Saturday, August 19, 2017

Book Review - The Man in the High Castle

I've heard about The Man in the High Castle for years and even more so recently with the Amazon TV series. I haven't seen the TV show so I don't know how it compares to the book but I have heard a few people say that they feel like the show was more engaging than the book and I can imagine why they might feel that way.

The concept of this novel is definitely very intriguing. What if America and the Allies had lost World War Two? Germany and Japan have effectively gained control of the globe and are spreading their influence from each of their respective capitals. The United States is caught in the middle between the expansive influence of both countries such that the Eastern United States is now under German control while the Western United States is under Japanese control (with a small buffer down the center with some ambiguity).

There are a couple of main plotlines that weave together in strange ways and provide interesting commentary. The most exciting action-packed plot is one of "spy-vs-spy" as we see continuing power struggles between Germany and Japan. This plot hides in plain sight (as most good spies do) for large chunks of the novel but its influence can be felt throughout. The other plotline is subtler and less action filled. It's the plot of the existence and creation of the arts and culture...particularly American art. We see a fascination for the "authentic" American culture and art and we see a sort of sublimation around not only the creation and distribution of American arts but also in the type of art and in the behaviors of pre-war Americans trying to survive in this new culture.

The book's title refers to a character that exists somewhere between the two plots but mostly on the artistic side. An author, Hawthorne Abendsen, has written a novel with an alternate reality in which the Allies won the war. The book has been banned by the Axis victors but has a heavy underground following and it crosses the paths of many of the main characters. The rumor is that the author is still alive and living in the United States but he lives in a sort of fortress that keeps him safe from potential repercussions from the Germans or Japanese. This man lives in his "high castle" and his subversive novel has a direct or indirect influence on many of the themes and elements of the story we are reading.

From the beginning of the novel (and through much of the book), the focus is on the western US and therefore on the interactions with Japanese influence, culture and government. Over time, the story expands to include areas further East first in a sort of "no-man's land" on the border area where Japanese and German control intersect/overlap and then the novel expansion shows us German control not only in the more eastern US but also the strong influence they hold across all of the United States (and presumably the world).

We initially follow three main characters in California.

The first, Bob Childan, is a white American making a living by selling American antiques to wealthy Japanese now living in the California area. He is quite racist and resentful to his new Japanese rulers and customers but he also makes a good show of trying to appease them and give them exactly what they want, largely to keep himself out of trouble.

The second is a high-ranking Japanese official named Tagomi. He is a regular customer of Childan's shop and at the beginning of the book he's searching for the ideal American artifact to impress a European emissary visiting soon. Tagomi seems legitimately enchanted by American history and culture but is also very faithful to his Japanese culture and an ardent follower of the I Ching. He is also very distrustful and hateful towards the Nazi Germans although as a public official (and for his own safety) he does his best to keep appearances genial.

The third character is a man named Frank Frink. We learn early on that he has changed his last name from "Fink" to "Frink" to try and hide his Jewish ancestry. Even though he lives in California under Japanese control, the anti-Semitic German influence is still strong due to the German-Japanese alliance. Frank works as a metalworker and is one supplier of "antiques" to Childan's shop. His life is largely one of trying to stay unnoticed. He tries to assimilate into the new culture and do what he can to work and interact well with those around him. When he does take chances, it's usually because of the influence of others or because of unfortunate happenstance.

As the book progresses, we meet more main characters who continue to twist and unravel the plots and themes in ways that really get you thinking. The line frequently blurs as we try to determine which of our main characters may be the "good guy" or at least the most "morally respectable." Our characters and the culture they live in is constantly conflicted and leads to a lot of introspection and redefinition of self and culture. The one main exclusion from ambiguity are the German Nazis. While there are certainly some "innocent" Germans who aren't involved in the political machinations, the novel largely presents the idea that the Nazis are "evil" and despite any ambiguity between the other characters there is a unified acceptance that the Nazis are the antagonists.

The writing and dialog style seemed to me to be attempting to present a sort of "English as a second language" feel for the foreigners now living in the US. That stylistic choice was a little distracting at first but I quickly got used to it.

The themes were very interesting. Not only is the concept of America falling under enemy rule a thought provoking idea but the lengths to which this book takes it are quite insightful. What happens when the country and culture in which you live are suddenly controlled by a truly foreign nation? How does an individual adapt to the requirements and expectations of the new culture? When moral conflicts arise, how does an individual deal with the changes and save their lives...and at what expense? While the themes are fictional and America-centric I couldn't help but think of political upheaval globally and imagine similar situations existing in nations who have seen changes in government over the years (whether peaceful or because of war). As an American, I definitely take for granted my ability to live, work, think and act in a certain way. What would life be like if I was required to suppress years of belief and culture?

Overall I enjoyed the themes and interesting plotlines and characters. However, I also found the pacing and structure of the book to be slow. Lengthy periods of exposition, while interesting, were cumbersome at times. That said, I did enjoy the slower pacing as it relates to the way the plot and machinations were revealed over the course of the story. The intricacies and relationships between characters and plots were exposed subtly and came together in fun ways. It may not appeal to and keep every reader interested but I found it to be a worthwhile read that left me pondering.

3 out of 5 stars

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