Miéville’s Surreal Weapons

In his rambling 2011 photo-essay “London’s Overthrow,” composed in the lead-up to the London Olympics, China Miéville takes his reader through the ever-changing, history-drenched streets of his beloved city ...

In his rambling 2011 photo-essay “London’s Overthrow,” composed in the lead-up to the London Olympics, China Miéville takes his reader through the ever-changing, history-drenched streets of his beloved city. It is late in the year and Christmas decorations are on show everywhere. Miéville notes the gaudy colored lights and tinsel in his neighborhood, Kilburn, and contrasts the sight with the monochromatic decorations and trinkets on display in upscale Bond Street, where “the only austerity … is aesthetic.” “You can do class analysis of London with Christmas lights,” Miéville writes. “In estates and cheaper dwellings, the season’s celebrated with chromatic surplus. Get smarter, the middle-class occupants strive to distinguish themselves with white-lit Christmas trees.”

A glance at the covers of Miéville’s recent books recalls this distinction and suggests the publisher’s efforts to distance Miéville’s work from its pulp, lowbrow past and place it on the literary side of the field of cultural production: a bleak, black-and-white photograph covers This Census-Taker, while The Last Days of New Paris is decorated with a sepia-toned photograph of a gorgeous Parisian skyline. (A jarring choice for a story that rejects the picturesque as the ultimate evil and offers a transfigured version of “the world’s prettiest city … populated by its own unpretty imaginings, and by the ugliness of the pit.”) In each case, author name and title are inscribed in an elegant, wide-tracked serif font. Nowhere evident are the foiled type, high-gloss paper, or colorful images that might suggest “genre,” specifically “Science Fiction” or “Fantasy,” Miéville’s home territory.

The prolific author has won just about every major sci-fi and fantasy award out there. The slippery genre label “New Weird” was coined essentially in order to create a category for Miéville’s riotously uncategorizable fiction, which mixes elements of pulp horror and Lovecraftian dread together with a fiercely intelligent, baroque style, rich with neologisms, in urban settings that refuse the feudal imaginings of Tolkien. While these two new novellas might be outwardly designed to fit on the “literary fiction” shelf of the bookstore, the books themselves do not make any similar compromise: the covers have changed, but Mieville is still writing weird, challenging fiction that plays with genre conventions in formally inventive ways. This Census-Taker is a dark, stubbornly enigmatic mystery, whereas The Last Days of New Paris takes on the genre of alternative history, moving between 1941—when the real-life American Jack Parsons, rocket scientist and occultist, builds a bomb charged with the imaginary power of Surrealism—and 1950, in an alternative Paris that has been turned into New Paris by the explosion of Parson’s weapon, populated with both living Surrealist art and demons summoned by the Nazi occupiers.

This Census-Taker relates a story from the narrator’s early life, and opens with an arresting image of a boy fleeing the scene of a crime:

A boy ran down a hill path screaming. The boy was I. He held his hands up and out in front of him as if he’d dipped them in paint and was coming to make a picture, to press them to paper, but all there was on him was dirt. There was no blood on his palms.

He was nine years old, I think …

… I kept up the hands I thought were bloody for them to see.

I shouted, “My mother killed my father!”

These lines introduce the novella’s split, alienated mode of narration: the voice changes from first to third person throughout, sometimes within the same sentence, careening between points of view. Later he remembers that what he saw was in fact his father killing his mother—the other image is a kind of screen memory—although his father insists that his mother has simply left them. “Thinking my own past self is like a mystery story,” the narrator observes toward the end. The book attempts to explore and stabilize the relationship between what the narrator remembers, what he thinks he remembers, and what really happened, but instead reveals proliferating complications and riddles.

The setting could be an imagined world, or a futuristic, magically inflected rendering of our own. If not entirely post-apocalyptic, the world is at least post-something, something bad: the narrator’s father, for instance, is a refugee from recent wars. In what seems like an ironic nod to the inscrutable mysteries of the story, the father earns a living by making keys that hold supernatural power: people from town request them “to open things, to know the future, to fix animals, to fix things, to be stronger, to hurt someone or save someone, to fly.” The boy secretly witnesses his father commit acts of murderous violence against animals and humans alike, but in their interactions with each other the father is consistently affectionate and considerate, casting doubt on the boy’s reliability as narrator.

The novella offers a murkier, less accessible kind of noir than the Chandler-like plot of The City and the City, the 2009 novel that brought increased attention to Miéville’s work from literary critics and scholars. Themes and motifs from Miéville’s other fiction appear in various forms: the bad father, for example, or the city and its other (in this case, the town split by a river, joined by a built-up, subversively inhabited bridge that is like an uncanny city between the two). In previous novels Miéville has thematized problems of storytelling, narration, and the capacity of language to represent or distort truth, and these preoccupations surface here with peculiar force. The lacuna of narration at the heart of Embassytown (2011)—the untellable story of trauma belonging to the narrator, Avice—is shadowed here in the question of what has happened to the boy’s mother, and embodied in an actual black hole, a seemingly bottomless pit in a nearby cave where the boy’s family dumps their trash and that may or may not contain human corpses.

The idea of a census seems to promise an objective method of recording directed toward catalogue rather than narrative, but the multivolume document the narrator is writing offers nothing like a legible account: the part dedicated to “numbers,” specifically “lists and calculations,” is written in “ciphers,” and just what it records is unclear. The part that we seem to be reading is “for telling,” according to the narrator’s boss, the titular census-taker. “No code for that one,” he says, although he then seems to recommend precisely that: “You can still use it to tell secrets and send messages. … You can hide them in the words too, in their letters.” The fractured voice of the novella may be a response to this advice: “You can tell it any way you want, he said, you can be I or he or she or we or they or you and you won’t be lying, though you might be telling two stories at once.”

