Dreadful Present

Kay Dick’s 1977 book They, which has been newly republished in Britain, is a fiction with a story attached. It was plucked from obscurity after almost half a century by the literary agent Becky Brown – a slim orange paperback found languishing amongst the shelves at a Bath branch of Oxfam Books. They is the latest in a steady stream of reappearing books by dead women from the middle of the last century. Perhaps there has never been a better time to be a writer hitherto judged as too strange, too working class, too queer, too intellectual, too foreign, too not-a-man or simply too much. Recent years have seen the republication of the work of Brigid Brophy, Ann Quin, Ivy Compton-Burnett and Christine Brooke-Rose, amongst others. Novels in translation by Clarice Lispector, Tove Ditlevsen and Ingeborg Bachmann, meanwhile, have become Penguin Modern Classics. An awkward, difficult-to-categorise era of literary history has emerged as prime prospecting ground for a publishing industry apparently eager to demonstrate its willingness to right the wrongs of the past, but not yet able to fully address the failures of the present: systemic racism, lack of class inclusivity, endemic sexual harassment, amongst other ills. In the Los Angeles Review of Books recently, Katie da Cunha Lewin warned of the ways in which such narratives of rediscovery, and their elevation of the figure of the neglected woman writer, can risk further solidifying the structures of power they seek to dismantle.

Such questions about the protection and preservation of culture, and what parts of it we rescue and for whom, are central to Dick’s book, which is less a novel or collection of short stories than a series of frightening visions – it bears the subtitle ‘a sequence of unease’. When old books like this one are drawn from the margins back towards the centre of our literary culture, we cannot help but read them for the ways they give the present meaning. Certainly, when encountering They in 2022, the sense of prescience is startling. The book is set in an unnamed but unmistakeable England under an authoritarian regime. It all began as a joke, a ‘parody for the newspapers’, Dick tells us, but ‘[n]o one wrote about them now’ – in fact, newspapers no longer exist. It has become impossible to ‘close the door between work and leisure’, while ‘[n]othing goes right, yet nothing goes really wrong’. Life is tightly surveilled and controlled and there’s a powerful sense of encroaching dread – though for some it is still possible to sun oneself on a veranda with a decent Muscadet, whilst the horror happens nearby but not quite here yet.

Love, creativity, pain, grief and living and working alone are all outlawed but enforcement is chillingly unpredictable. ‘Silent stealth was a greater pain to bear; it was their form of punishment’, the narrator notes. ‘They only took sharper measures if one went beyond the accepted limit.’ A phalanx of anonymous envoys is apt to show up at any time, they may simply quietly remove books from shelves and cart away paintings, a process they call ‘gleaning’, or they may dole out savage retribution: artists have their eyes put out, writers their hands and tongues removed. The injured are allowed a two-week grace period for the expression of pain. The single pair up into ‘family units’ under duress.

They is set amongst a community of artist and writer dissidents rounded up into communal ‘Centres’ along the coast, like a dystopian reimagining of the Bloomsbury group’s Charleston Farmhouse in Sussex, where they are granted special dispensation to keep working. When the regime tightens, they continue in careful defiance. Each part of the sequence begins in the natural landscape, made heady and at times out-and-out erotic, but for the most part Dick’s prose is austere and eerily neutral, like the sparse and urgent notation of a dreadful present as proof against future erasure. Characters are rendered flat and unknowable, we find out little about them beyond their names, the way they talk is clipped and odd. Like the hydrangeas blooming defiantly amongst paving stones described in the opening scene of the book, they are ‘an insolent abundance of flourish’. Or, perhaps, as a fisherman the narrator meets on the beach says of his latest catch, they are ‘[s]illy buggers… [s]currying under rocks’. Dick leaves this question open. In They, she is preoccupied by playing out debates about the role of the artist in dystopia – questions of protest, refusal and commitment, as well as collusion. 

In the opening part of the sequence, as news comes through that the Bodleian library has been ransacked, the characters attempt to commit to memory, and thereby preserve, artworks that are being disappeared. Later, a poet whose right arm has been badly burned defiantly continues to write with her left. ‘It’s a matter of survival, not of suicide’, one character says. Though it’s a perspective frequently voiced by characters, They isn’t a straightforward paean to the value of art and the dignity of holding out at all costs – it’s a more complicated, and more profoundly pessimistic, book than that. As it progresses, the narrator begins to question the artist’s strategy, asking ‘Aren’t we keeping dead tombs alive?’ and ‘Can we go on creating for ourselves?’ Hurst, who owns and runs one of the artists’ enclaves, is revealed to be conspiring with ‘they’, permitted to collect and keep the artworks in return for betraying and turning in the artists who created them. The artists maintain a wilful blindness, telling one another that it’s ‘[b]est not to notice these things’. They seems to ask whether this form of resistance – the attempt, as characters put it more than once, to ‘explore the limitations’ – may well amount to the same thing as acquiescence. Every now and again, the narrator speaks of ‘making a stand’, but they don’t.


