Book Review: The Man in The High Castle by Phillip K. Dick (Kindle Edition)

Posted: December 2, 2015 in Books
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the man in the high castle book

It is 1962, The Germans, Italians, and Japanese have won World War II.  FDR has been assassinated. The Japanese administer the Western part of the United States, known as the Pacific Stats of America, the Nazis the East coast.  Nobosuke Tagomi is the highest ranking member of the Japanese trade mission in San Francisco.  He wants to present a gift to Mr. Baynes, a dignitary from Stockholm who is flying in to meet Mr. Tagomi.  Tagomi wants a piece of Americana to give to Baynes so he visits Robert Childan owner of American Artistic Handicrafts, a store that specializes in selling Americana.

Childan is a virulent racist, who thinks the Japanese are subhuman.  He nonetheless lusts after a client’s wife, Betty Kasoura. Betty’s husband Paul senses something is not quite right with Childan, but meets with him anyway in their home.

Childan finds out from Tagomi that a Civil War .44 gun is a fake.  He bought it from a guy named Calvin, who in turn bought it from a man called Wyndham-Matson, who owns the W-M Corporation.  Matson suspects that Frank Frink and Ed McCarthy two employees of W-M, made the gun look more fake in order to blackmail him.  He calls the police and they start to investigate Ed and Frank, which is dangerous because Frank is a Jew who has changed his name. Frank and Ed leave W-M and star their own business, specializing in shiny metallic curiosity pieces.

Juliana Frink, Frank’s ex-wife lives in Colorado, and is a judo instructor.  She picks up a man named Joe Cinnadella, an Italian truck driver, who Julia is attracted to.  Juliana sleeps with Joe, and tells him about a book, that he has read, that she has started to read called the Grasshopper Lies Heavy.  The book postulates that the Nazis, the Japanese and Italians lost the war and spells out how.  Juliana becomes obsessed with the book, and wants to visit its author in Cheyanne Wyoming.  Joe thinks the book is bunk but agrees to take her to see Hawthorne Abendsen, the book’s author.  Abendsen is supposed to be living in a castle barricaded by barbed wire, the Man in The High Castle. Wyndham-Matson, Betty Kasoura, and Joe Cinnadella have all read the book, but only Juliana wants to visit Abendsen.

Ed gives the handmade pieces to Robert Childan, and he takes it to Paul Kasoura, who is interested in a business relationship with Childan.  Does Paul Kasoura enter into a business relationship with Childan, even though Childan thinks the Japanese are inferior to him?  Does Tagomi get the right gift for visiting dignitary Baynes Is Baynes who he says he is?  Does Juliana ever get to visit Abendsen in Colorado?  Is Joe the poor truck driver he claims to be?

I must say I’m disappointed in The Man in The High Castle.  The idea of the Nazis winning World War II is a fantastic premise for a fictional book.  But the author wastes that premise in a short time. Phillip K. Dick gets so involved in the minutiae of the antiques store, and Wyndham-Matson, and Frank Frink, that he forgets the big picture.  The heinous Nazi atrocities are mentioned in passing, and the Japanese and their American subjects have a cult-like devotion to the I Ching.  Both the Germans and the Japanese are little more than technocrats caretaking the land that they conquered.  We are only shown a view of life in the Pacific states and never shown what the Nazi controlled East Coast is like.  That in itself makes it half a story.  If the Axis victory is a lie what is the explanation for the occupation?  Mass hypnosis? Drug induced alternate reality?  What is going on here?  So we have toothless evildoers, a public strangely resigned to their fate, and seemingly no one willing or able to change the occupation of the United States. Add it all together and it’s not a very exciting book .It seems like more of a philosophical, metaphysical book, than a linear story.

The only explanation for Dick’s dwelling so extensively on the antique Americana was that he was using it as a metaphor for what was going on in his fictional America at the time.  It didn’t matter if the Americana was real or not as long as people believed it was real.  Similarly it didn’t matter if the Nazis won the war or not, as long as people believed they did.  It’s a strained metaphor, and not worth taking as much of the book as it did, but that’s my explanation for Dick’s fixation with antiques and Americana.

Oddly, the most interesting characters are the truly evil ones.  Childan, a crude mix of xenophobia and lust deserves a comeuppance.  The other, Joe, hides his evil behind a handsome face and roguish charm. The protagonist in this book is Julia, she’s the only one who’s figured out what Abendsen’s book means, and tries to warn him that he is a marked man. Even she is flawed, hopping in to bed with the first good-looking guy she meets.  Frank Frink, who should be the man most concerned with his well-being, seems to enjoy being buffeted along by whatever external forces he encounters.  He changes his name from Frank Fink to Frank Fink and lives in anonymity for 17 years, as a Jew in Nazi occupied America?  The idea is ludicrous on the face of it. The other characters are less developed than the four I mentioned. Dick also uses Pidgeon English when Childan or the Kasouras are speaking, that may have been acceptable in the 60’s, but it grates on me 50 years later, they were in the country for at least 15 years, and their grammar is still bad? What’s Childan’s excuse?

So there you have it, a great premise wasted by a threadbare story, underdeveloped characters and a who cares ending. This book is a real head scratcher.

The Man in the High Castle:  A Royal Pain.

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