What makes a compelling book tick? Sometimes I find it hard to tell, especially if the story works so well that I don’t even think about the craft involved. A good way to get to know a book, especially for an otherwise quick reader like myself: listen to the audiobook.
That happened to me recently. While I always knew that I liked Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, I could never quite identify the book’s brilliance before. Now that I’ve listened to the audiobook version, I know Dick’s secret weapon: intensely subjective buildup and consequences for two brief moments of violence.
The Man in the High Castle takes place in an alternate America in 1962, about 15 years after Germany and Japan won World War II. Dick’s book was one of the first to imagine such an outcome, but he is utterly uninterested in the typical history-nerd stuff that infests the “what if the Confederates/Nazis won” subgenre — he has the details worked out, but the plot is not (directly) related to the premise. Instead he tells the intimate story of half a dozen or so characters in what looks like a meandering plot — the characters are only tangentially connected. So how did this book become Dick’s best, never mind famous and award-winning, if it’s a chaotic mess that seems to ignore its premise?
The two central characters, at least the ones that made the biggest impression on me in the audiobook, were Mr. Tagomi, Japan’s top official in San Francisco, and Juliana Frink, an ordinary woman living in Denver. Tagomi is by far the most famous character from the book, but I noticed that Juliana is just as important to the emotional and literary impact of the book.
After half a book’s worth of straightforward character development, extraordinary events overtake the two. Mr. Tagomi shoots two thugs that have broken into his office. Juliana Frink cuts the throat of a German assassin. Both are nearly destroyed by the psychological consequences of their violent actions.
What I found most interesting about the two incidents is the way they match up despite the contrasts. Mr. Tagomi is level-headed in his encounter, and it is all described with precision and candour. Juliana’s attack is a wildly bizarre thing, so strange that Juliana herself hardly knows what is happening, and then suddenly the assassin is trying to hold his slashed neck together. Tagomi goes into a tailspin after the event, including a heart attack when the internal stress gets too much for him. Juliana calmly goes off to her next chapter.
The character portraits, intense and personal, help ground the book — I found myself empathizing with Tagomi and Juliana in a way I had never done with characters in Dick’s other novels.
The rest of the story is a fairly subtle implementation of Dick’s usual “reality is not dependable” theme. The title refers to an author who has written a famous book within the book. It’s called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy and it’s about an imaginary past where the Japanese and Germans lost — the rabbit hole is deep here alright! The gun that Tagomi uses in his office shootout is an “authentic” American Civil War Colt revolver, purchased at great cost but actually produced by one of the other characters who makes his living in the “artifact” business. Similarly, the famously anticlimactic ending is not satisfying, plot-wise, but it’s a effective destabilization of reality for the characters.
Looking back, I think that the alternate history setting is a red herring. Sure, it wouldn’t be the same book without it. But that’s not where the thrust of the book is — this is not a story about how one or two uber-heroic characters take down the Nazis like some personification of historical forces (or a videogame hero!). This is the story of much smaller people who are living in the shadow of an indisputably evil and psychically heavy historical event. A German agent, who is trying to fight the worst Nazi impulses, says near the end that it’s too much to fix all at once. All of Dick’s characters are doing their bit, and Dick uses the setting only to sharpen their dilemmas.
A further note about audiobooks. I don’t have time to listen to a lot of audiobooks, but in the last year or so I’ve made my way through 4 or 5 volumes of Sherlock Holmes, Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys, and now The Man in the High Castle. If you’re listening to a good book, it’s easy to get wrapped up in the story, while still appreciating the intricacies and writerly/subtle flourishes.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, if it’s a bad book, the experience is unbearable — I knew almost right away that The Da Vinci Code was not going to fly for me. The wrinkle here is that the narrator has a lot to do with the experience as well: Sherlock Holmes, Anansi Boys, and The Man in the High Castle were all lucky to have a good narrator (as apparently was the audiobook version of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell). My grand plan is to listen to the books, old and new, that intrigue me. I might just become a better reader in the process!