Artistic Revolution: On China Miéville’s ‘The Last Days of New Paris’

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China Miéville has been publishing speculative fiction for close to two decades, beginning with King Rat in 1998.  In the course of this career he has become known as the foremost exponent of the New Weird, rivaled only by Jeff VanderMeer.  VanderMeer and his wife, Ann VanderMeer, brought the existence of the fledgling subgenre to the attention of a wider reading public with The New Weird, the anthology they edited in 2008.  In his introduction, VanderMeer maintains that the (Old) Weird, which is epitomized by H.P. Lovecraft and includes the likes of Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, and William Hope Hodgson, is characterized by the combination of supernatural unease with visionary sensibility.  By contrast, the New Weird characteristically involves the triple combination of complex urban settings, surreal or transgressive horror, and covert or overt political awareness.  Miéville has prioritized the last of these in his critical work, describing the New Weird as a form of resistance against neoliberal globalization and rejecting the more inclusive definitions of the term.  This concern with the political in general and the relationship between art and politics in particular is conspicuous in The Last Days of New Paris, where it receives a singularly subtle treatment.

It is difficult to avoid appreciating Miéville’s novella in one of two misleading contexts.  The first is as an Axis victory alternative history along the lines of Philip K. Dick’s 1962 The Man in the High Castle or Len Deighton’s 1978 SS-GB, both of which have been released as popular television series, the former in 2015 and the latter in January of this year.  The Last Days of New Paris weaves two narratives together – one set in a recognizable France of 1941 and the other in an unrecognizable Paris of 1950 — and populates each with a mix of real and fictional people, but it does not invite one to ruminate on the possible consequences of, for example, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s assassination (Dick) or a Luftwaffe victory in the Battle of Britain (Deighton).  Instead, the geopolitics that led up to and followed the “S-Blast” (presumably “surrealist blast”), the explosion that both created living manifestations of surrealist works of art and opened the gates of hell, are for the most part circumstantial.  The second context, which may be related to the first, is to see the novella as a response to the global rise of nationalism, often in extreme forms, in the second decade of the 21st century.  The phenomenon is no doubt of grave concern to Miéville, who is a left wing political activist, a founding member of the Left Unity political party, and a Marxist academic.  His third book on Marxism, October: The Story of the Russian Revolution, is due for publication in May and has been praised for historical accuracy as well as effective storytelling.  In her review in the London Review of Books, Sheila Fitzpatrick writes of Miéville’s enthusiasm for the concept of revolution, and while his history may well be an artistic call for political revolt, The Last Days of New Paris is neither a call for resistance nor a naïve allegory of art’s revolutionary power.

The novella consists of nine chapters, with the odd numbers devoted to events in the 1950 present and the even numbers to events in the 1941 past.  The story is followed by an afterword and notes section and my only criticism of the work concerns the inclusion of this supplementary material.  The afterword is subtitled “On Coming to Write The Last Days of New Paris” and constitutes a curious and anachronistic conceit in which Miéville claims to have met Thibaut, the fictional protagonist of 1950, and to have merely edited the manuscript passed to him.  This was a common device in Victorian fiction, a hangover from the novel as a literary form derived from history rather than poetry, and was supposed to enhance narrative verisimilitude.  Contemporary readers require no such faux guarantees, however, and the superfluity is exacerbated by Miéville’s reference to the sketches he has included.  The only illustration inside the book is a black and white frontispiece, a reproduction of the color cover which is in turn a reproduction of the exquisite corpse (a composite drawing or collaborative collage) created by André Breton, Yves Tanguy, and Jacqueline Lamba in 1938.  Miéville may be alluding to an illustrated edition that was either planned and abandoned or has yet to be published, or making a recondite joke, but the apparent slip is disconcerting for the uninitiated.  The notes are explanations of the artworks referred to in the narrative and feel gratuitous in an age where reader research is almost effortless, a glimpse behind the curtain that risks debasing the magic.  Miéville’s textual representations of these works are a seamless merging of the realistic with the oneiric and his expert evocation of the pervasive sense of the strange that is New Paris equips the reader with all he or she requires to experience the intense pleasure afforded by the novella.

