The Man in the High Castle

The Man in the High Castle, like much of Philip K. Dick’s work, is both fascinating and frustrating.  Usually described as an alternative history of the United States in a world in which Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan defeated the Allies in World War II, this short novel is fascinating because it is, instead, a diagnosis of the actual world that emerged from that conflict.  That accounts for the most frustrating attribute of this book, at least for me: its all-too-brief length.  I have never cared for alternative histories, whether in novelistic or other form; the only things they ever seem to reveal are their respective author’s hang-ups and hobby horses.  And so my frustration in this case lies not with the lack of more “history,” but with the sense that there is far more I wish to learn about Dick’s characters.

Dick, however, didn’t need to develop those characters any further because, when the book ends, he has accomplished his goal.  Juliana Frink, the chief female protagonist, has met the titular Man in the High Castle, Hawthorne Abendsen, himself the author of a novel, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, which presents an alternative history (to the narrative of The Man in the High Castle), in which the Allies won World War II.  Abendsen’s book itself diverges from history as we know it, but as he and Julia discover through the use of the I Ching, it expresses the “Inner Truth” of history.

And that is Dick’s point: A true novelist is a truth-teller; and in The Man in the High Castle Dick himself is revealing the truth about the United States in 1962 (and beyond).  Our culture is characterized by abstraction, symbolized by the Japanese, and a confusion of efficiency with morality, symbolized by the Nazis.  The two breakthroughs in the book—Juliana’s revelation about the Inner Truth of The Grasshopper, and Trade Minister Tagomi’s trip (through a glass, darkly, as it were) to the world of The Grasshopper—occur through the engagement of their imaginations with works of art.  A revival of the imagination, Dick shows, can revitalize culture and break the stranglehold of abstract ideology and pragmatic morality on American life.

Frank Spotnitz has created a television adaptation of The Man in the High Castle for Amazon that does justice to Dick’s characters, while changing the narrative of the story.  In his version, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy is not a book but a film, one of many newsreels presenting a history closer to our own.  Hawthorne Abend sen is no longer an artist but a consumer of these newsreels—a sign, perhaps, that Spotnitz, understanding Dick’s point about the artist as truth-teller, is revealing a truth about America today.

First published in the April 2017 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.

Time and Again

Jack Finney is best remembered (to the extent that he is remembered at all) as the author of The Body Snatchers, the 1955 novel on which Don Siegel’s 1956 film Invasion of the Body Snatchers was based.  But his best-selling novel was another work of science fiction, Time and Again (1970), a delightful tale of time travel and romance that has seen a well-deserved resurgence after Stephen King credited it as the inspiration for his own time-travel romance, 11/22/63.

There is much to admire about Time and Again, especially Finney’s decision to rely on neither technology nor magic to transport his protagonist, Simon Morley, 88 years in the past, to the New York City of 1882.  Instead, Si Morley relies on the power of his imagination to make the past live once again, which (to this reader at least) gives the novel a sort of “meta” quality.  What Si does in the course of living the story is what Finney had to do in writing it, and what any historical novelist (or, for that matter, historian) must do in order to make another time come alive for his readers.  Other ages do continue to exist, and we can visit them, so long as we are willing to make the imaginative effort.

There is the rub.  Si travels to the past as part of a government project, and other recruits are less successful—a subtle commentary, perhaps, by Finney on the lack of imagination of the men and women of 1970.  Today, of course, we live entirely in the present; the imaginative effort it would take to immerse ourselves in another time is too much to ask of most of our contemporaries.  Which, I suspect Jack Finney would say, explains so much about modern life—and especially modern politics.

First published in the January 2017 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.

11.22.63

I have always liked the idea of Stephen King more than I have cared for any of his books.  At a meeting of the John Randolph Club here in Rockford many years ago, Tom Sheeley, in the midst of a lunchtime performance of classical guitar, asked, “What is creativity without editing?”  His question was meant to be rhetorical, yet had someone answered “Stephen King” even Tom, more of an admirer of King’s writing than I, would have been hard pressed to deny that to be true.

Since the release of Brian De Palma’s adaptation of Carrie in 1976, filmmakers and TV producers have acted as King’s de facto editors, with mixed success.  While many film and TV adaptations of King’s work have flopped, either by adhering too slavishly to the source material or, conversely, excising the truly brilliant parts, the best directors and producers have used King’s genius as inspiration for their own works of art.  Among the successes I would count Stand by MeNeedful ThingsThe Shawshank Redemption, and The Mist.  (Don’t ask me about The Shining; I do not share the general belief in Stanley Kubrick’s genius.)

