After the distressing failure of my recent attempt to develop a love of Dickens, I opted for a different tactic for my latest classic on the Classics Challenge (hosted by Stacey at The Pretty Books). I’ve read quite a lot of what I would call ‘modern classics’, but perhaps not so many in the past year, when I’ve divided my time between older classics and brand new novels.
I was drawn to Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle after reading Ryan Graudin’s excellent Wolf by Wolf; she used Dick’s novel as a reference point in describing her own, which intrigued me enough to buy the book. I’m also interested in the idea of counter-history or alternate history, in which writers take a “what if?” approach to real-life events. In this case, Dick imagines a world in which Germany and Japan triumphed in World War Two, subsequently taking over the world; The Man in the High Castle is largely set in San Francisco, now part of a Japanese empire, with the east coast of the USA now ruled by Nazi Germany. Hitler is out of the picture; syphilitic and incapacitated, but still hugely influential. Dick uses many familiar names, like Goebbels and Goring, in creating a believable scenario.
There are a number of different subplots, one of the most interesting being a subversive novel called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, written by a reclusive author and banned in German territories; this book-within-a-book is read and discussed by many of the characters, and depicts a world in which the Allies won the war, defeating Hitler. I love a bit of meta- action in books, so this pleased me. Obviously there’s something pleasingly knowing about the dramatic irony created when characters laugh at the concept of Britain emerging victorious from the conflict.
The plot of The Man in the High Castle is quite confusing and all over the place, with Dick picking up the stories of quite a few characters over the course of the novel’s 250-ish pages, but all of it is intriguing in a mind boggling kind of way. I had to reread the final chapter and I’m still not convinced I fully understood it. I was tired though. It’s a witty book too, portraying a world in which our society is subtly inverted; Japanese tourists collecting imitation US trinkets, for example, amused me.
I have vivid memories of studying Hitler, Nazi Germany and WW2 repeatedly at school and I find these alternate version of history really fascinating. I loved Wolf by Wolf too and now am wondering if I should read Fatherland by Robert Harris too; in fact, after reading The Man in the High Castle, I remembered coming across an article in The Guardian a while ago (link here) which gave a few other suggestions within this genre. I’ve read Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America but will admit to not remembering anything about it, and started The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon but found it difficult to get into; I think I might need to revisit these. Although I think my next read on the Classics Challenge will be The Murders in the Rue Morgue by Edgar Allen Poe.
Have you read The Man in the High Castle? If you have, what did you think?