Within the context of Dick’s own body of work, too, They represents a voice regained after a long silence. It was her first work of fiction in fifteen years after a breakdown and suicide attempt in the mid-sixties. She would later recall how the ‘psychological repercussions’ of what she calls her ‘demonstration of free will’ resulted in ‘an inability to work properly and function as a writer’. When she returned to writing, it was at first in conversation with others: two books of literary interviews: the first with her friends, Compton-Burnett and Stevie Smith in 1971, the second, Friends and Friendship (1974), with a wider selection of authors from her circle, including Brigid Brophy and Maureen Duffy. After They she would write one more work of literary fiction under her own name, The Shelf (1984), about a tragic infatuation which drew on one of her own relationships – apparently closely enough that thirty years later it was still being referred to in the literary press as a ‘heartless roman a clef’.

Several of the obituaries written upon her death in 2001 remark upon Dick’s failure to realise further ambitions for a cycle of novels and several literary biographies. These notices are markedly scurrilous, noting her ‘taste for controversy’ and ‘androgynous mental attitude’, her perceived profligacy with money and lovers, as if these were a reasonable quid pro quo for the difficulties she endured. By her own candid account, once she’d got better, what paralysed her writing was money. Upon her recovery, she took on freelance work to support herself and pay off debts and was a prolific literary critic. She did not exactly vanish into obscurity, then – so much so that for years her birthday continued to be recorded in the Times’ society pages – but this kind of work dragged her away from the writing she actually wanted to do. In the memoir that makes up the second half of Friends and Friendship she recalls:

Apart from this despair about money, there was a worse despair; the fact that having to devote so much energy and time to obtaining the very basic monies for living, there was little strength (let alone peace of mind) left for working on the books whose non-completion was daily haunting and tearing away at my mind. I was, for a period, reduced to a total feeling of inferiority, hating myself, placing no value on myself, lacking all confidence.

When she returned to writing fiction with They, it was different in form, style and mood from the novels she had produced in the fifties and early sixties. The critic Lucy Scholes has described it as a ‘surreptitious late-career aberration’, and Carmen Maria Machado in her foreword notes the ‘whiplash’ effect of arriving at They after Dick’s other works.

They is not quite without precedent, though. In the late 1940s, she edited three collections of fantasy and supernatural stories under the pseudonym, Jeremy Scott, which she also used later on for a couple of racy thrillers. In her introduction to one of these volumes, The Mandrake Root (1946), Dick writes of her preoccupation with ‘the whole question of the reality of fantasy’. ‘Each man carries within himself his own fantasy’, she writes, that usually lies ‘untouched in a corner of his brain’ because the ‘unknown is a terrible world, its associations are too ephemeral for the humanly acclimatized mind to recognise, let alone live with’. That nameless dread and how it irrupts into people’s lives can be glimpsed elsewhere in her work. The title of The Shelf refers to the place where we sequester the things that besiege us – in this instance letters sent by the protagonist, Cass, to her lover, Anne, that are returned to her when Anne kills herself. Anne, Cass recalls, had some kind of originary wound, ‘a stigma invisible to the naked eye, yet sentient, attracting brutal responses as some wounded animals attract attack from their kind’. Elsewhere in the book, speculating on what might have caused her friend Maurice to also attempt suicide, Cass cannot find the source of the ‘despair’ that was concealed behind his ‘general impression of solidity’. Writing may be one means by which to keep it at bay. Sophia in The Shelf tells Cass: ‘I had to write…. I’ve always felt the need to explain myself, because I’ve felt so acutely in the wrong’. Recalling her own childhood in Friends and Friendship, Dick remembers how at seven years old, with her mother newly married, what she calls her ‘vie en rose’ – referring to the freedoms she’d enjoyed as her mother’s consort amongst London’s artistic demi-monde – ended abruptly, when she was sent to boarding school. It was then, for the first time, she ‘became conscious of unmentionable matters, never quite defined, yet vaguely menacing’.

Dick was not alone amongst her peers during this period in feeling that the borders between reality and fantasy had gone fuzzy, leaving the conventional forms of literary fiction wanting. A generation of British writers, including Brooke-Rose, Ann Quin, B.S. Johnson, Brophy, Alan Burns and others sought to question the approaches to knowledge of the past, embracing the idea that existence could be understood in terms of a number of different provisional and contingent narratives. Brooke-Rose, who was a friend of Dick’s, understood the modern re-emergence of the fantastic as central to these novelistic experiments. ‘[T]he sense that empirical reality is not as secure as it used to be is now pervasive at all levels of society,’ she would write in her study of this new mood, A Rhetoric of the Unreal (1981), and ‘if the “real” has come to seem unreal, it is natural to turn to the “unreal” as real.’

