Sunday, September 12, 2010

Beware of Men Up There in High Castles

So it's official, I'm hooked on Philip K. Dick. I could easily have made a jejune, churlish remark there, meant facetiously of course, but then I wouldn't be able to excoriate myself with the use of all these descriptive and reproving "words of the day" I've learned recently and compiled here. Hence, my disinclination to do so, plus how incomparably draconian must one get for the purpose of arousing some droll, mirthful rise from his readership? So is why I refuse to say: I'm hooked on Dick, although I could have easily said that and engendered a pun of very lewd alternative meaning. I could very well have followed it up by saying I'm thoroughly enjoying Balzac likewise, although I haven't read "Eugenie Grandet," which is the only work of his in my possession, and I've never read anything by him heretofore, what's more. Whence, pardon my untruth for the facile endeavor of being risible and jocund as I have been, although in that endeavor I have contradicted, nay thwarted, my stated original purpose, which I claimed was to be neither of those things, to eschew those things in fact for the sake of decorum and civility. Or rather, I said I did so for the fact that then I wouldn't be able to excoriate myself with words, which in truth I have done. So all is well, actually.

Trekking ever onward . . .

But of the author appearing in the former position of the preceding paragraph, I can say only praising things. (Well, I could possibly say more negatively critical things but I prefer to speak praise first, which drastically outweighs my negative criticism of his work.) "The Man in the High Castle" can only be called a seminal novel of the sub genre of science fiction thus known as: alternative histories. In the novel and indeed its alternative history, the Nazis and Japanese have triumphed over the Allies in World War II, and the globe is split amongst the Axis victors, with the smallest portion offered to Italy, the France of this paradoxical universe.

The story follows multiple characters, the most important of which are: a store owner named Robert Childan specializing in the sale of antique Americana; Frank Frink, a secret Jew and a skilled craftsman who fashions reproductions of period pieces valuable to the Japanese, then after he quits that profession, jewelry of his own contrivance; Juliana Frink, estranged and divorced from her husband, Frank, she wanders the Rocky Mountain buffer searching for a new life, and in so doing, meets and begins to trust an assassin traveling incognito; Nobusuke Tagomi, a trade commissioner who takes on one of the more important roles of the story, in my opinion; and Mr. Baynes, a Swedish salesperson of an industrial plastics corporation who may not be entirely what he seems.

There is also a story within the story called "The Grasshopper Lies Heavy" -- also an alternative history novel, which even more paradoxically posits what the world might be like had the Allies won the war. Wikipedia, in a section on its "The Man in the High Castle" page, notes that the Allies' victory in "The Grasshopper Lies Heavy" is hardly congruent with the way in which the Allies were victorious in WWII in our historical sense. That is, Russia ends up playing a very minimal role, FDR is not assassinated as he is in "The Man in the High Castle" but survives through his first two terms and then is succeeded by another Democrat, Rexford Tugwell, who stewards the United States through the remainder of the war, and Great Britain returns to its place of preeminence as the world's lone hegemonic superpower.

Nobusuke Tagomi, to focus on one character, epitomizes several of the chief themes of the story. One is, the preference with which Dick opts to present the Japanese. Despite the bellicose nature of their imperialism and recorded treatment of POWs and even opposing populations' civilians during our WWII, the Japanese are -- not surprisingly -- viewed as the lesser of the two extant evils. And to express one quasi-misgiving, this idea is taken to the further extent of a kind of overcompensation on Dick's part in which the Japanese are set upon a pedestal. And though repeatedly tempered by showcases of their human frailty, the Japanese are depicted very often in the light of an awkward veneration for their culture by both the novel's characters and, ostensibly, Dick himself, as exhibited with the frequent nods to the Japanese's Buddhist traditions and their appreciation for that which transcends tangibility, objects possessing auras, the Tao, and so forth. It seemed, to me, at times, a smidgen patronizing, is all I'm saying.

Still, Tagomi's epiphany with respect to this idea, to the religion of the Japanese, is a key moment in the story. Childan learns from a Japanese customer that the jewelry Frink and his partner are producing, while less than pleasing from an aesthetic standpoint, possesses "Wu" -- a Chinese term expressing a supernal sort of knowledge or wisdom, or so says the novel (I've done no independent research). Childan's first impulse is to capitalize on this monetarily, but then he begins to realize his customer is putting him to a test: is American culture just the same vitiated and enterprising consequentialist system that defines Nazi Germany and elsewhere? Or can it appreciate a thing in itself -- can its artists, in effect, produce true art? He realizes this and, apparently desiring something more substantial for the American way of life, rescinds his claim that Frink would be willing to churn out these objects and in whatever way Japanese customers prefer. I think it's possible this is an outcome Dick would have preferred was the case in our America, which seems to have taken Childan's original tack, and produced for what's beside the point, what's to be selfishly gained.

Meanwhile, Tagomi has just killed two German agents sent to, apparently, take Baynes into custody for reasons I will avoid discussing here, and so visits Childan's store with his life in a state of, to put it mildly, disorder. Childan shows Tagomi Frink's jewelry, which Tagomi is indifferent to at first, finding he does not know what, if anything, he believes. But then, hoping that perhaps it could make things suddenly manifest to him, Tagomi buys one small, silver piece, on the condition that he may return it if it doesn't produce the desired effect. It produces an effect, and though not necessarily desired, it brings things into perspective for Tagomi -- gives him a glimpse of a world in which the United States had defeated Japan. It's unclear whether this is as the outcome of the "Grasshopper Lies Heavy" laid out, or whether it's the history we know, or if it was a place altogether different. But that's arbitrary, ultimately, to the fact that Tagomi understands better how easily synthesized these things are. How, then, ostensibly mutually exclusive ideas can exist side by side, in paradox, yes, but also not entirely illogically.

I liked this book. Read it. Read it and see what you think. Then tell me what you think. Or if you have already read it, tell me what you think. Let's discuss!

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