Friday, January 23, 2004

At the beginning of each semester I go to my college bookstore to purchase my textbooks. As long as I'm there, I walk over to the English aisle and look at the books you have to read to get a degree in literature.

Some of the books used to puzzle me. I couldn't understand why Phillip K. Dick would be required reading.

Phillip Dick wrote cheap science fiction the seventies and early eighties. He did a lot of drugs; he had paranoid delusions; he often wrote to the FBI complaining about communist plots in his personal life.

His writing style is minimal and concise; a lot of his books were written while he was on drugs. He was obviously not in the mood for something ornate. Yet I was surprised once I began reading his books. This writing style sneaks up on you the moment you least expect it; once you get used to it you suddenly discover it is capable of communicating powerful emotions.

His books continuously slide into and out of incoherence. They reveal an obsession with the nature of reality, the impossibility of living a moral life, and the thin divide between sanity and madness. Dick once wrote that the biggest flaw of science fiction is its "inability to explore the subtle."

My favorite books are Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and The Man in the High Castle. The former is about a detective living in the 21st century whose job is hunting down human-looking androids; the latter explores what would happen had the US lost WWII and became jointly occupied by Germany and Japan.

Here is a small excerpt from The Man in the High Castle. Its about an American salesman, Robert Childan, who had tried to sell a piece of contemprorary American art to a Japanese official, Paul Kasouras. I've had to cut out some important parts to keep the length manageable, but I believe it conveys the flavor of the book:

"Charms," Paul said.
Childan stared.
"Good-luck charms. To be worn. By relatively poor people. A line of amulets to be peddled all over Latin America and the Orient. Most of the masses still believe in magic, you know. Spells. Potions. Its a big business, I'm told." Paul's face was wooden, his voice toneless.
"It sounds," Childan said slowly, "as if there would be a good deal of money in it."
Paul nodded.
"Was this your idea?" Childan said.
"No," Paul said. He was silent, then.
Your employer, Childan thought. You showed the piece to your superior...or some influential person over your head, someone who has power over you...

that's why you're giving it back to me, Childan realized. You want no part of this. But you know what I know ... I will lease the designs, or sell them on a percentage basis; some deal will be made...

Clearly out of your hands. Entirely. Bad taste on your part to presume to stop me or argue with me.

"There is a chance here for you," Paul said, "to become extremely wealthy." He continued to gaze stoically ahead.

"The idea strikes me as bizarre," Childan said. "Making good-luck charms out of such art objects; I can't imagine it."
"For it is not your natural line of business. You are devoted to the savored esoteric. Myself, I am the same...You and I -- we have no awareness of the vast number of uneducated."

"You wrestle with yourself," Paul observed...
"I have already decided."
Paul's eyes flickered.
Bowing, Childan said, "I will follow your advice. Now I will leave to visit the importer."

Oddly, Paul did not seem pleased; he merely grunted and returned to his desk. They contain their emotions to the last, Childan reflected.

Accompanying him to the door, Paul seemed deep in thought. All at once, he blurted, "American artisans made this piece hand by hand, correct? Labor of their personal bodies?"
"Yes, from initial design to final polish."
"Sir! Will these artisans play along? I would imagine they dreamed otherwise for their work."
"I'd hazard they could be persuaded," Childan said; the problem, to him, appeared minor.
"Yes," Paul said. "I suppose so."

Something in his tone made Robert Childan take sudden note. A nebulous and peculiar emphasis, there. And then it swept over Childan. Without a doubt, he had split the ambiguity - he saw.

Of course. Whole affair a cruel dismissal of American effort, taking place before his eyes. Cynicism, but God forbid, he had swallowed hook, line, and sinker. Got me to agree, step by step, led me along the garden path to this conclusion: products of American hands good for nothing but to be models for junky good-luck charms.

This was how the Japanese ruled, not crudely, but with subtlety, ingenuity, timeless cunning.

Christ! We're barbarians compared to them, Childan realized. We're not more than boobs against such pitiless reasoning. Paul did not say -- did not tell me -- that our art was worthless; he got me to say it for him. And, as a final irony, he regretted my utterance. Faint, civilized gesture of sorrow as he heard the truth out of me.

He's broken me, Childan almost said aloud -- fortunately, however, he managed to keep it only a thought...Humiliated me and my race. And I'm helpless. There's no avenging this; we are defeated and our defeats are like this, so tenuous, so delicate, that we're hardly able to perceive them. In fact, we have to rise a notch in our evolution to know it ever happened.

What more proof could be presented, as to the Japanese fitness to rule? He felt like laughing, possibly with appreciation. Yes, he thought, that's what it is, as when one hears a a choice anecdote...Too personal for narration.

In the corner of Paul's office a wastebasket. Into it! Robert Childan said to himself, with this blob, this wu-ridden piece of jewelry.

Could I do it? Toss it away? End the situation before Paul's eyes?

Can't even toss it away, he discovered, as he gripped the piece...

Damn them, I cant free myself of their influence, can't give in to impulse. All spontaneity crushed...Paul scrutinized him, needing to say nothing; the man's very presence was enough; Got my conscience snared...

Guess I've lived around them too long. Too late now to flee, to get back among whites and white ways.

Robert Childan said, "Paul--" His voice, he noted, croaked in sickly escape; no control, no modulation.
"Yes, Robert"
"Paul, I ... am... humiliated."
The room reeled.
"Why so, Robert?" Tones of concern, but detached. Above involvement.
"Paul. One moment." He fingered the bit of jewelry; it had become slimy with sweat. "I--am proud of this work. There can be no consideration of trashy good-luck charms. I reject."
Once more he could not make out the young Japanese man's reaction, only the listening ear, the mere awareness.
"Thank you, however," Robert Childan said.
Paul bowed.
"The men who made this," Childan said, "are proud American artists. Myself included. To suggest trashy good-luck charms therefore insults us and I ask for apology."
Incredible prolonged silence.
Paul surveyed him. One eybrow lifted slightly and his thin lips twitched. A smile?
"I demand," Childan said. That was all; he could carry it no further. He now merely waited.
Nothing occurred.
Please, he thought. Help me.
Paul said, "Forgive my arrogant imposition." He held out his hand.


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