When I'd finished Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle, one place my post-reading ruminations took me was to Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, a novel I deeply disliked when I read it and which has not been improved by the fog of memory. Perhaps my own education in philosophy was shoddy, but I didn't think the book did a good job presenting a History of Western Thought, which seemed to be its primary purpose. The bigger problem, though, was that there wasn't much of a story; additionally, the main character didn't do much—he just talked about philosophy, though not in a way I found interesting or particularly coherent.
Plot and character. If Aristotle is right on this (as he sometimes is), those are the primary elements of a good narrative. (He applied this to tragedy; and he's talking about plays, since novels don't exist yet.) In these two matters, The Man in the High Castle falls woefully short, though I believe I understand its strengths, even if they don't move me to much praise. It's a novel of ideas. The people in the novel talk about ideas, think about those ideas, and act on those ideas. But rather than characters, the people seem like means to advance or consider a concept; and by the end, the concepts have become muddled by the plot itself.
The book is set in a world in which the Axis powers won WWII; following the victory, the Germans and Japanese split the U.S. between them, with the middle of the country and the Mountain States somewhat left to their own devices. The Nazis got overzealous in their efforts to remake Africa, we're told, and turned it to ash. The story takes place in San Francisco and Colorado, the two venues tied together by Frank Frink and his ex-wife, Juliana.
Dick uses this set-up to explore issues of authenticity and the weight of history, both indirectly and directly. (Perhaps no other writer would have seen these as the issues to explore in this context, and it's possible that the strange-bedfellows pairing of the alternate-history conceit with this particular set of ideas is at the heart of why the novel seems, to me, such a misfire.) Several of the characters are in disguise: a Jew who changed his name (though "Fink" to "Frink" seems a weak effort); a Japanese general assuming an alias; a hired assassin who seems to be a working-class truck driver. There are characters at opposition with themselves: a German who questions everything about being German; a white American who has adopted the manners and speech of the Japanese overlords. People change their hair-color, struggle with their culture, imagine themselves in a fortress, imagine other worlds. Japanese and Americans both consult the I Ching, a Chinese text. (Oddly, there's no mention of a cult of the emperor continuing past the end of the war.) Throughout, people respond variously to a popular book, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, an alternate-history novel (written by "the man in the high castle") that imagines the Axis powers losing WWII—though with an outcome that looks nothing like our own world. (Though the novel is quoted from at length, it's not an especially vivid text.) Characters question the character of their own cultures and judge the other cultures. Japanese collectors hanker after "authentic" Americana even though the provenance for such artifacts is questionable. A man holds a lighter that was owned by FDR—he has the paperwork to prove it—though we know that the paperwork itself is fraudulent.
The ideas are interesting, but they don't cohere into a plot with a satisfying arc or resolution. The conclusion is stiff and unconvincing, and it comes in the last few pages. Seeing that there were only a few pages left, I worried that, like an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, a complicated explanation was going to be shoehorned into a quick final scene. However, Dick instead undercuts the scene, has people act in oddly formal ways, and deflects questions with a final jab at questions of authenticity and reality.
Stylistically, the book is annoying. Much of the novel consists of characters' reactions and reflections, but Dick almost never allows himself to paraphrase a character's thoughts; instead, we get each character's fragmented running commentary. I can read Joyce and Faulkner; I can handle stream-of-consciousness writing. That's not what this is. This is stream-of-talkativeness, stream-of-blather, stream-of-chattiness. It strikes me as a lazy way for Dick to spew out ideas, letting people ramble on. Some of what they say is interesting, but it often reads as merely erratic nonsense, full of emotions that lack adequate external or internal prompts. The worst examples of these internal narratives come from Robert Childan, the white seller of Americana; Tagomi, his potential client; and Juliana, the one person who manages to reach the man behind the controversial novel. Throughout the book, Japanese characters speak a clipped English, English that often lacks its articles. There are non-idiomatic constructions, novel uses of words, and struggles to say what's meant. While that makes sense, it doesn't make sense that someone's internal narrative would suffer from the same problems. Why is a native Japanese thinking in broken English? Why is Childan, who has adopted this speaking style in order to fit in with his customers, thinking this way? These are grating, amateurish choices. Juliana's internal voice simply falls apart as the character, introduced so solidly, becomes a set of inexplicable choices and reactions.
I flew through the book—initially, because it was involving; later, because one could move through the characters' increasingly redundant or circular internal blather rather rapidly. As the characters—especially Juliana and Tagomi—lost all coherence and became jumpy sets of responses (like something out of a slapdash pulp novel by Van Vogt), the only thing holding my interest was the man behind the book-within-a-book. But then he turned out to be a let-down, also neither compelling nor coherent, a rushed and incomplete aspect of a novel that aimed for great things but that didn't evince the necessary care to reach those great things.