“Truth, she thought. As terrible as death. But harder to find.”
I’m sure I’m not the only person who sometimes finds themselves left cold by an acclaimed, cult novel…. right? It’s not anything new of course (hey there, Catcher in the Rye, I’m looking at you…) but it always leaves me wondering whether I’m the only one who has failed to grasp the bigger meaning in something. I know everyone has different tastes but for some reason my inability to get to grips with The Man in the High Castle bothered me more than it should have. I feel like I need someone to explain to me precisely what I’m missing.
I should say, to start with, that I actually think that on the face of it this is a fairly well-constructed and carefully considered take on the alternative war history. In this novel Dick supposes that if Roosevelt had been assassinated early in his presidency then the US, and the Allies as a whole, may well have gone on to lose the Second World War. In his alternate post-war world the former Allied states have been divided up by the victors with Germany and Japan now controlling large portions of the former United States. Around this setting Dick constructs a complex story involving the trade in pre-war American ‘antiques’, a German defector and a plot that threatens the tentative peace between the Axis powers. Linking all the characters is The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, a contentious new novel putting forward an alternative history of its own.
Let’s start with the good stuff. I liked the idea behind this novel. Historical ‘what ifs’ are always interesting to consider and Dick’s speculations are carefully plotted. In fact, my favourite parts of this novel were those passages in which the characters discussed how the course of history might have changed if this or that had happened differently. It’s the kind of rabbit hole thinking my sad little brain loves. Of course, neither of the histories he theorises is true – either the one the characters live in the novel or the one they read about – but I think that’s part of the book’s cleverness. Dick seems to be suggesting that really the course of history can only ever be down to luck, chance and tiny, random decisions. It can’t be predicted.
Unfortunately, however, my enjoyment of this novel was spoiled by the characters. Having created such a vivid and complex world for them to inhabit it’s a shame Dick doesn’t seem to have made the same effort to make them believable. I partly blame this on the fact that there are quite a few of them and the novel jumps around from one to the other quite quickly. Usually I wouldn’t find that annoying at all but when it’s combined with the rather stilted inner monologues Dick writes for his characters and their inexplicable reliance on the I’Ching to guide their decision making it’s suddenly quite an obstacle. Altogether it makes an already fragmented novel feel disjointed and the already shadowy characters feel completely inhuman.
Finally – and this is my last point because I don’t want this to sound like a completely insane rant – I really, really didn’t like the ending. I spent longer than I really needed to rereading and scratching my head over those last few pages because it looked to me like plain bad storytelling.
It’s my own fault for reading something based entirely on the reviews for the Amazon Prime adaptation. Has anyone watched the show? How does it compare to the book?