Tuesday, February 19, 2013

PKDick's "High Castle": Alt-history and motorcycle maintenance

I had to read it. A friend had referenced it in relation to a new short story of mine (he assumed I'd read it), and it's often mentioned as an important book in the history of science fiction . . . and I own it, having just bought the novel last year.

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.


Calvin said...

Interesting response, given how many in the SF community worship at the altar of Dick. (Kim Stanley Robinson did his Ph.D on Dick, and Jonathon Lethem wrote the introduction to a reissue of some of Dick's novels, I believe, and Tim Powers knew and hung out with Dick. The Wikipedia page on Dick lists others. ) I read Man in the High Castle for a class taught by Robinson, 30 years ago (!). I liked it better than you, or let's say I disliked it less, although I agree that Dick tends to be clunky and mannered. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is similarly clunky and mannered. I think what attracts people is his unusual world view, which is simply different from a lot of SF, especially SF at that time. I admit, despite the mannered, ragged prose, I sometimes find Dick refreshing. His "philosophy" and ideas are a bit thin, but then most philosophy and ideas in SF are a bit thin, and his are just a bit different from the SFnal norm. But I'm not meaning to start an argument here, or convince you to like Dick. I recently read Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said which also is acclaimed, but I thought the best thing was the title; I liked it a lot less than MitHC or DADoES and the "philosophy" was less compelling to me.

Some good stuff I have read lately are George Saunder's 10th of December, which received great reviews, deservedly so (including a story that could be classified SF--one could imagine it in Asimov's--but truly disturbing); he's really good at almost effortlessly capturing a character's quirky way of thinking. I also just finished Mo Yan's Life and Death are Wearing Me Out. Mo Yan won the Nobel Prize for literature last year. I've only read this one book; it's a magic realist black comedy, somewhat akin to Master and Margarita and The Orphan Master's Son, which is a sub-sub-subgenre I rather like as you probably know. It's a bit static (much like the ur-magic realist novel One Hundred Years of Solitude), since the theme is no matter how much things change they stay the same, with the central character reincarnating multiple times but seemingly getting nowhere, almost certainly a commentary on the political reinventions and reincarnations of China of the past 60 years. Which means though a lot happens, there's no real arc in this novel. Of course, I'm viewing this as an American, so there are almost certainly cultural things I'm missing and I can see that Mo Yan is writing about issues, particularly family loyalty and bonds, that don't push my buttons as much but which resonate more strongly with other audiences.

William Preston said...

There was a good discussion on my FB page about the book; no one came out strongly in defense of PKD, though there was some commentary that was helpful in appreciating where Dick was coming from. And this interview talked about the out-of-the-blue biz about jewelry:

I didn't hate the book; I've read PKD before and can see reading him again. But the book was a disappointment. As somebody said, he's more talked about than read, and it's obvious why that's so.

I didn't get George's book because I've already read half of the stories elsewhere. He's wonderful. Is the Asimov's-ish one The Spider or the thing with people all connected (which I haven't read)?

I saw your note before leaving for the library, so I grabbed a Mo Yan book they had on the shelf, The Garlic Ballads. We'll see how well that one "translates" for a reader like me. Currently reading Robert Olmstead's COAL BLACK HORSE. An astonishing writer. A colleague of mine is an old friend of his.

Calvin said...

The SFnal one was "Escape from Spiderhead."

I plan to try one or two more Mo Yan, though I imagine they aren't all the same.

William Preston said...

Right. Spiderhead. My one problem with that story was that, if I recall rightly, it has the same ending as another story by George, Commcomm.

Luke said...

I remember reading a famous SF writer opine that SF is different from mainstream literature because SF is a literature of ideas. I want to say it was... Orson Scott Card?

William Preston said...

Maybe, though he's not a guy I read. I think somebody else said that, though.

I guess no one said it was the literature of GOOD ideas. Or well-constructed ideas. For PKD, the ideas are generated by ingested chemicals . . . the ingestion of said chemicals being itself a BAD idea.

It's really great when good ideas get paired up with good sentences, paragraphs, characters, and plots. That's what happens in actual literature all the time.