Sticking with books set in San Francisco but very different, I absolutely loved The Man in the High Castle. It’s Philip K. Dick so you know it’s going to be built for density, not speed, but it is just so rich. Set in an alternative present (1960s) after America lost WWII, the book opens on a number of seemingly unrelated characters in Japan-occupied San Francisco. Much like Confederacy of Dunces, slowly as the book builds and the plot progresses you see how all these characters are tied together, how the same chain of events links them, though they themselves are largely unaware of the impact they’re making.
I LOVED the representation of the American after defeat and occupation by Japan, especially in the character of Robert Childan, who for me was by far and away the most interesting character in the book, if not exactly the most noble. In a world where racial imperialistic ideology won, America becomes a very stratified place. Firstly it is divided between Japanese occupation in the West and Nazi occupation in the East. Then within those two blocs, there is the preferred racial hierarchy. Under Nazi occupation it is ruled by white Aryans, with darker Whites such as Mediterraneans beneath, and almost everyone else, especially the Jews, completely wiped out. Under Japanese occupation, the Japanese rule, with white Americans as a subservient class. Beneath them is the Chinese Americans, whom the Japanese consider to have been less worthy foes in the war, too quickly conquered, and they are condemned to the menial work. However the Chinese are still Asian, so there must be someone beneath them and this, as it seems always, is the black African Americans. They are returned to slavery, in what seems to be a gesture of respect to indigenous American racial hierarchies.
The character of Robert Childan is the most fascinating for me, as a businessman desperately trying to cater to the ruling Japanese with the outdated, kitsch trinkets of his now historical culture. He has so deeply internalised the racism against him, he thinks in staccato English resembling the Japanese accent when speaking English, as if he is a foreigner to himself. The effect of a high-context culture such as the Japanese taking over a low-context culture like America means that Childan is constantly struggling to keep up, interpret and correctly conduct himself in a world of overwhelming and frequently elusive meaning. He lives in dread of giving offence, finds himself clumsy and inarticulate, stupid and slow, trampling etiquette and seeming childlike in his inability to keep his composure. All of this goes to convince him that the Japanese really ARE superior, they really ARE smarter than him, better than him. Plus they won the war so their racial superiority must be true.
And yet in his heart, he knows that on the other side of America, it is white men that rule, so how can Americans be so inferior after all, if they are white men? The Nazi atrocities, which even the Japanese baulk at the sheer cruelty and barbarity, go some way to undermining this idea that white men can rule a civilised nation.
My favourite scene is when Childan is invited to dinner by a Japanese couple. For him this is a monumental experience, the first in his life, one which he dreads and rejoices at in equal measure. He is terrified he will make a fool of himself in such an intimate and prolonged setting. The young couple however resemble the naive, well-meaning but condescending and ignorant liberal Northerners coming down to the South to have dinner with a real-live American Negro. They have no understanding or empathy with Childan’s internal struggles, fear, and painful awareness of his racial class. When they ask what he imagines the world might have been like if America had won the war, he reassures them, much worse, much worse. He says it would be full of communists, and Jews, and blacks trying to live among whites, and reaffirms his loyal belief in the justice of the racial hierarchy governing this now peaceful land. They are disappointed. He resents their disappointment. Their ability to have everything their own way and still want more from him. He rightly sees that to them he is a novelty of their young, liberal lifestyle, mostly there so they can go back to their friends and say, “Yes, we are very pro-American, we even had one for dinner, didn’t we darling?”
The really good thing about The Man in the High Castle is its reticence to demonise or give in lazily to ideas of inevitability. This world under the Japanese is racist and has many problems in it. The America it paralleled in 1962 was racist and had many problems in it. Both worlds were governed by two superpowers on the brink of all out nuclear war. In terms of whether we are truly better off in a world where the Nazis lost – something which is so beyond question to us you would be lucky to find one person in a thousand who would even prevaricate over it – Philip K. Dick tries to truly answer honestly. From his viewpoint in 1962, the world seems to be climaxing to nuclear war and the possible total annihilation of all human life on earth. The once-allies are now the new enemy in a peaceless peace. The society that is held up as the leader of the free world is racist and repressive to anyone who challenges that. Ultimately, whether one way is better than the other depends on who you are. If you are a Jew, you’re definitely better off the Nazis lost, but for many white Americans, they enjoy a more cohesive, less crime-prone, cleanly racially segregated society, and that’s a positive even if they are no longer top dog.
The ending is very abrupt. It feels like walking downstairs and expecting one more step than there was. It ends and you’re like, “What, that’s the end?” but it grows on you once you let the book settle.
Absolutely read this book. Just so good.