Among the victims of Alex and his droogs in A Clockwork Orange is an author living in a country cottage. They don’t just do him over but tear up the pages of the book he has been typing out, ‘so that the writer veck started to platch like his life’s work was ruined’. The gangs in Kay Dick’s They (first published in 1977, fifteen years after Burgess’s novel) are no less brutal to anyone suspected of being creative. But unlike Alex, who’s eventually caught and sent to prison, they’re given a free hand: government policy is to eradicate individualism, and these gangs are its unlicensed enforcers. Through a mixture of luck and guile, the book’s narrator, who lives by the sea, escapes being attacked. But she’s aware of being watched. After her latest manuscript is sent back to her in shreds, she hides all her letters and photos in a disused well.
I say ‘she’ but the ‘I’ of They isn’t named or given a gender. The fact that the narrator talks about wearing slacks and is called ‘love’ by various men suggests a woman, but Kay Dick (whose surname is caricaturally male and who sometimes used the pseudonym Edward Lane) once told an interviewer that ‘gender is of no bloody account.’ It’s certainly of small account in They, as an oppressed minority of men and women – writers, painters, musicians, architects, sculptors and weavers – cling on to their work and lives, while state officials and vigilante mobs go about destroying them. In Dick’s dystopia, all art is samizdat; even opera is thought to be ‘dangerous’ because ‘it suggests too many freedoms.’ The barbarians aren’t at the gates but already through them, burning books, paintings and musical scores, and mutilating those who produce them.
It’s tempting to read They as a timely intervention in our own culture wars, even in respect of its title. The likes of Nadine Dorries wouldn’t recognise themselves as the enemy. But if obliged to read the novel they would find it a challenge – not because of its length (a bare hundred pages) or its politics, but because of its rebarbative form. In fact, it’s arguably not a novel at all, part of it having first appeared as a short story. Carmen Maria Machado, in her foreword to the Faber reissue, sees the book sitting ‘somewhere between story collection and fix-up novel’ (a subgenre associated with science fiction). Dick herself gives it the subtitle ‘a sequence of unease’, and it’s this growing unease that lends They some narrative continuity despite each section being self-contained, with its own title and its own set of ‘characters’ (a word I put in quotation marks because the protagonists aren’t described or developed and remain little more than names). Only the narrator recurs and even he/she may be a different person each time, linked by a common belief in what makes life worth living: art, beauty, nature, friendship, freedom, fresh air and exercise.
At the outset, the mood is ominous rather than terrifying. Books keep going missing from shelves; worried that they’ll disappear altogether, the narrator attempts to memorise Keats and Henry James. The National Gallery is cleared of paintings. A child asks ‘What’s a newspaper?’, never having seen one (a plausible enough scenario in our own world). The first manifestations of ‘they’ are surreptitious: a strange couple stay overnight at the narrator’s cottage; an official carrying out a ‘routine inspection’ tries to make conversation. Their strategy is to catch offenders by surprise. And as their ranks swell (‘How many are there?’ ‘Over a million, nearer two, I suspect’), they become less stealthy. A poet loses the use of her right hand after she’s forced to hold it for eight minutes in the fire from which she’s trying to rescue her poems. A children’s writer is lobotomised because her books are ‘too full of fantasy’. A farmer is set upon for refusing ‘to farm the new way. He loved his animals.’ As the violence spreads, beleaguered artists cluster in groups, seeking out ‘pockets of quietude’.
It’s not just solidarity that pushes them together. To be single, living alone, is a mark of nonconformity, and therefore an ‘illness’ and a source of ‘contagion’. Feeling is illicit too. You’re allowed to express pain only if you injure yourself – and for a strictly limited period. The gravest crime is to mourn the dead. Those who do so are taken away to ‘grief towers’, to be purged of emotion and memory: ‘Can’t have griefers around. Upsets the tone of the neighbourhood.’ Once cured, offenders return as zombified versions of themselves, ‘loss of identity guaranteed’.
The state has euphemisms for its methods: rather than hunting down dissidents, it goes ‘prospecting’. To escape detection, the narrator and friends keep moving around. Travel is permitted on designated routes, though passing through London or what’s left of it (‘Unfortunate destruction’, a visiting official admits, ‘yet necessary’) involves prolonged interrogation. Every country walk or visit to the beach carries a risk; each passer-by is potentially an enemy. In the most suspenseful of the novel’s nine sections, the narrator walks for hours to the house where a friend is staying by following instructions in code (‘it was not wise to name it in a letter which they might read’). The moment of arrival is a triumph. The regime has been temporarily outwitted; its surveillance isn’t as highly developed as the surveillance in Nineteen Eighty-Four or Zamyatin’s We. Love survives and so, intermittently, does happiness. The novel ends on a high note, or a high tide, with the narrator sensing ‘possibilities’ and ‘greeting another day’.
