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The Idle Book Club 15: The Man in the High Castle

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The Idle Book Club 15:

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The Man in the High Castle

Chris and Sarah have their first Philip K. Dick experience (in book form, anyway) with The Man in the High Castle, an ambitious and bleak alternate history novel depicting a world in which the Axis powers were victorious. Join us for an enthusiastic discussion!

Discussed: The Man in the High Castle

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May's selection is the Philip K Dick novel, The Man in the High Castle.

 

Excellent! This is such a deeply important book for me as a historian and as a reader of fiction. The way that questions of authenticity are allowed to spill out from the confines of historical fiction (mostly through the existence of subtle differences between our reality, the book's reality, and the reality of the book within the book, and so on down the stack of turtles) really does an excellent job of problematizing what "really happened" and whether what "really happened" has any relevance to history—or, really, to the experience of people as they live their lives within the confines of what we understand to be "history." The subplot about forgeries, in a novel of alternate history, is a particularly fascinating touch in that regard. Dick is constantly asking in his works, "What is it about reality that makes it 'real' to us?"* and I think that that question hits hardest for me in The Man in the High Castle.

 

Also, and this is something that was mostly revealed to me by Laura Miller writing on the television adaptation, but the anxiety and anomie of the principal characters goes a long way towards approximating the feel of colonialism (and post-colonialism) for a mostly-white audience. The Man in the High Castle shows America as a country of truly defeated people, denied their humanity and ruled by foreigners with alien thoughts and experiences, with survival meaning conformity to and flattery of the norms that those create. Unlike the television adaptation, there is no resistance, not beyond personal-scale resistance, and most of the characters are just looking after themselves and killing time, waiting for the end of history to catch up with them. I am especially looking forward to emphasizing this aspect of the work when I reread it.

 

Finally, it's a well-publicized fact that Dick was somewhat obsessed with the I Ching while he was writing The Man in the High Castle (specifically, the iconic and impressionistic Wilhelm translation of the I Ching from 1950) and ultimately elected to use it to create the plot of his novel. Allegedly, he started with his premise and initiating action and, any time a character had to make a decision, he cast hexagrams and tried to interpret them as the character in question would. Often, the characters themselves cast hexagrams in the text of the work or quote certain hexagrams, consciously or unconsciously. This decision has been variously lauded and criticized over the years, with Dick himself coming to hate it for how it prevented The Man in the High Castle from being fully "about" anything, but, in addition to the broadly mystical feeling that it lends to the narrative's pace and direction, I think that Dick's use of the I Ching is another fascinating way of problematizing reality. Casting hexagrams is a mechanism of chance that supposedly reveals the surety of fate, and it leads one to question whether there are other similarly "meaningless" actions that actually reveal the "inner truth" of reality. I have actually read and used Minford's translation of the I Ching since the last time that I read this, and I wonder if it'll color or inform my next rereading.

 

Anyway, I look forward so much to this podcast. Hopefully, if I write more, it'll be more coherent and less gushing!

 

 

 

* Followed, naturally, by a laundry list of interlinked and increasingly distressing questions like, "Is it possible for an artificial or delusional experience to be more real than reality for one or more people?" and "If the truth of reality, its 'realness', can be superseded or suppressed in this way, by the dysfunction of individual people as reality-processing machines, is it really truth?" and "Is, then, the truth of reality that it feels real, that it is identifiable as 'authentically' real compared to a selection of other realities over time, rather than that it has a unique position in the hierarchy of these realities?" Sometimes, it is less than surprising that Dick suffered from schizophrenia late in life, although his interest in incomplete and interpenetrating definitions of reality appears to have been present from college.

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Excited to read this since I've only ever read a few shorter stories by him!

If you're looking for an edition that includes some of PKd's other writing for a wider taste, Library of America has a rad edition that collects this, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, and Ubik.

https://www.amazon.com/dp/1598530097/ref=cm_sw_r_cp_awd_REcdxb9AJ40WW

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Literally just started reading this on the subway today. I knew the book was partially set in San Francisco, but there's something surreal about commuting in SF while you're reading a book that deliberately provides street names that you're currently passing by. I'm sure people who live in New York are used to seeing their city fictionalized, but it still gets to me!