What use is language and storytelling in our attempts to solve the mystery story that is our past, the novella seems to ask? How can storytelling help us parse the dark unfathomable hole that is our imagination? Miéville offers only elusive, partial answers in the face of conflicting narratives and layers of memory.

Recent novellas from Miéville show two extremes of his approach to fiction, from maddening obscurantism to rollicking yarn.

A more playful approach to storytelling attends The Last Days of New Paris, which is presented as a version of a story told to the narrator by a mysterious stranger, a momentary refugee from an alternate world. This stranger is Thibaut, a Surrealist warrior and the protagonist of the novella. Thibaut belongs to the Surrealist resistance to the Nazis in New Paris, known as Main à Plume—the name of a Surrealist group in occupied Paris in our own timeline, and a reference to Rimbaud’s line “la main à plume vaut la main à charrue” (the writer’s hand [literally “the hand that holds the feather or quill”] is worth the hand with the plow).

Miéville’s other work, particularly his three novels set in the imaginary world of Bas-Lag, teems with monstrous, hybrid creatures, terrifying magical rifts in reality and weaponized versions of chance and possibility itself. Given this, one might expect a bomb that releases all the imaginative energies of Surrealism from the past and present to produce comparably weird breaks in the logic and ontology of the world. The bomb that creates New Paris is described as “an explosion, a sweep and stream and a nova, megaton imaginary, of random and of dreams.” It gives life to extraordinary creatures. Yet its power is limited to animating images that have already been imagined by a strictly defined pantheon of artists: in other words, it creates nothing new. One’s watch might melt, for instance, but only, it seems, because a melting watch has already been imagined by Salvador Dalí.

Paris becomes a wondrous yet oddly predictable theme park of Surrealism, a place where your favorite paintings and poems become living images known as “manifs.” Watch Dalí’s burning giraffe gallop around, or Max Ernst’s lumbering Elephant Celebes, and then stand under a Magritte lamp that casts a patch of night in broad daylight; stay out of the way of the carnivorous marmoset and the bicycle with a woman’s head. Some of them will hurt or devour you. Some are biddable, such as the whimsical Exquisite Corpse, with divergent body parts created by three different artists. Its components include an anvil, a steam train, a caterpillar, an old man’s head, and a woman’s elegant legs; it is a formidable adversary, but allows itself to be led around on a leash by Thibaut.

The work of less canonical, more marginal Surrealist artists and writers manifests in New Paris alongside more familiar creations, including the images and poetry of Grace Pailthorpe, Toyen, Ithell Colquhoun, Simone Yoyotte, and Laurence Iché. A recommended reading list and copious footnotes provide precise references for the “manifs,” and amount in their own way to a polemical catalogue of Surrealism that foregrounds women. Last Days also reveals the deep influence of Surrealism on Miéville’s previous work: the Exquisite Corpse in particular evokes the Remade in Miéville’s Bas-Lag, criminals who have been punished by having their bodies altered by a form of magical surgery that often involves grafting machine and alien body parts onto them. But the manifs, for all their delightful and violent qualities, are weirdly static compared with Miéville’s own strange imaginings; they seem too stable, with such dogged fidelity to their Surrealist source. Perhaps this is the problem with imagining a literal eruption of the Surreal into the real: it is so, well, literal.


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The bomb was created with the idea of harnessing—literally, weaponizing—the power of Surreal creation, but the novel avoids telling a story of art’s triumph over the Fascists. The manifs are for the most part politically neutral and make the city difficult for both the French and the Nazis, who have in this alternative history cut an actual deal with the Devil; in response to the manifs, the Nazis call up demons (grotesque figures of pathos and melancholy, who long to return home to Hell). The novel finally surrenders to allegory when the Nazis summon a beast that devours art, although this turns out not to be their ultimate weapon. Eventually they succeed in bringing to life one of Hitler’s incompetent self-portraits, which is capable of turning anything it gazes at into a kitsch, picturesque version of itself, devoid of people.

Character has never been Miéville’s strong suit, and the humans in Last Days are mere sketches, with most of the energy reserved for the spectacle of manifs in action. Being sketches by Miéville, they are full of fascinating potential, but the attenuation of their stories makes the novella feel thin, despite all its manic devotion to the high stakes of art at war. The Hitler portrait annihilates one of the major characters in an instant as it transfigures with “its terrible emptying picturesquing gaze” the place where she stands; she vanishes, unmourned, her story virtually untold. Seconds before her death she reacts in horror, recognizing the familiar figure: “He never could paint people. … He always left them out. Painted everything empty.” New Paris is not entirely devoid of people, and Miéville’s weird world is the opposite of picturesque, but it feels a little empty of human complexity.

Violent trauma forms the ground of story in both these novellas that tell of injured boys in injured worlds, although this is far from the literature of consolation or therapy. They show two extremes of Miéville’s approach to fiction, from maddening obscurantism to rollicking yarn: on the one hand, This Census-Taker takes Miéville’s occasionally skeptical orientation to storytelling to new lengths, with its almost obsessional withholding of any narrative certainty and frustration of the reader’s desire to know “whodunit” (or on a more basic level, what even was “it”). On the other, the exuberant narration of Last Days rattles on with an urgency and delight in spectacle that has no time for interrogating the terms of its own storytelling. Art is good for fighting with in the world of New Paris, suggesting an optimistic version of its possible political utility that might stretch to include fiction in our own world too. In This Census-Taker it is a more slippery object. Narrative might be no good for solving the mysteries of the self, but it can begin to reveal their dark intricacies. icon

Featured image: Andre Breton, Yves Tanguy, and Jacqueline Lamba, detail from Exquisite Corpse (February 9, 1938)