A chilling alternate world

A chilling alternate world

“For a week Mr R Childan had been anxiously watching the mail.”

It’s been a busy week so it’s taken me longer than usual to plow through a relatively small book. What with the Olympics, the wedding of one of my best friends, the necessary post-wedding day of recovery, illness and the fact I’ve been getting through two books at the same time (the second to come soon), it’s taken me longer than I anticipated to make my way through this modern classic. Have these distractions affected my view of the book? Almost certainly. But first, on with the plot.

This book is set in an alternate 1963, in a divided USA ruled half by Germany and half by Japan, because this is a world where the Allies lost World War Two, and the Nazis and Japanese ended up all but taking over the planet. In this nightmarish vision of what-might-have-been, we follow several characters as they find their way through the world. Mr Childan is a shopkeeper specialising in Americana antiques, who comes to believe his reputation is tarnished after discovering he has been tricked into selling forgeries. Mr Tagomi is a Japanese businessman seeking the perfect gift for a client, and is struggling to do business with another man, Baynes, who keeps putting off any transactions.

Frank Frink is a Jew who has begun making homemade jewellery with the hopes of selling it off and making his money from it. His ex-wife, Juliana, is a judo instructor who has begun a sexual relationship with an Italian truck driver called Joe, who introduces her to a novel called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, which is banned in many parts of the world because it depicts an alternate universe – one in which the Allies won the war.

Their stories interweave and overlap as they navigate a life that we can only gaze at in horror. Here, the surviving Jews have mostly had to undergo facial restructuring and name changes to avoid detection in society. Slavery is legal, Africa has been all but wiped out thanks to further genocide, the Japanese influence on the world means that everyone makes decisions based on their readings of the I Ching, and Hitler is still alive, although very ill. The main point of divergence seems to come when FDR is assassinated, and thus the USA don’t have the leadership to perform well in battle, and are still undergoing a Depression when the war starts. Here, the Allies surrender in 1947.

The idea of the “story within a story” of what would happen had the Allies won is a really interesting concept, and the version of events in that story play out somewhat differently to what really happened too, giving us three versions of reality by the time we’re done. It’s a nice meta touch. In true Philip K. Dick form, however, many things are left unanswered, character arcs seem to go unfinished, and there’s not a real sense of conclusion about any of it. At least, I never felt there was. It’s a really interesting idea, and one that literature has explored frequently (in alternate history writing, I’m sure “What if Hitler had won the war?” must be the most common starting point), but I’ve seen it done better.

The jewellery-making subplot I find boring, and I never really clicked with Mr Tagomi. I find Mr Childan’s clumsy attempts to not offend his new Japanese friends quite endearing, and Juliana Frink is an incredible character and the most interesting by far. I understand why it’s a modern classic, and I think it’s an important, intelligent novel, and while it may be one of the first novels to properly explore a world where the Axis powers won, it isn’t the best one. Even Stephen Fry’s Making History is a more engaging example. It’s a novel worth reading for some really inventive ideas, but it’s never going to be a favourite of mine.

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