Let’s say there’s a father in your life. Maybe you’re married to him. Maybe you’re his child. Maybe he’s just a buddy of yours. Last year, on Father’s Day, you bought him a tie in his favorite colors. The year before that, it was a calfskin wallet, which you’ve noticed he still hasn’t used. This year, with Father’s Day just a week and a half away, you’re leaning toward buying him a bookstore gift card because he likes to read, but you don’t know what book to get him.
Resist this impulse. For a lot of busy dads, a store card is less a gift than a chore, one that can be skipped. (Don’t believe me? Take a peek in his sock drawer, upper right hand corner, just behind that unused calfskin wallet: Yep, a small stack of unused gift cards.) More importantly, a gift is a way of telling someone that you value them, that you know them a little better than they realized, and few things do this better than a well-chosen book.
Below are book suggestions for 11 different kinds of dads who read. These suggestions assume that the fathers you’re shopping for have read most of the more popular books about the topics that interest them and may be looking for something new. Most of the books on this list are in paperback and should cost less than $20.
1. Big Game Book Hunter Dad
A certain kind of man views his bookshelves the way a leopard sees bleached bones on the veldt—as evidence of past kills, the larger the better. Hence, the popularity of the Doorstop Novel, the 500-, 600-, 700-page social novel or family saga. Every year publishers lavish splashy advances on the latest epic that might appeal to that most elusive of literary beasts, the middle-aged male fiction reader. A few years ago, that book was Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding. Last year it was Matthew Thomas’s We Are Not Ourselves, which, not so coincidentally, has just been released in paperback in time for Father’s Day.
Both are solid novels, and brag-worthy kills for the Big Game Book Hunter in your life, but for sheer ambition neither can touch Phillipp Meyer’s cowboys-and-Indians epic, The Son. Meyer’s nearly 600-page Western contains three overlapping narratives, but the most gripping is that of family patriarch Eli McCullough, who is kidnapped by a Comanche raiding party in 1849 and raised as the chief’s adopted son before returning to white society. A particularly fearless reader-hunter will want to pair Meyer’s tale of the settling of Texas with Canadian writer Joseph Boyden’s equally audacious novel The Orenda, a fictional retelling of the bloody clash between French missionaries and local Huron and Iroquois tribes in 17th-century Canada.
2. Literary Fiction Dad
He’s read Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See. He’s braved the languors of the Las Vegas chapters of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. He’s read Jonathan Franzen, Michael Chabon, Jennifer Egan, and Jeffrey Eugenides. Why not branch out, see a little more of the world? In recent years, American readers have been treated to a bumper crop of first-rate literary fiction by immigrants from around the globe. If the Literary Fiction Dad in your life is open to reading women, he may want to try Americanah by Nigerian-American writer Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie, or The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri, an American of Bengali heritage. Among male writers, Nam Le, a Vietnamese-born writer raised in Australia and educated in the U.S., wrote a gripping collection of stories, The Boat, in 2008, and Chinese-American author Ha Jin, has turned out a steady stream of novels and story collections, perhaps the best of which is War Trash, set in a POW camp during the Korean War.
But the Big Kahuna of American diaspora literature is Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which has a legitimate claim to the title of best American novel of the new millennium. By turns hilarious, tender, and harrowing, Oscar Wao follows an overweight, Dominican-born sci-fi nerd in his search for love and the secret to survival in his cursed homeland. Diaz’s plot and characters are riveting, but the real pleasure of Oscar Wao is Diaz’s narrative voice, which combines slangy, high-velocity prose with penetrating insight into the political black hole that is the Dominican Republic.
3. Big Bad Noir Daddy
Here’s a pro tip: To find a smart, well-written crime novel by a guy for guys, search the roster of writers for David Simon’s cable series The Wire. George Pelecanos, who was a writer on all five seasons, has somehow also found time to crank out 20 crime novels in roughly as many years, most of them set in and around Washington D.C., and focusing, with bracing honesty, on the sorry state of race relations in our nation’s capital. The Cut, from 2011, is as good a place to start as any. Another of Simon’s writers, Dennis Lehane, based out of Boston, runs hot and cold, but his 1998 novel Gone, Baby, Gone is a nicely twisted bit of noir, and 2001’s Mystic River would qualify as a work of literary fiction if a child didn’t die in the early pages.
But the top thoroughbred in Simon’s stable, and arguably the finest American crime novelist at work today, is Richard Price. His books are structured as police procedurals and feature his famously razor-sharp dialogue, but Price is at heart an old-school social novelist in the mold of Charles Dickens and Émile Zola. His novels grab you by the ears and drag you into the hidden corners of modern America populated by immigrants, the poor, and those who prey on them. His latest, The Whites, written under the pen name Harry Brandt, offers a riveting look inside the minds of New York City police detectives who live their professional lives chest-deep in depravity and injustice. Price’s 1992 drug-dealer novel Clockers, later made into a Spike Lee joint, is another must-read.
