The latest Faber reissue comes in the form of They, a novel first published back in 1977 and sold as a series of dream sequences of a possible dystopian future.
What this means, in essence, is that, over the course of a number of disparate chapters (you could even call them loosely related short stories), you are introduced to a world not too dissimilar from our own, in which artists are forced underground, forced to give up books and art and music, driven into retreats where they are gradually stripped of self until they are ‘cured’.
Set on and around the South Downs in Sussex, we follow a group of people (some of whom recur, or may recur) as they struggle to remember artworks that have been seized, contending with punishments (a poet has her arm burned for trying to save poems thrown in a fire) and bizarre rituals (a vivid scene runs like a bizarre episode of Dr Who featuring a score of intersecting Morris Dancers with steel poles).
What is at issue appears to be difference. Art, as we know, can reassure but it can also challenge and provoke. For every book by Nadine Dorries, there is a Judith Beheading Holofernes or a Piss Christ or a Myra. As it should be. Art should not be one flavour. But we know, don’t we, that there are enemies of art (hi Nadine), who represent Governments busy seeding ridiculous culture wars that are themselves taken up by the kinds of people who deal with their fists.
“I remembered how they began,” Dick writes, “a parody for the newspapers. No one wrote about them now. That was too dangerous. They were an ever-possible encounter.”
There is a horribly resonant thrum throughout They:
“Little things, irrelevancies, omissions, contradictions, ambiguities. He’s forever searching for reasons. And the reasons don’t satisfy. They can’t. because they don’t fit.”
At its end, “they want us to be anxious”:
“‘Non-conformity is an illness. We’re possible sources of contagion. We’re offered opportunities to,’ he gave a slight chuckle, ‘integrate. Refusal is recorded as hostility.’”
They didn’t sell well on its first outing, possibly because of the challenge it presents but also, possibly, because it is open ended, up for interpretation. It isn’t an easy book in the sense that it doesn’t spell everything out for you. But if you, like me, find yourself ever more in need of reassurance (not everyone votes Conservative, not everyone is prepared to forget the latest scandal when the news cycle rolls on, not everyone is happy about the continued degradation of [insert everyone the Government hurts here]) then reading They is actually quite a cheering experience.
“As I stood looking at the sea fanning out before me I felt a quickening of pure physical exhilaration. I had forgotten that the world was round. Geometrically precise, the sea’s curve on the horizon stressed a childhood wonder. Sea and sky offered a comfort.”
They may not have read They at the time but here we are some forty plus years later and it’s being talked about again, being read again, being discussed again. Reading They feels like a form of resistance to the culture of stupidity. We’re all for that.
Any Cop?: It’s good to see Kay Dick’s lost dystopian classic resurrected for the twenty-first century. Read like your life depends on it – read, like and then share.