Having enjoyed Sven Holm’s Termush so much, I thought I would read another book from the Faber Editions list, a series dedicated to reviving radical literary voices from across the world. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the one that called out to me was Kay Dick’s 1977 novella, They, another classic piece of dystopian fiction in the speculative / slipstream vein. Think Anna Kavan’s brilliant novel Ice (a tense, nightmarish pursuit across a post-apocalyptic landscape), punctuated by moments of genuine beauty, largely stemming from Dick’s evocative descriptions of the natural world.
Like Termush, They is another fascinating, enigmatic rediscovery by Faber – a chilling vision of a society in the grip of a sinister force that seems all too relevant today. In some respects, it feels as if these two novellas are in conversation with one another, sending out distress signals in the faint hope of being rescued…
They depicts a world in which artistic expression, creative freedom and non-conformity are all under attack. The novella’s setting is deliberately sketchy, with the narrative unfolding through a series of short stories or vignettes which take place in unnamed locations (almost certainly in Britain) at unspecified times. Dick thrusts the reader into this world with the first vignette, Some Danger Ahead, which sets the novella’s alarming tone right from the very start. In some respects, this opening story could be viewed as the novella in miniature, with Dick setting out her stall for the horrors to come.
From sculptors and painters to writers and composers, Britain’s creative artists are being threatened by shadowy, malign forces – the ‘They’ of the book’s title. Through a sequence of rapid, ruthless actions, They roam the landscape in packs, destroying art, confiscating books, burning poetry – basically suffocating and snuffing out all forms of creativity in their sight. At first, They focus on cities, effectively pushing artists towards more rural and coastal areas where they gather in small groups or retreats.
Moreover, They mostly operate through stealth, targeting properties when residents are out or asleep at night, avoiding conflict where possible to conserve their resources. By stealing books, clearing galleries and destroying manuscripts, They aim to force artists into abandoning their creative pursuits, effectively outlawing any forms of artistic expression. Consequently, people must rely on their memories of various art forms once the originals have been destroyed.
They never came when one was in the house. In their view, confrontation was an unnecessary waste of energy, a luxury they withheld. Silent stealth was a greater pain to bear; it was their form of punishment. They only took sharper measures if one went beyond the accepted limit. (p. 9)
More draconian measures are reserved for rebels (at least at first), with the mob only turning on individuals if they decide to resist. Nevertheless, as the novella unfolds, violence against artists increases in frequency and intensity, particularly when those targeted refuse to comply. In some instances, offenders are imprisoned, tortured or maimed. Painters are blinded; writers have their hands amputated; poets have their arms burned. In short, They will do whatever it takes to stamp out creativity, cutting off its lifeblood at the source. As a result, it’s not uncommon for people to be desensitised or rendered ineffective, emptying them of their memories and the desire to create.
Infiltration and surveillance techniques are also rife, with undercover agents posing as members of artistic groups or staff, ultimately acting as spies to facilitate the raids. Surveys are another common tactic, with inspections frequently attracting sightseers; consequently, these onlookers feed on the horrific spectacle, carrying out acts of violence which add to the sense of destruction.
I was not surprised by the influx of sightseers. Like locusts, they migrated in the wake of a survey. They moved sluggishly about an area under surveillance, relieving their apathy, with small acts of vandalism, chucking their litter about the streets, staring at all him. They met with malicious, intent, pushing people out of their way. (…) Physically they presented a uniformity of ugliness, their movements suggested the grotesque. They were on the look-out: sightseers for a gleaning which a survey might always bring about. If nothing happened they became a shade more fractious, and let out their suppressed cruelty in mischievous violence… (p. 90)
Dick doesn’t tell us whether They are officially sanctioned by the government or whatever authoritarian regime is in place here, but she does allude to the size of the group. At one point, a figure of 1-2 million members is mentioned, highlighting their prevalence across the county and the collective power of this movement.
While the reasons for the mob’s actions are not explicitly spelled out, the reader gains various insights into their motivations, mostly through conversations between the artists as the narrative unfolds. Unsurprisingly, these acts of destruction are largely driven by fear, envy and a general lack of empathy and understanding.
‘…We [artists] 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 as recorded as hostility.’ (p. 53)
Indeed, creative artists are not the only individuals under attack here. They also target single people living alone, unconventional individuals and anyone who appears to be different from the norm or independently minded in their views. Individuality and non-conformity are considered ‘illnesses’ and potential sources of contamination across society, threatening the movement’s hold on the reins of power.
Moreover, any expressions of deeply-felt emotions must also be extinguished, from joyous declarations of love to the profound sadness of grief. In one of the most distressing vignettes in the book, we learn of mourners who are taken away to grief towers where they are stripped of their emotions, only to return like zombies devoid of any memories – ‘They emptied him, she whispered…Not a memory left.’
‘The grief towers for those who refuse to deny. Love is unsocial, inadmissible, contagious.’ He grinned. ‘It admits communication. Grief for lost love is the worse offence, indictable. It suggests love has value, understanding, generosity, happiness. Tessa is an extreme case. She flaunted her grief with pride.’ (p. 100)
We learn few details about the novella’s narrator as she (or possibly he?) moves from one artistic group to another in each subsequent vignette. In fact, at one point, I wondered whether the same person narrates each story or whether they change from one vignette to the next – any thoughts on that would be very interesting to hear in the comments. Occasionally, the narrator’s emotions break through, adding another, more psychological, dimension to the story.
