The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick

This is an alternate history novel, set in an America where the Nazis won World War II. The USA is a very different place from its reality. Japanese culture is everywhere and totalitarian rule is in place. The story darts from place to place, showing life from the perspectives of several loosely connected characters. The first is Robert Childan, an antiques dealer, coping with the discovery that some of his stock consists of fakes. We also have Frank Frink, secretly a Jew, who was fired from the company who made the fake merchandise, and who now wishes to set up his own handcrafts business. Frank’s estranged wife Juliana, a judo instructor, is travelling across the country with another man who has a secret agenda. And there are others. The central aspect of the novel is a book called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, written by the character Hawthorne Abendsen. Interestingly, this is an alternate history novel-within-a-novel, which tells the story of the Nazis losing the war. It describes a world similar to our own – a tale of how life might have been. It is a banned book, and Abendsen is rumoured to be living in a fortified castle for his own safety, hence the title of Dick’s book.

I felt ambivalent about this novel. On the one hand I was awed by the amount of research that clearly went into describing this alternate reality. The downside was that the story severely lacked drama until its closing chapters. Perhaps if I had a larger interest in World War II the novel would have captivated me more. The subtext of the story seems to revolve around the projection of illusion. All the characters, in one way or another, are dealing with false realities. Frank Frink hides his true identity for reasons of safety. Juliana has no idea what her lover is secretly up to. Childan is distressed by the fake merchandise in his position. Abendsen pretends to live in a castle while actually living in an ordinary house. There’s no doubt that Dick had something very deep in mind when he wrote The Man in the High Castle. But when subtext becomes more important than story, the entertainment value of a novel often suffers.

Some will no doubt love this novel; others will hate it. It depends on what you want out of a story. Generally, when I read fiction, I’m looking for an emotional experience, and The Man in the High Castle fails to deliver that. At times, the lack of dramatic content made the reading tedious, and I confess that I only starting appreciating the novel’s strengths when I had a chance to read about it afterwards and reflect on its themes.