New Paris is Paris after the S-Blast, which occurred in 1941.  In Miéville’s alternative Europe, Fall Gelb (Case Yellow) — the German drive to the Channel in May 1940 — was sufficient to cause the collapse of France, making Fall Rot (Case Red, the push west and south the following month) unnecessary.  The S-Blast transformed Paris from a city of occupation to a city of resistance, with various French factions rising up against the Germans and the “battalions from below” rising up to join the chaos.  The resistance includes the Free French, led by Charles de Gaulle and backed by the United States, and the Main à plume, the surrealist irregulars, some of whom — like Thibaut — have been able to harness the power released by the detonation.  The most significant effect of the S-Blast was not the release of hell’s minions (who show only a passing interest in the city), but to create the living manifestations of surrealist artworks, “manifs,” that roam the streets either on their own or under the less than perfect command of surrealist or SS handlers.  By 1950 the Germans have sealed the city, which has become a “free-fire zone and hunting grounds for the impossible” and are attempting to destroy the resisters by all available means, including the control of manifs and devils and the creation of manifs of their own, using the work of National Socialist artists like Arno Breker.  The S-Blast has of course given literal meaning to metaphors such as art coming to life, having a life of its own, and being a form of life.  Similarly, this is art that wields power physically as well as through the imagination and emotions.

The Last Days of New Paris is an extraordinarily original work that foregrounds Miéville’s considerable ingenuity and innovation.  The opening scene is wildly fantastic, a suicidal charge by the Vélo — the manifestation of Leonora Carrington’s “I Am an Amateur of Velocipedes,” a bicycle-woman centaur — against the German lines.  There is also a satisfyingly overdetermined symmetry in the work’s design as the onset is bookended by the appearance of “Fall Rot,” a Panzer III-giant man centaur, in the first stage of the story’s tripartite climax.  The symmetry is superbly complex: in the same way that science and the supernatural are the dual interests of Jack Parsons, the real-life protagonist of the 1941 narrative, so Fall Rot has been created by the combination of the biological experimentation of Josef Mengele and the perverted faith of Robert Alesch.  In a further parallel, both of the plots begin with the arrival of an American on the scene, Parsons in Vichy Marseilles in 1941 and an American photojournalist named Sam in the free part of Paris in 1950.  Sam is researching her own book, The Last Days of New Paris, a photographic essay-within-a-novella that pays homage to Dick’s The Grasshopper Lies Heavy novel-within-a-novel.

Miéville is too sophisticated a writer to promote a conception of art as essentially opposed to oppression and his mention of Breker and the second part of the climax (which I shall not reveal) shows that he is well aware of the variety of ends art can serve.  While Breton’s surrealism provided a Marxist opposition to European fascism and American Fordism, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s futurism provided active and enthusiastic support for Benito Mussolini, and the fascist sympathies of many prominent modernists are well documented.  Miéville is concerned with surrealism in particular over and above art more generally because movements like surrealism (and the New Weird in his own definition) resist nationalism and neoliberalism in virtue of being politico-artistic movements in the first instance.  Surrealism is not an artistic movement in the service of Marxism, but a Marxist artistic movement.  As such, The Last Days of New Paris calls for a revolt in art rather than a revolt in politics, for integrating politics into art rather than employing art as a means to political ends.  The link from New Paris to the contemporary world comes in the perfectly-pitched anti-climax with which the narrative concludes, as Thibaut takes it upon himself to write his own book, to start “from scratch, redo history, make it mine.”  In Thibaut’s return to the fray to write his revolution, Miéville urges readers to artistic revolt, to the reconception of art as essentially rather than circumstantially political and the New Weird as essentially rather than instrumentally resistant to nationalism and neoliberalism.

British Godlings: On Neil Gaiman’s Novellas


The Monarch of the Glen and Black Dog are two of the four titles in Headline’s re-release of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods quartet, timed to raise interest in the television adaption of American Gods, due for release early in 2017. The two novellas (or short stories — the length is difficult to judge with all the artwork) have been published with American Gods itself and with Anansi Boys, a second novel set in the same universe, in hardback editions illustrated by Daniel Egnéus. American Gods (the novel as opposed to the quartet) was first published in 2001 and then re-published in an expanded tenth-anniversary edition. The latter — which has been available as a full cast audiobook since 2012 — is a literal “author’s cut,” i.e. Gaiman’s original, published without the considerable editorial redactions of the published version and therefore substantially longer.

