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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Kay Dick

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To purchase They

Title: They
Author: Kay Dick
Genre: Novel
Written: 1977
Length: 112 pages
Availability: They - US
They - UK
They - Canada
Eux - France
Sie - Deutschland
Loro - Italia
Ellos - España
from: Bookshop.org (US)
  • A Sequence of Unease
  • The US edition comes with an Afterword by Lucy Scholes
  • The UK edition comes with a Foreword by Carmen Maria Machado

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Our Assessment:

A- : an effective 'sequence of unease'

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Bookforum . 3-5/2022 Melissa Anderson
The Guardian . 11/2/2022 Lisa Tuttle
London Rev. of Books . 12/5/2022 Blake Morrison
The Spectator . 29/1/2022 Madeleine Feeny
Sunday Times . 30/10/1977 Alan Brien
The Times . 27/10/1977 Philip Howard
TLS . 22/4/2022 Kevin Brazil

  From the Reviews:
  • "Like all robust allegories, They grants the reader the freedom to imagine any number of vivid referents for the opaque. (...) While “they” could have any number of denotations, the “I” of the book bears more than a passing resemblance to Dick; her novella can be read as both a dystopian fable and a stealth memoir." - Melissa Anderson, Bookforum

  • "Although there is a cool, sinister edge to the stories, they don’t add up to much; the persecuted artists are a bit too self-righteous (and privileged), and the book shows its age. Ray Bradbury’s still-relevant Fahrenheit 451 is a much more coherent treatment of the theme." - Lisa Tuttle, The Guardian

  • "They is also hampered by its classism. (...) 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. (...) 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." - Blake Morrison, London Review of Books

  • "They makes its second entrance, into a world that has caught up. (...) They is a study of fear. Its disconcerting power lies in its dream logic and elisions -- the unexplained background, the offstage violence. Exploring the purpose of art and the psychology of peer surveillance (shades of lockdown), it begs the question: if ‘the other’ is subjective, aren’t ‘we’ also ‘they’ ?" - Madeleine Feeny, The Spectator

  • "As a fantasy sprouting from some collective menopausal spasm in the national unconscious, They (the book, that is) has a certain nagging, nudging, low-voltage power. But it seems to have little to do with any reality that I observe around me, except at those times when I wake in the night dreaming that The VATman Cometh." - Alan Brien, Sunday Times

  • "The nightmare atmosphere is economically but overwhelmingly created in nine linked but separate short stories of about 5,000 words each. They are strong stuff, beautifully written, to make a man look behind him in fear and dread when walking down a leafy lane." - Philip Howard, The Times

  • "The book aims to convey the atmosphere, rather than the details, of authoritarian rule. And yet its sketch of how "they" came to have so much power -- gradually, legally, "continually adding clauses to new bills", until suddenly the post office has closed down and all artistic expression is punished -- feels, in the light of today's climate of populism and debates about free speech, not to mention the current British government's creeping interference with institutions such as the BBC and Channel 4, prophetic and pressing. Equally notable is the passivity with which "their" rule has been accepted by Dick's cast of opera singers and poets" - Kevin Brazil, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       They is set in a near-contemporary England that is undergoing a sweeping societal transformation The 'they' of the title are the masses -- not the majority of the population, but a constantly swelling part of it (one character guesses there are: "Over a million, nearer two"). 'They' are binding society together in their firm grip, stamping out individuality -- "The single is a menace to them" -- and, most notably, purging this world of all art: already early on we learn: "They cleared the National Gallery yesterday".
       The narrator -- whose name and sex are never revealed -- lives alone in the countryside, but 'they' are beginning to make forays into this periphery as well. They are generally not overtly threatening -- for example: "They never came when one was in the house" --, opting for "silent stealth" instead: they do trespass and make their presence known as, for example, repeatedly the narrator finds one or more books missing upon returning home. Slowly, steadily, they are cleansing the country of any creative work; early on, when the narrator is visiting an acquaintance, the scene after 'they' have passed through is described:

There were no books in the library. We walked slowly through the other rooms in the house. All the paintings had been removed. Claire stroked the spaces where each painting had hung. The servants had left.
       A sense of menace hangs constantly in the air -- nicely evoked by Dick with small details such as: "It was no good listening for footsteps; they wore no shoes" -- , and while much is done stealthily and quietly any resistance is (very) harshly dealt with, as they: "took sharper measures if one went beyond the accepted limit". The narrator and many of the various acquaintances s/he engages with live on the edges of these limits, worried about overstepping the bounds which are, however, not carefully delineated -- and seem to encroach more and more, becoming more constricting. Examples of what happens when one does go beyond accepted limits abound -- and it isn't pretty.
       'Artistic' production basically doesn't stand a chance -- a manuscript the narrator has submitted is returned: "Torn into pieces. Damaged in transit, they said" -- and anyone who continues to practice it is firmly dealt with. Prohibition is rarely outright absolute; 'they' decide where to draw the (shifting) line. Sculpture, for example, can pass:
Being utilitarian, it was countenanced, although open to some scrutiny. Individual arts and crafts were not legally disallowed, rather discouraged. Teamwork was the official norm.
       Among the few possible forms of resistance is the memorizing of works of literature before all the printed versions are destroyed, the narrator mentioning, for example: "I tested my memory of Keats's poetry", and then also Henry Jamess later novels and Chekhov's plays.
       Memory generally is rooted out: 'they' do not want people dwelling on past, beauty, -- or love, as:
'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.
       'They' can't have that .....
       The novel is presented in nine chapters, separate episodes in what truly is, as the subtitle has it, 'A Sequence of Unease'. The shadowy 'they', and the changes in this society they effect, are very well evoked and presented -- not least in the interaction of 'they' with the narrator and the narrator's acquaintances being carefully dosed; much of the time, 'they' still keep their distance, in ominous lurking.
       Dick nicely conveys the atmosphere in exchanges such as:
     'Why don't they come into the garden ?' I asked.
     'Distrust,' Thoby said. 'The garden is beauty, is sensuality, is mystery, is imagination. They sense a trap.'
       At one point the narrator reflects on an acquaintance's claim:
     'All is destroyed ?' He took up the challenge. 'Destruction doesn't count. One can always create again.'
     Would one, I wondered, as I replaced the receiver and looked at my books. Was not this evidence a spur ? Without it, would one continue ? How much did one rely on past achievement ? It could be a test, if destruction came.
       These are haunting questions which Dick forces the reader to confront, as They shows, quite convincingly, how rapidly the erosion of culture and the shift in society can come, and how quickly a new order even of this sort can spread and take hold.
       A dark and unsettling little novel, They is an impressive achievement.

- M.A.Orthofer, 5 May 2024

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They: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary British fiction

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About the Author:

       English author Kay Dick lived 1915 to 2001.

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© 2024 the complete review

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