors, they have an eye for beauty. But the two Japanese men we meet, Tagomi and Paul, have an emptiness, a baffled quality of their own. By the end, we know that Frank and Juliana are the Adam and Eve of the situation, the people capable of making a new world. Dick's brilliance is also visible in the fact that, on the last page, we do not know for sure that Operation Dandelion has been stopped, or even that Juliana and Frank will meet again. But we are hopeful. The Jonathans, or David Mitchell, may be postmodern and ironic and coldly brilliant in their own way. But Dick, unlike them, always leaves you with a glowing kernel of human hope, radiating wu like Frank's silver jewelry.