I thought American Gods was deserving of its critical and popular success although I was disappointed that Gaiman failed to integrate the monotheistic religions into his universe, a strategy which was obviously expedient, but nonetheless inconsistent. The audiobook (but not the tenth anniversary edition) contains a deleted passage in which the protagonist, Shadow, meets Christ, offering a tantalizing taste of how Gaiman might have treated the monotheistic gods, but the encounter raises more questions than it answers. The scene has apparently been included in the STARZ original series and it will be interesting to see if it is developed in any detail.

The novellas The Monarch of the Glen and Black Dog share not only the world of American Gods, but also its protagonist, Shadow, who may or may not be an incarnation of Baldr (or Baldur or Balder), who may or may not be a god. The Monarch of the Glen was first published in Legends II, a 2003 collection of speculative fiction edited by Robert Silverberg. The novella takes place in the north-west of the Scottish Highlands two years after the conclusion of American Gods. Shadow has spent the interim backpacking across Europe and North Africa and finds himself in an unnamed village somewhere between Thurso and Cape Wrath. The plot begins when, in quick succession, he is offered a weekend job as a bouncer at a local country house and meets an unconventional barmaid who regales him with stories of the local lore, particularly those pertaining to the strong Norse influence in what is usually assumed to be a hyper-Celtic culture. The suspense is generated first by a mysterious party, then by its mysterious guests, and finally by the real reason for Shadow’s employment.

Much like my monotheistic quibble with American Gods, my criticism of the novella is very minor, namely the opacity of the title. The “Monarch of the Glen” is a painting of a red deer stag by Edwin Landseer and has become one of the exemplary and archetypal images of the Highlands specifically and Scotland more generally. Landseer was famous for contributing to the Victorian image of an idyllic Scotland that never existed, and for representing anthropomorphic animals in savage struggles for survival against one another, man, and nature. The painting itself — or rather, Landseer’s copy of his own painting — appears in the story, the property of Mr Alice, the host of the party. Its significance is neither explained nor suggested; the only commentary is offered by Alice on its popularity and Shadow’s silent appraisal of the stag as “haughty, and superior”.

My understanding of the painting’s significance is that the shared title is a reference to Shadow, who has been hired to take part in a struggle even more savage than those portrayed by Landseer. In this struggle, Shadow is the symbol of both man against monster and Scotland against its (Norse) invaders. But just like the criticism that Landseer created a false image of Scotland, Shadow is being set up as a false symbol. He is, like the English Landseer in the Highlands, a foreigner, and also, as the opening dialogue of the narrative reminds readers, a monster himself — not quite man and not quite god.

Of course, Gaiman is far too sophisticated a writer to allow the simple dichotomies of man/monster, Celtic/Norse, and the relation between them to remain unchallenged. The result is that the explosive climax at the country house does not turn out as expected for any of the participants, as Shadow is measured against his own judgement of Landseer’s stag. The tale concludes with him on a train, heading south with the ultimate aim of bringing his wandering to an end in Chicago.

Black Dog was first published in Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances, Gaiman’s fourth collection of short stories (excluding his fiction for children), in 2015. The novella’s temporal setting is either several weeks or a few months after The Monarch of the Glen, but the spatial setting is the first mystery Gaiman presents. Somewhere between the Scottish border and London, Shadow has gone off the rails. The many clues provided are no more provocative than when they are contradictory: the blurb labels a “rural northern village”; it is not too remote from London; it might bfe near Glossop; it is surrounded by hills and valleys; it features plenty of drystone walls; and it has its own ghost dog, called Black Shuck. Black Shuck is the name of East Anglia’s version of the old English legend, but East Anglia is notoriously flat and the name ‘The Gateway to Hell’ seems decisive, identifying Eldon Hole in the Peak Forest and the Peak District (also known as the Derbyshire Dales) more generally. This relocation of Black Shuck to one of the few regions of England that does not have its own ghost dog is the first indication of the categorical originality of Gaiman’s re-invention of the legend.