They didn’t fare well on publication. It sold few copies and was dismissed in the Sunday Times as ‘a fantasy sprouting from some collective menopausal spasm in the national unconsciousness’. If ‘menopausal’ sounds ad feminam (Dick was in her sixties at the time), the Guardian obituary of her by Michael De-la-Noy in 2001 outdid it, describing Dick as ‘a talented woman bedevilled by ingratitude and a kind of manic desire to avenge totally imaginary wrongs’, a woman who ‘expended far more energy in pursuing personal vendettas and romantic lesbian friendships than in writing books’. But the range of Dick’s work over half a century as a publisher, editor, reviewer, biographer and novelist, along with her campaign to introduce the Public Lending Right, doesn’t suggest a lack of authorial energy. They was her penultimate novel, and, it seems, quite unlike the half dozen that preceded it.
It owes its re-emergence to a literary agent who came across it by chance in a charity shop. The new edition arrives with tributes from Margaret Atwood, Eimear McBride and Claire-Louise Bennett, among others, who emphasise Dick’s status as a ‘trailblazing queer English writer’. Have other novelists been influenced by her? I prefer to think of They as inimitable: innovative in structure but stylistically old-fashioned (‘The January day had the pellucidity of a crystal … I looked at the cerulean blue of the sky’); futuristic yet nostalgic; an apocalyptic vision transcribed with childlike innocence. The narrator’s delight in English landscapes and gardens, with their ‘luscious sensual profligacy’, is a riposte to the hordes who would concrete them over. But all the romping through fields (‘Acres of wheat glowed amber in the August afternoon’) and picnics (‘homemade scones, dishes of jam, plates of bread and butter, watercress, boiled eggs, seed and ginger cakes. The boys were given fruit jellies’) reminded me of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five. The narrator even has a dog; its name and breed aren’t specified but I couldn’t help thinking of Timmy.
They is also hampered by its classism. The Sebastians, Fionas, Blanches, Gervases and Thobys who flit through its pages are members of a Bloomsbury-like tribe, while their enemies are philistine proles who – when not out hounding artists or sitting ‘slumped’ in deckchairs on the beach – fritter their time away watching television (every citizen is offered a set, and refusal to accept one is a black mark) or listening to loud pop music. In cities they live in tower blocks; in villages they keep their windows closed. Immured in ‘circles of envy’, they avoid gardens and hate flowers (when the narrator offers a rose to a neighbour, the neighbour tears it apart). Their feral children torture cats and dogs. A couple of passages towards the end of the book have all the tropes of bourgeois hauteur; the word ‘ghastly’ doesn’t appear but you can feel the shudder that accompanies it:
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 whom they met with malicious intent, pushing people out of their way. They encouraged their children to stone the domestic animals: often there were fatalities. At night they prowled under the windows, peered in when they could, yowled when they thought people were asleep, smashed milk bottles, threw beer cans and often urinated and defecated in doorways. Physically they presented a uniformity of ugliness.
Kay Dick the bold transgressor is also Kay Dick the crabby, middle-class snob. Her dystopianism is partly dyspepsia. You have to take both on board.
Machado offers an alternative way to approach the novel. Rather than ‘affix[ing] the label of “they” onto people who have specifically made the lives of artists and intellectuals hell: conservative politicians and reactionary pundits and pearl-clutching parents and cowardly institutions’, she invites us to understand our ‘own complicity – the way that you are they, even if you don’t want to be’. It’s an inclusive reading but overly generous to the novel, which is too passionate and polemical to allow for wrong-on-both-sides equivalence.
Blameless though they are, the embattled protagonists of They still have doubts and questions. How should they deal with their oppressors – confront them, passively resist or acquiesce? And now that everything they stand for is despised, are they wasting their time or ‘keeping the way open for creative imagination’ so something is left for future generations? After the critical and commercial failure of They, Dick must have wondered if she’d been wasting her time. But here’s the book in print again, nearly half a century later, its menacing tale of persecuted artists and intellectuals as resonant today as it ever was.