McNally Editions, 2022
first published in 1971
Since finishing this book a couple of weeks back, I've been reading everything I can find on both book and author, and I found a great article in The New Yorker about how this book came back into being after a long period of obscurity. Bear with me here because it's a great story and I love reading about this sort of thing, otherwise, skip this first couple of paragraphs and just scroll on down. It seems that a British literary agent by the name of Becky Brown had gone to stay with her parents in Bath during the pandemic, and "with nothing better to do" made her way to an Oxfam shop there in August, 2020. Her work involves the representation of "dead authors," and so she had developed the knack of quickly scanning bookshelves in places like thrift stores or used bookstores, "looking for particular colors, colophons, publishers' logos." During one such scan, she came across a Penguin paperback, orange, with cracked spine which she bought for fifty pence -- this book, as it happened.
|Penguin, 1977 edition. from Amazon|
About a week later, Ms. Brown received an email from a friend of hers, Lucy Scholes, a contributor to The Paris Review about found old books and the senior editor at McNally Editions, had come across the author's obituary in The Guardian. She had never heard of Kay Dick but decided she'd look into the author's work, most of which she'd found "particularly unexciting," until she came upon this book. She wrote about it for Paris Review, and following that article, because of newly-arisen interest in publishing this book, she emailed Brown for help in tracking down the author's estate. Noting the "strangest timing," Brown revealed that she'd just read They. Scholes was surprised, asking her how she had even found a copy, which as Sam Knight notes in The New Yorker article, was "virtually impossible" to find at the time. Brown was "stunned" at just "how thoroughly the book had disappeared," saying that "It's incredibly unusual to find a book this good that has been this profoundly forgotten."
I'd never even heard of this book nor its author, and I stumbled onto both accidentally when an email came to me from McNally Editions, advertising their book bundle that included They. (By the way, it's also available from Faber, published in March of this year with an introduction by Carmen Maria Machado.) I bought said bundle and put the books aside for later, but then I got another email from a reader friend who was blown away by They and highly recommended it. I took that as a sign that maybe I should read it sooner rather than later. Much like Becky Brown's experience, reading They "just punched me in the face."
I suppose for some people it may be a stretch to call this book a novel; it is a series of nine short stories which are linked by the recurrence of an unnamed, ungendered narrator, the "I" who travels around the "rolling hills and sandy shingle beaches of coastal Sussex" with a dog visiting pockets of artist/intellectual friends during a time when mobs are roaming throughout England bent on the destruction of the arts (including literature), working to stifle creative freedom and to impose their own version of conformity. "They" are "over a million, nearer two," but how this situation developed is not explained; the author, I think, is less interested in the hows and whys than the idea of what it may be like to live in a world (to quote the book blurb) "hostile to beauty, emotion, and the individual." At the same time, perhaps the not knowing makes it all the more horrific, heightening the sense of menace and paranoia that grows with each chapter.
Things are already ominous enough as this book opens -- in a seaside village the narrator learns that the mob has destroyed "the books at Oxford," and from a friend nearby finds out that the National Gallery had been "cleared." But it's not just cities that are affected -- in the countryside the narrator's friends cluster together in "pockets of quietude" for support and to go on with their work as much as possible; communal living is a also a means of survival, as They fear "solitary living" -- those who live alone "are a menace to them." The mobs watch all the time, ready to mete out punishment to those who stand out from the norm or who offer resistance. As time and the book moves on, the situation grows worse as They take over more of the countryside, imposing more stringent measures against individual freedoms, tightening their control. People are forcibly moved to newly-built houses, young children often having to go "with or without parents." Gunshots are commonly heard, signaling that "intractability is a punishable offense," and "senseless violence" becomes usual. "Retreats" are built, constructed with no doors or windows, part of an effort to cure the offenders "of identity." Lobotomies are a form of punishment. Grief becomes an unforgivable offence, resulting in removal to a specialized grief tower where memory purges are performed. And yet, through it all, the narrator who "allowed myself the luxury of going utterly to pieces for forty-eight hours" continues on, "greeting another day."
In her afterword Lucy Scholes notes that this "strong allegory" can be read in numerous ways,
" -- as a straightforward satire, a sequence of vividly-drawn nightmares, even a metaphor for artistic struggle -- but above all it's perhaps best understood as a plea for individual freedoms made by an artist who refused to live by many of society's rules"
and writer Eli Cugini in an article at XTRA* discusses how They "deserves reappraisal," written by this "bisexual writer and editor who was ahead of her time," examining how the "queer sensibility" remains evident throughout the book. It can also be read as a straight-up look at the encroachment of fascism, and I have to say that I'm absolutely floored by how the author managed to convey such menace, paranoia and unease in such a short amount of space, but more importantly, by how what she wrote still resonates nearly fifty years later. The lack of backstory in this book didn't bother me as it did some readers, nor did the fact that the chapters were so brief so that the characters were never really explored; for me it's more about the bigger picture here -- quite honestly, when I think about the last administration's lack of respect for the arts, labeling funding for institutions like PBS, the NEA, the NEH and the Institute of Museum and Library Services a waste of money, the current wave of book bannings, it makes me angry and afraid. And of course, considering the concept of "the mob" in our own contemporary context, well, it's pretty damn scary. Definitely a book that should not be missed, and this is coming from someone who rarely reads dystopian novels.