Gaiman very quickly provides a series of reflections on and allusions to many of the linguistic and conceptual associations with dogs that are such a prominent part of English culture: the love of dogs as pets,; the eternal conflict between cats and dogs and consequent division of human beings into “cat-people” and “dog-people”; “black dog” as a description of depression (made famous by Winston Churchill); “black dog” as a favored name for brands of ale; and the curiosity of a ghost dog that portends or causes death without possessing any corporeality. As the tale develops, he adds the conceptions of prehistoric dire wolves, Odin’s wolves (although Odin’s nemesis Fenrir would have been more appropriate), and the myth of the Wild Hunt. There are also explicit references to Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles and implicit references to Stephen Booth’s Cooper and Fry crime series, which is set in the Peak District and was initiated with the novel Black Dog, published the same year as American Gods. The combination of these references also serves as a clue that this is as much a mystery as it is a work of speculative fiction.

The story starts with Shadow in a public house, where there is much spooky talk of big black dogs and cats walled up in buildings. The village has no accommodation available and a local couple, Ollie and Moira, offer him a room for the night. As the three of them walk home, Ollie thinks he sees Black Shuck and falls into a narcoleptic state. This introduces the natural dimension of Gaiman’s take on the black dog, as a manifestation of depression, which grounds the narrative in reality: depressed people recognize their own despair, exemplified by the ghost dog, and either try to kill themselves or simply lose the will to live. Following this motif, Ollie self-harms as soon as he emerges from his semi-conscious state, setting the scene for Shadow remaining in the village for a few days to help Moira look after him.

What raises Gaiman’s contribution to the black dog legend from the original to the exceptional is the way he not only offers a rationalization of its continued existence, but binds the supernatural explanation to its own special logic. The relationship between the villain and the ghost dog and between Shadow and a benevolent ghost is explained by the metaphor of flame and moth. Human beings, warm with their life blood coursing through them, are the flames that attract the attention of moth-like ghosts, which clarifies the reciprocal relation between corporeal and non-corporeal: the moth flying too close to the flame can either extinguish that flame or be destroyed by it. If there is a weakness in the work it is that Black Dog does not stand alone as well as The Monarch of the Glen, requiring knowledge of Shadow’s encounter with Bast in American Gods for full appreciation.

There is a subtle play of similarity and difference in the two novellas. Both, for example, begin with Shadow sitting in a bar, a new arrival in a strange place. Both include a mysterious woman who initiates Shadow into the secrets of the locality, Jennie in the Highlands and Cassie in the Dales. Both include a disguised antagonist who appears very early on before revealing savagery in one case and banality in the other. Both narratives are works of fantasy, firmly rooted in the American Gods universe, but the most profound difference is their emphasis within this genre: the combination of fantasy with horror in The Monarch of the Glen and fantasy with mystery in Black Dog.

This difference in intention is exquisitely expressed in the subtle variation of Egnéus’ artwork. He cites his influences as Arthur Rackham and Gustave Doré, displaying the former’s flair for line and the latter’s ability to represent the otherworldly, and there is also a strong surrealist sense of the fluidity of shape, reality, and reason in his depictions. The interior illustrations are black and white, with Egnéus employing the full range of tint and shade from white to black to produce images that surprise, puzzle, and haunt. In The Monarch of the Glen, he leaves no doubt that Shadow has arrived in a vital, visceral, and volatile place where the trappings of modernity conceal a primitive and unchanged way of life. In Black Dog, he represents a more hospitable locale, where an evening on a hilltop is an experience to be enjoyed rather than a death sentence — or should be. The drawings in the latter novella lack the violence of those in the former and with a few exceptions evoke wonder rather than fear while retaining a decidedly disturbing quality. The strengths of the two tales are also distinct: the complexity of character and depth of symbolism explored in the Scottish Highlands versus the faultless internal logic and meticulous supervenience of contemporary banality on ancient malignancy in the Derbyshire Dales. They are nonetheless both atmospheric and intriguing, both intellectually stimulating and unpredictable.