So when I greatly enjoyed the Hulu original miniseries 11.22.63, I naturally assumed this to be another case in which the visual adaptation rose above the written source.  Yet I was fascinated enough to pick up the 1,100-plus-page book—and was delighted to discover that I was wrong.

This story of a high-school teacher who spends five years in the past in an attempt to stop the assassination of John F. Kennedy never drags (though it could have benefited, as usual, from a good editor).  Unlike the miniseries, which largely portrays the first few years of the 1960’s in golden tones, King’s work realizes the world of nearly 60 years ago in its fullness, letting the reader sense what has been lost, both for ill and for good.  And while there are obvious anachronisms (including a ridiculously frequent use of profanity), the sense of entering another time is as palpable as in Jack Finney’s Time and Again, which King himself acknowledges as “The great time-travel story.”

That said, I recommend both watching the miniseries and reading the book, because there are ways in which the former rises above the latter, including the change in the character of Miz Mimi (more true to the state of race relations in small-town Texas at the time) and the very ending, when Jake Epping (the high-school teacher) and Sadie Dunhill (his love from 1963) are reunited.  This scene—more fully realized in the miniseries—was not King’s idea; he included it as an epilogue in the book at the suggestion of his son, Joe Hill, who, as a novelist, may more fully approach the Platonic ideal of Stephen King than King himself has ever been able to do.

First published in the October 2016 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.

From Tradition and Away From Tradition

I have been nibbling away for some time now at a slim volume of poetry entitled From Tradition and Away From Tradition, by Andrew Huntley.  Huntley’s work has appeared in these pages a handful of times, and four of those offerings are present in this collection of poems from 2001 to 2014.  Born in Fiji to Australian parents who moved the family back to Australia when Andrew was 12, Huntley is a convert to Roman Catholicism.  Not surprisingly, given the title of this collection, his devotion to the Church’s more traditional wing is on display herein.

That devotion expresses itself beautifully in such poems as “On Praying for All Those Who Have Died Lonely Deaths,” a profound meditation on both the state of souls in Purgatory and God’s existence outside of time, and the lengthy (autobiographical?) “The Plough & The Cross,” which closes out the volume; and even where one might not expect it, such as a poem bearing the title “Lament for the Latest Female Backpacker Murdered.”

Yet other poems slip into didacticism, and lose their artfulness; “The ‘Spirit of Vatican II’ Exit March” is about what one might expect from the title, while “Against Certain Catholic Fantasts” oddly contrasts Pius IX unfavorably with Abraham Lincoln, whom Huntley sees as clothed in “the cope / Of Heaven, as he wrought to make men free.”  (Lord Acton, who famously opposed Pius’s promulgation of the doctrine of papal infallibility at the First Vatican Council, would nonetheless likely find this comparison beyond the pale, since he understood far better than Huntley what was at stake in the American Civil War, as his postwar correspondence with Robert E. Lee makes clear.)

Despite such clunkers, this handsomely typeset and well-bound volume has much to recommend it, including my favorite of Huntley’s poems, “Closing Tolkien,” first printed in these pages in August 2004.

First published in the June 2016 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.

Learning as I Go

The writing of Jeff Minick should be familiar to Chronicles readers; he has appeared in these pages dozens of times over the past 15 years or so.  His name, however, was not always attached to his work.  Under the nom de plume Joe Ecclesia, he wrote our Letter to the Bishop column for the better part of a decade, and those articles constitute a majority of his Chronicles pieces (though that majority is getting slimmer with time).  His more recent letters from Uncle Samuel to his nephew Hobson have borne his own name.

For a couple of years now, I have had Jeff’s Learning as I Go sitting on my shelf, constantly disappearing under stacks of other books, waiting for life to slow down enough so that I could savor its contents.  But life doesn’t slow down unless we make it do so, and I finally decided to force its hand by picking up this 300-plus-page volume.  What a delight it has been to revisit the letters of both Joe and Samuel, and all of the other pieces that Jeff published in these pages up until 2013, and to read for the first time others that appeared elsewhere.  Most of the pieces in this handsome and elegantly typeset volume are only four or five pages long—a perfect length when your eyes need a rest from your computer screen, and your mind needs a rest from the inanities of the modern world.

First published in the March 2016 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.