Neither was Dick the only writer for whom this sense of existing epistemes collapsing had a personal dimension that was felt in the form of breakdown, breakthrough, or some other alteration of consciousness, and which resulted in transformations in their output. Several of her peers found themselves moving to new styles, forms or genres. Following religious conversion experiences, in the mid-fifties Muriel Spark moved from poetry and literary criticism to writing the brittle, hollowed-out and deeply strange stories she’s now famous for; in the early seventies the poet and novelist Rosemary Tonks gave up writing altogether. After a serious illness, Brooke-Rose claimed she had gained ‘a sense of being in touch with something else’ and upon her recovery, in a manner somewhat akin to Dick, abandoned the social satires she’d written during the fifties to produce a cycle of wildly experimental novels.


It feels churlish to do anything other than celebrate a work that has, in unlikely fashion, shuffled its way up to the top of the great, teetering stack of unread books. But we do such books and their authors a disservice if we allow the goodwill that attends such republications to smooth their edges. Reading They, I found myself wishing that Dick hadn’t made the threat cohere, hadn’t finally given an object to the dread that makes the earlier parts of the book so unmooring. Though we are never shown where all this is coming from, in the fifth of the nine parts of the sequence we begin to see how it manifests itself in the form of industrial cities, new-build housing and tower blocks, peopled by feral children and yobs who sling beer cans around and piss in the street.

Earlier in the book, two sinister envoys appear at the narrator’s garden gate and are welcomed in for tea and cake and offered flowers – as if they might yet be redeemable – and in return they put off what we assume to be the enforcers who follow in their wake up the garden path. Meanwhile, the ‘sightseers’, the name Dick gives to the marauding hoards who flock like ‘locusts’ to the artists’ precarious coastal idyll from those urban centres as eager spectators of scenes of surveillance and demolition, are depicted with lurid aesthetic revulsion. They are a ‘uniformity of ugliness’, aroused by carnage and assuaging ‘their apathy with small acts of vandalism’. They ‘jabber like savages’ in ‘indecipherable gang vocabulary’. So very uncouth are they that they ‘prefer concrete’:

Think of their passion for marinas, not for boats, but for the car parks, the amusement arcade, the proliferation of restaurants and blocks of high-tower apartments. They like to see the sea pulverized out of its natural area by concrete. They dislike the beaches for the same reasons; bathing in the sea is too uneasy a freedom, they prefer swimming pools. They like nothing better than to sit in their cars and look at the sea from the safe harbour of a monstrous marina complex.

At length, then, in They the unease is given a form and it is mass culture – pointedly not the invisible regime itself, but its subjects, those represented as narcotised by television and by the pop music piped over public address systems at ear-splitting volumes. As all this comes into focus, Dick’s vision of a peculiarly out-of-time artistic set, bewitched by the landscape or busy in their studios and at their desks and forever setting the table for a nursery tea, like the phantoms of a previous era, whilst brutality is meted out nearby, becomes more ordinary. We’re back in familiar territory here, that of the intellectuals versus the masses, of Richard Hoggart’s ‘shiny barbarism’ and the anxieties about cultural decline, ‘massification’ and the threat to individual expression that were felt by a post-war generation of intellectuals thirty years earlier. That’s not to say Dick invokes the same old metaphysic about the value of art being its ability to act as a moral guide to the ‘good life’. In They its power is about friendship, communion, love – a means of living separately together. Where Dick seems to falter is in extending these capacities of culture to everyone.

In the penultimate part of the sequence, two characters visit an eighteenth-century pleasure garden. In its heyday, it was carefully maintained for the enjoyment of a select few, but now the garden is mostly left to grow into wildness. Its walls are beginning to crumble and the gate is often left unlocked. The ‘sightseers’ don’t go there, though, suspicious of its ‘beauty’ and ‘sensuality’. For the artist dissidents, meanwhile, the garden is a ‘trap’ that lures them in with its ‘dangerous fantasy’ – ‘[i]n the garden it’s easy to forget’. In They, Dick writes her way into, and productively sustains, perennial questions about culture: its social role, its capacities as a form of resistance and the individual responsibilities of the artist. But although she seems at times to implicitly recognise them, she is unable or unwilling to think through the implications of having her dread cohere around the all too familiar spectre of ‘the masses’ as a uniform, passive and pathologised other.

Read on: Patricia McManus, ‘Happy Dystopians’, NLR 105.