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Hmm... I tried reading this like 8 years ago, but only got through about a third of the book I think. I'll give this one another shot. I haven't had the opportunity to read much fiction lately so it would be nice to correct that.

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I'm a huge fan of PKD. I read The Man in the High Castle in college but I'll probably read it again after the show left me with a bad impression. One thing that makes PKD so timeless is how he intentionally withholds detailed information about the world in his stories to let your mind fill in the gaps, something I wish the show had at least made an attempt at.

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Just finished this. I've read some Dick before but not this book. I'm super impressed - this is a pretty great book. Thoughts (citations to the pagination in the 1962 version by G.P. Putnam's Sons):

Bayne's musings on the insanity of the Nazis on page 33 (right after he and Lotze see the baseball stadium out the window of the rocket and Lotze says that the stadium looks like it was designed by a Jew) struck me in a lot of ways. One is how it slides easily from Lotze's racist insanity to a more general sort of insanity that Baynes can't quite get a handle on, an insanity that's also spread widely (but he's not sure how widely) and then slides back into the Nazis particularly and the whole time Baynes is kind of confused.

Childan's musings about cultural appropriation on pages 94 through 96, when he's having dinner with Paul and Betty after Betty has just said that she doesn't believe that racist bullshit about "world inundation" by Slavs or Chinese or whatever, were really well done, both because they capture one of the issues with cultural appropriation and because Childan's really believably racist all throughout the book, here included.

This is a good time to mention that I'm not really sure exactly what's going on with the narration in the book when it's talking about Childan and some of the other characters - all of their internal monologues and their dialogue occur in a sort of clipped English (see sentences like "Would have crushed them out of existence. No Japan today, and the U.S.A gleaming great sole power in entire world" or "Advantage of wealth and power makes this available to them, but it's ersatz as the day is long" or "It is a tiny book. Tells about man who runs column in daily paper; receives heartache problems constantly, until evidently driven mad by pain and has delusion that he is J. Christ. Do you recall? Perhaps read long ago." Any thoughts about what's going on there? Is dropping subjects from speech characteristic of Japanese people who speak English, and has Childan adopted this way of speaking to fit in with the Japanese? I wasn't very sure.

When Reiss, one of the German functionaries, is reading the Grasshopper book (page 107) and has just gotten to the part where it all falls apart for the Nazis, it says: "What upset him was this. The death of Adolf Hitler, the defeat and destruction of Hitler, the Partei, and Germany itself, as depicted in Abendsen's book... it was all somehow grander, more in the old spirit than the actual world. The world of German hegemony." that really resonated with me. There's something in having been crushed that lends an air of nobility to a mythos - something like the brightest candles going out the fastest, or the world not being able to handle the truth, or things like this. Everyone wants to feel persecuted (not actually be persecuted, though) as the War on Christmas sort of thing attests to. Plus, like any transcendent set of ideals, the Nazi ideals can't really stand up to reality, so it's sort of like our real world did Nazis a favor by crushing them, because that's kept Nazism hip, so to speak.

On my page 153, Childan has just told Paul that the artists will likely be happy to mass produce the jewelry. Childan freaks out about how Paul "got [Childan] to agree, step by step, led [him] along the garden path to this conclusion: products of American hands good for nothing but to be models for junky good-luck charms." And then he goes on a racist tirade (not in his eyes, though) against Japanese and Americans. I liked this passage because it shows how much of a double edged sword this sort of racism is: not only is Childan potentially misreading the situation entirely, due to his biases and insecurities (it's not clear to me that Paul had anything like the agenda Childan attributes to him) but more importantly the racist myths he's so afraid of are always in danger of coming true, in his mind, because everything for him has to be explained in this racist sort of way, even if it's to his detriment.