I allowed myself the luxury of going utterly to pieces for forty-eight hours, moving like one demented through the hours, flooding my mind with old memories, metaphorically wailing at the wall of my loss. (…) Through such excess did I propel myself back to an appearance of remoteness. It was a form of subdued hysteria. (p. 104)
It’s an eerily chilling world the author conveys here – a timely reminder of the horrific dangers of censorship and restrictions on artistic expression. The book also highlights the importance of individual acts of resistance, often at enormous risks to freedom fighters themselves. While some readers might find the book’s minimalist approach a little too mysterious for their tastes, I loved the sense of ambiguity and space this creates, encouraging the reader to draw on their imagination to flesh out the gaps.
In her introduction to the novella, Carmen Maria Machado warns us against the temptation to view They as simply an allegory for the current political environment. Nevertheless, it’s hard not to draw parallels with the Conservative government’s strategy of stoking the Culture Wars on multiple fronts, including blatant attacks on specific arts organisations and the creative sector in general. Dick’s novella also raises important questions about the value of art, especially if it cannot be shared with others – most notably, its intended audience.
‘Can we go on creating for ourselves? Without any contact with the outside world?’ (p. 34)
And what remains when a work of art is destroyed? Will it endure in the memory, or might this be extinguished too? There are resonances here with Yoko Ogawa’s excellent novel, The Memory Police – a poignant, dreamlike book in which specific objects (and people’s memories of them) are systematically ‘disappeared’.
I’ll finish on a more hopeful note, a quote from one of the alluring descriptions of nature dotted through the book. There’s some gorgeous descriptive writing here, beautifully captured in Dick’s lucid, crystalline prose.
The January day had the pellucidity of a crystal. Unseasonal sun transformed the landscape. Winter bleakness acquired definition. Following weeks of rain the sharpness was invigorating. Downlands radiated colour. Brownish defoliated areas, glinted purple tones. Leafless bramble and thicket sparkles with renewal of bud. (p. 37)
This is a haunting, enigmatic, thought-provoking book – like a howl from the past and a warning for the future. (My thanks to the publishers and the Independent Alliance for kindly providing a reading copy.)
Understandably, contemporary dystopian fiction is often taken up with climate change but, sadly, there are many other forms of dystopia. Dick’s novella sounds like a fascinating exploration of one such example.
Yes, it was really interesting to read this so soon after Termush as it highlighted the parallels (and the differences) between the two scenarios. Another excellent rediscovery from an imprint that seems to be going from strength to strength…
I can see the parallels to The Memory Police – and, just like that one, I can see how this might bring back some quite disturbing memories of my adolescence. Just one example: I remember the censors showing up during a rehearsal of a play we were doing and shutting us down on the spot…
Funnily enough, I thought of you as I was reading this, and sadly, it doesn’t surprise me to hear that you experienced this kind of censorship in action. That must have been terrifying at the time, and incredibly frustrating for you and your fellow performers…
Fascinating. I read that this book was out of print and discovered in an opportunity shop and then republished by Faber and Faber. Seems it was her best.
Yes, that’s right. Becky Brown (literary agent at Curtis Brown Heritage) discovered an old copy in an Oxfam charity shop and swiftly saw the potential for republication. Oddly enough, another archive mole, Lucy Scholes, found a copy at roughly the same time. Her McNally Editions publishing house has the US rights, I think. A fascinating story of rediscovery for a very intriguing book!
I would also love to read a biography of Kay Dick. She sounds a very interesting woman who had a gift for alienating people.
Yes, a biography would be fascinating…
This sounds really disturbing. I do agree with the point Carmen Maria Machado is making in her introduction but I must admit the present parallels did occur to me as I was reading your review.
I think the sense of ambiguity about ‘They’ makes it feel all the more chilling. That said, it’s hard not to imagine packs of Lee Andersons roaming the country stamping out works of art and replacing them with Union Jacks and Coronation nonsense. He really is the living embodiment of this kind of pernicious force…
Really interesting review Jacqui, and I’m pleased to see that you responded so positively to this one. I was very much attracted to it when it came out, but then stumbled across some negative views – so I’m glad you think so highly. It does sound rather relevant, alas…
Yes, I recall those negative / lukewarm reviews, too. (I know Grant wasn’t mad about it, and John Self, whose opinions are always worth noting, is another sceptic.) That’s probably why I did rush to read it at the time of its release.
That said, I thought it was very effective, and I really liked the sense of ambiguity and shadowyness (if that’s a word) surrounding the perpetrators. Maybe there could have been a bit more interrogation of the emotional impact of these acts of violence on the writers and artists (e.g. the ‘subdued hysteria’ passage I quoted), but that’s a fairly small quibble in the scheme of things. As an exercise in unnerving the reader, it succeeded for me!
