They by Kay Dick
This is an excellent short novel, although it does not quite fit that description. Nine short sections, all obviously linked and consecutive but not quite running as a complete narrative. Even this technique adds to the overall sense of unease. These are disorientating stories and everything about them unsettles the reader.
There is a technique in cinema to hint or suggest violence without ever showing it, which in many cases makes it more powerful. Here we have the literary equivalent. All the threat and menace are taking place off-screen or on the periphery. The uncertainty about what is happening or what danger is approaching is enough to create the tension. All the more sinister is the complete lack of motive or explanation why.
They was first published in 1977 but did not sell, and was allegedly ‘lost’ until someone found an old copy in a charity shop. It portrays a vision of dystopia which pre-dates The Handmaid’s Tale by eight years. The premise is a simple one, the gradual removal of artistic freedoms to create writing, art and music. The use of brain washing to remove all memory or even the removal of eyes or limbs to prevent further creation. The people responsible for these atrocities are anonymous, groups of strangers or watchers. People that enter your house at night and remove books or tear out the pages with written dedications. Such an enemy is faceless and seems to gain the upper hand only by force of numbers. Bleak towers are built around the coast, silently watching. Unsettling the inhabitants.
This gradual grinding down of all artistic output is made worse for me by the setting for the novel. The rolling chalk Downs of Southern England, which for me conjure up thoughts of artistic creativity with the Bloomsbury Group living there, the painters and writers who gifted us so much wonderful art and literature. Kay Dick uses the contrast of the beautiful scenery, the hills and the sea, as a means to heighten the contrast with the threat of evil.
The subtitle of the book A Sequence of Unease is a perfect description. This passage describes some of the punishments that await those with artistic inclinations:
‘We hurried to the lodge. A curlew shrieked. We saw them leading Claire to the trawler roped to the river bed.
‘What will they do with her? I asked Karr.
‘They will blind her, and return her to me,’ Karr said. ‘She went beyond the accepted limit. She continued to paint.’
Garth raced after them.
‘And to him?’ I asked.
‘They will make him deaf,’ Karr said.
‘And to me, if?’ I was ice all over.
‘They would amputate your hands and cut out your tongue,’ Karr said. ‘You’d better destroy the letters you’ve written. One must not leave them any possible opening for confrontation.’’
People who create, people who paint, write or compose are watched from a distance. There is a certain amount of tolerance, but it is important not to overstep the mark, or to be obvious. They, the faceless, nameless strangers are always watching, gathering in small groups and often just standing silently. All this heightens the sinister feel. They hate any artistic expression and distrust anyone who lives alone. More chillingly, from this pre-internet era, they control people by forcing them to watch television all of the time. Those who overstep the mark are taken away and corrected, returning as empty husks.
I assumed that our unnamed narrator was female, speaking in the first person, hinting at the voice of the author. But in fact there is no indication of gender. That the person holds the hands of various men during the book means little, especially given that the author described herself as bisexual and lived with a female writer for twenty years. It is another of those ambiguities within the book. The narrator encounters various people who live along the south coast, artists and writers seeks to survive and continue their endeavours in various clandestine ways. It is a large cast of revolving names about whom we have no context or background. We have no idea how the narrator knows them or what their relationship is. Even this adds to the unease. They all bring news and intelligence from outside the narrow confines of the narrator’s life.
‘One starts adding up. Julian’s doing it all the time. 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. His students don’t borrow his books any more, so he gets in a fret. He probes and questions. They just stare at him.’
There is no answer, no great solution or resistance that will really make a difference:
‘‘Meanwhile we carry on. Their tactics are soundly based – on the communal resentment we provoke.
‘Jealousy, you mean?’ I asked.
‘No fear. We represent danger. 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.’’
Kay Dick wrote five other novels before this one, from the late 1940s to the early 1960s, all of which sound quite different with their refined European settings and family stories. There is nothing to prepare the way for this novel. Here is one of the characters who has been returned:
‘Fiona was sitting in a chair, head facing the window. Luke put a hand on my arm to stop me rushing forward. My dog barked and jumped trying to reach her lap. She took no notice of him. She turned to face towards us. There was no flicker of recognition. Our presence made no impact on her. She was totally unrelated. In no way vulnerable, in no way able to identify. She was, as Luke said, cured.’
Having also read Mrs Caliban, I look forwards to more of these obscure or lost masterpieces from Faber Editions.
Reviewer: Marcus Hobson