The ending was classic Dick mindfuckery - it turns out Germany and Japan lost the war, somehow! So the book is work of fiction, and inside the fiction it's fiction, and the revelation is delivered by a book of fiction inside the fictional fiction, (fictionally) created by the actual (non-ficitonal) process that created the fictional book! Like holy shit I'm not even sure how to start to get a handle on that.

I was a little irritated that the book was almost entirely dudes. There are like three women with more than one line.

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This is a good time to mention that I'm not really sure exactly what's going on with the narration in the book when it's talking about Childan and some of the other characters - all of their internal monologues and their dialogue occur in a sort of clipped English (see sentences like "Would have crushed them out of existence. No Japan today, and the U.S.A gleaming great sole power in entire world" or "Advantage of wealth and power makes this available to them, but it's ersatz as the day is long" or "It is a tiny book. Tells about man who runs column in daily paper; receives heartache problems constantly, until evidently driven mad by pain and has delusion that he is J. Christ. Do you recall? Perhaps read long ago." Any thoughts about what's going on there? Is dropping subjects from speech characteristic of Japanese people who speak English, and has Childan adopted this way of speaking to fit in with the Japanese? I wasn't very sure.

 

I was going to respond saying that Dick is notorious for having an extremely spare style of building sentences, especially in forms of thought and speech, but then I remembered that Japanese actually doesn't need referents for its pronouns or subjects for its sentences. It's common, especially in more literary works, to leave out a subject or deny a series of pronouns their referent for multiple sentences, with the implication being that the previous subject or referent still holds, and then either intensifying it by reintroducing it or disrupting it by changing it at a dramatic climax. So... I guess the answer is yes, it's imitating some form of Japanese, but I'm not sure if it's intentional or just a happy accident.

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I was going to respond saying that Dick is notorious for having an extremely spare style of building sentences, especially in forms of thought and speech, but then I remembered that Japanese actually doesn't need referents for its pronouns or subjects for its sentences. It's common, especially in more literary works, to leave out a subject or deny a series of pronouns their referent for multiple sentences, with the implication being that the previous subject or referent still holds, and then either intensifying it by reintroducing it or disrupting it by changing it at a dramatic climax. So... I guess the answer is yes, it's imitating some form of Japanese, but I'm not sure if it's intentional or just a happy accident.

It has to be intentional in some sense, because it only happens for certain characters in certain parts of the book. I've read other Dick before and he doesn't write like that anywhere else that I've read, either. Maybe it's even supposed to suggest they're speaking Japanese to each other.

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It's been a while since I read the book, but I remember being intrigued about the internal monologue (or whatever) of certain characters to an extent of googling it a bit. Yes, the most common interpretation is that their speech and thought processes followed the Japanese way of constructing sentences. It would be interesting to know if PKD ever commented on this himself.

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I'm a huge fan of PKD. I read The Man in the High Castle in college but I'll probably read it again after the show left me with a bad impression. One thing that makes PKD so timeless is how he intentionally withholds detailed information about the world in his stories to let your mind fill in the gaps, something I wish the show had at least made an attempt at.

 

I think that's partially why I liked this book and others by him so much. I really want to learn more about this world, and it looks like he considered writing a sequel to this, but I don't think that having the details filled in ever lives up to the mystery.

 

Also it sounds like if I really loved the more surreal elements of the book, don't bother with the show?

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Literally just started reading this on the subway today. I knew the book was partially set in San Francisco, but there's something surreal about commuting in SF while you're reading a book that deliberately provides street names that you're currently passing by. I'm sure people who live in New York are used to seeing their city fictionalized, but it still gets to me!

Reading Bad Blood while riding the N Judah was the ultimate version of this for me.

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Reading Bad Blood while riding the N Judah was the ultimate version of this for me.

I should reread that book now that I live in SF.

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I think that's partially why I liked this book and others by him so much. I really want to learn more about this world, and it looks like he considered writing a sequel to this, but I don't think that having the details filled in ever lives up to the mystery.

 

Also it sounds like if I really loved the more surreal elements of the book, don't bother with the show?