It’s a tricky one, because the criticism I read (and I can’t recall where it was from) was to the effect that there was a strong class element involved, with Dick being out of touch with modern life and decrying mass modern culture, blaming the great unwashed for the death of the arts – or something along those lines! That may be a bit harsh, so I’ll be interested to find out what I think if I get to read it!
Oh, that’s really interesting to hear. I don’t recall seeing that angle of criticism, but then again, I didn’t revisit or seek out any other reviews before writing my own for fear of being influenced (either positively or negatively). And the class element you’ve mentioned didn’t come across to me as I was reading the book…But then again, I’m viewing it from a 21st-century perspective, which makes it more challenging to imagine how it might have been viewed at the time. Dick’s sexuality and stance on certain issues probably made her seem very controversial and radical back then, and maybe that prompted some of the criticism? I’ll have to do a bit of digging around to see what I can find…
I really wish I could remember where I read this but I read so many reviews it’s hard to keep track. I suspect she was considered radical in her time, but the class element criticism was something which came about from the recent re-issue. I’ll try to remember where I saw it….
Just let me know if you do happen to come across it again – and likewise, I’ll tip you off if find anything. It would be interesting to see…
One of the books I’m reading at the moment is Stefan Zweig’s little book about Michel de Montaigne, and of course both of them lived at times of great hatreds and violence when so many humans lost their humanity as Kay Dick vividly portrays in They. Zweig asks the fundamental question of how people live during such times and still keep their own humanity especially the artists and thinkers. One of ways he poses the question is: “How to protect that unique part of my soul against enforced submission to rules and measures dictated from outside?”
But when I get too discouraged about these periodic outbreaks of ugly madness throughout history, I think of those in previous generations who kept hold of something better and set an example, and the work and ideas that survived all attempts to destroy them.
A fascinating review Jacqui, and one that certainly resonated with me right now.
Thanks, Jule, for such an interesting comment and connection. I recall seeing a couple of reviews of Zweig’s Montagine book a few years ago and it certainly sounded like something I would appreciate.
These stories remind us how hard it must have been for resistors to hold out against the forces of evil, often at great personal cost to themselves and their families. As you say, a salutatory reminder to us all…
wow just found your blog and it’s incredible!! love the way you write, happy to be here.
Thank you – I’m glad you like it!
Chilling parallels in the United States, too. Book banning and the harassment of librarians have reached a fever pitch. So far it hasn’t come to the little town where I live, but I am vigilant as are others here who love libraries and books.
I’ve seen some of those reports from the US, e.g. parents complaining that Michelangelo’s statue of David is ‘pornographic’, and they sound truly horrific. It’s very worrying to see works of art being censored in this way, especially when we should be encouraging debate…
Wonderful and thought provoking review and comments Jacqui. What an interesting and poignant find, I love that there are ‘archive moles’ finding works like this and bringing voices such as these back into circulation, stimulating new conversations of age old cycles. I do wonder what it is that causes society to feel threatened by artistic expression, it’s as if it is a protest against the evolution of humankind itself. Great review and choice of quotes, thank you for bringing these discussions to life on your blog.
Thanks, Claire. I love the whole ‘archive mole’ concept too – and there certainly seems to be an appetite amongst readers for these rediscovered classics, which is really great to see. (Alba de Cespedes also springs to mind here – and Natalia Ginzburg, of course.)
You raise an excellent point about what causes certain factions of society (usually right-wing figures and groups) to feel threatened by specific artworks and lifestyles/ways of living. To be honest, I don’t the answer to your question, other than to suppose these prejudices are rooted in misunderstanding and fear. Fear of a loss of control, I guess, and a misplaced concern over potential ‘corruption’ of impressionable minds. It’s really worrying to see…
I think Karen may be referring to my criticism as I really did not get on with this novel at all (though I’m not alone in feeling that, rather than promoting freedom of expression, it’s deeply elitist). Hence the completely unexplained hostility from the ‘mob’ as Dick has no interest in them as characters.
That’s so interesting to hear, Grant. I don’t remember that element of your review at all, so I’ll have to go back and re-read it!
This could be a fascinating choice for a book group, especially if it’s likely to elicit such different responses from readers. (Our discussions are always much richer and more enjoyable when members come with different views about the chosen book…and luckily we know each other well enough to have an open debate about them.)
Ooh this certainly does sound chilling and very compelling, too. It always seems disturbingly possible, with novels like this, to draw comparisons with things happening today.
It certainly does…as you say, it’s hard not to think of the parallels with our lives today, especially when we consider what the Tories have been doing on cultures war in recent years. It’s worrying to think how censorship is stealthily exerting its grip on our society, whether it’s ‘editing’ Agatha Christie and Roald Dahl for sensitivity concerns (which I strongly disagree with) or shutting down debate on various controversial issues, it’s disturbing to see.
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Gosh, this does sound chilling and these reprints seem to be drawing inexorable parallels with the modern world, don’t they. Which is what Ali just said.
Yes, it’s hard not to draw parallels with certain aspects of the current socio-political climate, especially with the Culture Wars etc. I guess it’s one of the things I enjoy about reading this type of re-issue – looking to see to how much has changed (or not!) since the book was originally published!