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.)