 

Well, Dick wanted to write a sequel more because he was dissatisfied with the place where the plot ended. He felt like it was incomplete and obfuscated the "truth" of the work. He tried at least four times to write a sequel and failed each time, either abandoning the work or turning it into something different, because he found it so distasteful to research the Nazis and write characters in their mentality. The Ganymede TakeoverRadio Free Albemuth, and VALIS are all rumored to have begun as sequels to The Man in the High Castle.

 

Also, you probably want to give the show a pass. I only made it about halfway through, but it was totally caught up in the spectacle of a Nazi-occupied America. The self-awareness of being fictional history is virtually absent, except for the incredibly conventional touches that you've seen in a dozen movies and books where the Nazis won, and all the other themes, about colonialism and forgeries especially, are minimized, mostly because the focus is on the ridiculous bolted-on "resistance" plot instead. The performances by Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa and Rufus Sewell are good, but otherwise there's not too much to recommend it.

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Hi all. New to the forums and was very excited to see this month's book be something that I own and had on my to-read list already. It's my first time reading Dick, I'm only about 100 pages in so far, and not really a strong critical reader imo, but eager to throw out some early, scattershot thoughts and impressions:

 

- Love Gormongous' post about how colonialism is explored in the book, definitely rings true so far. What's striking is not just the desperation and victimization of the characters introduced so far, but also 'hate breeds hate' way in which they get sucked into the ideology of their masters and basically contribute to their own subjugation. What I mean with this is that, while all the characters seem like pretty miserable people, many of them second-class citizens with their spirits broken, they do and say some hateful shit. Those passages about the incestual Germans, the Oriental-hence-incompetent Japanese, not to the mention the dehumanization of the Chinese, Jewish and African people, are really pretty shocking. The Italian trucker's self-loathing. The antique collector's cruelty against the slaves, the taxi driver, even fellow Americans, all for show and social status. Hate and distrust is normalized, and the oppressed divide themselves among class/racial lines. The whole "I have it bad but at least I'm not a filthy [insert race/faith here]" way of thinking. Call me out if I'm stretching it, but the emotional tone of this stuff feels really pertinent to 2016, what with the rise of the (sad, angry, disenfranchised) right-wing in Europe and, to a lesser extent (it seems), the States.

 

- I love Wyndam-Matson's responses to the alt-alt-history Rita describes to him in chapter 5 - in an alternate universe, a course of events much closer to our own can sound ridiculous. Combined with "historicity/fakeness/authenticity" tirade from earlier in the same scene, it feels like a really potent statement about subjectivity and a rejection of historical narrative - Dick's New Age-y/druggy/spiritual side showing itself? As you can tell, I'm not able to put into words exactly what I got from this chapter, but it was really strong.

 

- It's interesting how so much Nazi-related speculative fiction features such super-advanced technology, for example the talk of mechs and advanced space exploration in this book. This probably comes with the territory of writing wacky alt-history and sci-fi. However, and I hope this doesn't come off as really controversial and edgy, I'm also tempted to think that there's a perverse fascination and admiration of that regime in Western culture. Loathing the ideology, while admiring and fearing the industrial might and grand vision and cool outfits, you know?

 

- Funny how much this feels like Gravity's Rainbow-lite so far (credit where it's due, this preceded GR by 10 years; one has to wonder how big of an influence it was on Pynchon). Can totally understand the often-heard comparison between the two authors, and it really goes to show how blurry the line between literary and genre fiction became in the postmodern era. Beyond the obvious WWII connection and the character-hopping structure, there's the shared critique of colonialism and the military-industrial complex, an almost fetishistic approach to describing technology and mechanics whilst at the same time imbuing the work with a strange mysticism, as well as a sort of oblique, vermilion atmosphere which seems to this Eastern European uniquely Californian in spirit.

 

All that said, I can't say I'm totally enamored with the book quite yet. So far it seems to be falling into the sci-fi trap of ungraceful exposition. I mean, the setting is very interesting and well-realized, and the book has clearly given me a lot of food for thought already, but I haven't yet been captured emotionally, neither by the story/characters, nor by the prose itself. Lacks beauty for me. Fairly sure I'll get more into it, though.

