Tuesday, May 5, 2015

The Man in the High Castle (Days 2-5)

that's a whole lotta Dick
I haven't had as much time to read in a steady stream over the back half of the book. Partially, this was due to commitments elsewhere in my professional life. Partially, also, it was due to the density of the book's central conceit and my own need to navigate through it carefully. This was complicated by my need to go slowly in order to process the action through the horror show that is the world this book takes place in.

As an artwork, it is keenly aware of the discomfort caused by its proposal of a universe where Roosevelt was not president during World War II and where, as a result, the Axis powers eventually gained victory. The results are every bit as grim and brutal as there is reason to believe they would be, and the book is not only frank about it, but it conscientiously depicts the ways in which a world built this way would, eventually, be rationalized as normal by those participating in it.

It uses jewelry as a functional metaphor throughout, connecting it to the I Ching in ways that are at times poetic and inspired connections between a kind of looking-glass Americanism and a much more ancient tradition. Unfortunately, at times the action of this dives deeply into an Orientalism that is unmistakably racist. When it does this, though, it turns even that racism into a looking-glass encounter, showing how a conquered American people would adopt it not because they are in the position to appropriate that which they consider exotic, but as a conquered people obliged to attempt to assimilate into the conqueror's culture. Even then, though, the particular approaches of more and less craven individuals, and of Reich Americans who have adopted the Nazi worldview explicitly, force the viewer to acknowledge the undercurrent of genuine disdain in these obsequious performances and the ways in which Dick invokes a conquering and superior mentality that is kept hidden by the real power dynamics that are the result of the war's having broken out.

The idea of this piece as one that is wrought from a pool of raw materials and envisioned as somehow extruded from them is openly acknowledged in an actual jewelry-making subplot, which emphasizes it more by the oblique connections it has to the book's central plot line, which involves intrigue between the Axis superpowers as the Nazis, having plowed under the people of color within their borders and worked out a way to finish with the plans they had for South America (mentioned in the first half of the book), are now turning their attention to the last remaining "non-Aryan" civilization. As a result, the Japanese/Pacific empire is beginning to understand the nature of the alliance it made a generation earlier, and the implications for its survival now that it represents the less aggressively expansionistic power in the world.

The way that glancing, incidental relationships between the characters in this intrigue plot and those in the art-related subplots is driven by social interconnectedness that is everyday in nature and related to the kinds of work that are available to the conquered classes, and those in the conquering classes of both powers that act as patrons to them. The hierarchies of social position highlighted throughout, and the juxtaposition of the highly regimented and tightly controlled Japanese fascism versus the virulent and pointedly genocidally competitive Nazi form is also important. It is a clarion call to distinguish between the political actions of an aggressive and authoritarian state and that of a socially Darwinistic predator culture, and it echoes throughout the piece, in the racism of the characters and the various ways it manifests, and in the ways that the parallel technological developments and their related consumer culture artifacts cast long and eerie shadows across our actual world.

In the heart of it all, Dick ensures that we remain focused on the level of intention poured into every aspect of this rendering, too. Not only through the deliberate use of the jewelry plot and the I Ching to inject a simultaneous opportunity to philosophize and convenient symbolism, but also through the incorporation of a blatantly taboo, highly restricted, and yet widely available book about what would have happened if the Allies had won the war, how the world would have been different, and how eerily similar it still would have wound up as the Allies turned against each other and forced each other to become tyrannical in a later-stage power struggle that is conveniently different from our actual history to such a deliberate degree that one feels its measurement as a basic unit of the book's surreal qualities that can serve as a way to measure the dissociation of the text from its historic source material.

This is not an enjoyable read, at least not for me. Not only because of its dark material, but also because of the way that the book's subplots and their various points of view intermingle and move in patterns. It is finely done but disorienting, which helps to drive the feeling of dissociation that all surreal art depends upon to keep the viewer aware of its intended effect. After watching several television shows and reading more plays that attempt to get this right but that inadvertently wind up with a small following who does not properly take the critical point of view about the protagonist, it is absolutely breathtaking to see a book which manages to do it so well that it can not be read as anything other than a stark and terrible lesson.

I'm going to re-read this before cleaning up my thoughts and solidifying a single essay for Neurotropes, but I'm not sure if I will blog the second read or not. That depends a lot on what I find.