 

Sorry if this post was rambly, hopefully it's not totally dumb and someone finds something of interest in there.

 

PS

 

Haven't played the most recent Wolfenstein game, but I wonder, how much did it lift from this book?

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Literally just started reading this on the subway today. I knew the book was partially set in San Francisco, but there's something surreal about commuting in SF while you're reading a book that deliberately provides street names that you're currently passing by. I'm sure people who live in New York are used to seeing their city fictionalized, but it still gets to me!

 

I had this experience while reading Orhan Pamuk's Museum of Innocence while in Istanbul.  It's not Pamuk's best book, but being in the city while reading it certainly made a pretty big impression on me.  I wonder if people in NYC who, like you said, must have this experience constantly become numb to this.

 

I'll also add that some books do a better job of generating this surreal feeling than others.  For example, I just read We Are All Completely Besides Ourselves by Kathryn Joy Fowler which takes place in Davis and features the university and many other landmarks I went to while reading it.  However, it didn't leave me wonderstruck.  It just felt like a fun connection to me.

 

Edit: Also I am a big fan of TMITHC, I wonder if I need to read it again...

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I think this is the first of the book club books to not raise much of any sort of emotion in me.

 

A fascinating read to be sure, and I love the things like the linguistic touches others have already commented on. A very cool book, but just so clinical somehow.

 

I could have done without the I-Ching stuff, though it worked OK as a framing device I guess.

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I think this is the first of the book club books to not raise much of any sort of emotion in me.

 

A fascinating read to be sure, and I love the things like the linguistic touches others have already commented on. A very cool book, but just so clinical somehow.

Yeah, I feel pretty similarly. Still not finished with it, a real slog for me despite it being such a small book and me usually being a relatively quick reader.

I think for me it has something to do with the relentless bleakness of the book. All of the characters are so incredibly alienated, broken and miserable that I find it pretty emotionally exhausting to read. That sort of thing isn't uncommon, of course, and I love 'sad books', but usually those books are edifying, they give you an emotional release, allow you to emphatize, etc. I don't feel any of that here. 'Clinical' is a good word - there's no poetry or insight, just a cold, mechanical portrayal of misery. That has merit, I suppose, but it makes for a draining read.

Still an extremely strong book, and i'll perservere through to the end. All the pomo-ish stuff about historicity and ideology and alternate realities within alternate realities is so trippy and tought-provoking and cool (though i'm still not able to fully digest the ideas and put them into words).

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The more I think about it, the more I want to contrast this book with Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union. I haven't read that one recently enough though. Placing this here mostly as a memo to myself.

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The more I think about it, the more I want to contrast this book with Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union. I haven't read that one recently enough though. Placing this here mostly as a memo to myself.

 

Oh, interesting! I was thinking of that a little because Yiddish Policemen is the most recent Alt History novel that I read prior to Man in the High Castle.

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Man, this book is pretty great.

 
For a novel where the premise is a grand bit of world-building, most of the story is shockingly interior. I know the plot threads fizzling out is often ascribed to Dick's haphazard I Ching-driven narrative, but it also serves to underline the inescapable, maybe even inexorable existence of this alternate world. The characters here don't even imagine trying to return the world to its "rightful" place, even with their glimpses of how it might be different. Instead, each take it as a personal challenge to survive and even persevere to act ethically within—despite the novel's total lack of any of the ethical quandaries we expect from dystopian literature.
 
Juliana's thread seemed too erratic and just-so to me, and I didn't really find the ending worthwhile at all. Would have preferred to just end on Tagomi.
 
I already had some vibes going from the esoteric nature of the I Ching's use, but Mr. Tagomi's trip towards the end of the book underlined the really enjoyable similarities to Alan Moore's FROM HELL. Wanna read more PKD soon, but I might have to double-back and re-read that one to get my cryptic vision fix. :D

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