4. Politically Incorrect Dad
He’s inappropriate. He can’t control his appetites. He sweats a lot. His sense of humor is, well, different. But underneath all the layers of gruff and odd, beats a well-meaning heart. Meet Milo Burke, unlikely hero of Sam Lipsyte’s 2010 novel The Ask.
Milo is a husband, a father of a young child, and a seething mass of misdirected grievance. “I’m not just any old hater,” he says early on. “I’m a hater’s hater.” In the opening pages, Milo loses his job wrangling donations for a third-tier university in New York City after he insults the talent-free daughter of one of the college’s wealthy donors, but is offered a chance at redemption if he can reel in a sizable gift from a rich college friend, who has, mysteriously, asked to work with Milo. Lipsyte specializes in the humor of white-male resentment, and when he misses he misses big, but The Ask is a tour de force of verbal pyrotechnics and shibboleth-skewering social insight.
5. World War II Buff Dad
Big fat books about honorable wars are to grown men with mortgages what Call of Duty video games are to 10-year-old boys: mind-travel devices granting sedentary, suburban beings vicarious access to a world of danger and heroism. As with video game franchises, the options for quality reads about the Second World War are quite nearly boundless. For a broad overview, there’s Max Hastings’s Inferno: The World at War, 1939-1945, but World War II was so huge and so complicated that it can be wise to take it in pieces, using, say, Stephen Ambrose’s Band of Brothers as a window onto the American war effort in Europe orLaura Hillenbrand’sUnbroken to gain a finer-grained understanding of the Pacific Theater.
A middle-ground approach that can satisfy the Big Game Hunter impulse while also offering a sharply observed portrait of the conflict that helped create the modern American military is Rick Atkinson’s Liberation Trilogy, which focuses on the American war effort in Europe. The three-volume set, An Army at Dawn, The Day of Battle, and Guns at Last Light, span a collective 2,349 pages, making it a prime trophy for anyone’s shelves. But Atkinson shifts so effortlessly from the panoramic to the close-up, giving the reader a day-by-day, sometimes minute-by-minute, account of what it felt and sounded and smelled like to be an American soldier at battle with the Axis powers, that trophy-hunting readers will be compelled to eat what they kill.
6. Civil War Buff Dad
Atkinson’s Liberation Trilogy is practically a novella compared to Shelby Foote’s three-volume The Civil War: A Narrative, which clocks in at a mammoth 2,968 pages. Everything in Civil War historiography is big. James McPherson’s single-volume history, Battle Cry of Freedom, consumes 952 pages. Ken Burns’s TV documentary The Civil War spans more than 10 hours of airtime. And that’s not even touching on the vast shelf of biographies of Abraham Lincoln and Robert E. Lee or the rich scholarship on individual battles or lesser-known generals and leaders.
This is Big Game Hunter territory, and if the dad in your life is new to nerding out on Civil War minutiae, you may want to shell out for the first volume of Foote’s epic, Fort Sumter to Perryville, a comparatively slim 856 pages. But if you are looking for new perspectives on the era, check out T.J. Stiles’s Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War. As its subtitle suggests, Stiles’s biography frames the legendary bank robber not as a Robin Hood of the Wild West, but as a disaffected Confederate Army veteran bent on reviving the Lost Cause by any means necessary. Stiles writes well and is a scrupulous scholar, but he is also a gifted storyteller who reaches beyond cardboard outlaw stereotypes to bring the James boys to life on the page.
7. Business Maven Dad
If the dad in your life goes in for business books, you can’t go wrong with Michael Lewis. Like his fellow bestseller-list regular Malcolm Gladwell, Lewis is perhaps too faithful to the journalist’s dictum to never let the facts get in the way of a good story, but he is a superb shoe-leather reporter and over the years Lewis’s eye for the big-picture truth has been unerring. His best book is probably The Big Short, about the 2008 financial collapse, but his 2014 book, Flash Boys, about computer-directed high-frequency trading, is also excellent.
But anyone who reads business books will already have a shelf full of Michael Lewis. If you want a different take on American business, look for Beth Macy’s Factory Man, about John Bassett III, heir to a once-powerful North Carolina furniture-making company, who took on cheap imports from China and won. One longs for Lewis’s tale-spinning prowess in some of Macy’s background chapters that drag under the weight of her too-earnest reporting, but Bassett, the would-be furniture baron, is a colorful figure, and Macy’s core message, that a smart, driven factory owner willing to take some risks can beat offshore manufacturers at their own game, more than makes up for the book’s flabbier passages.
8. True Crime Dad
Perhaps no section of the bookstore is more heavily stocked with schlock than the one devoted to true crime. For every classic like Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood or Dave Cullen’s meticulously reported Columbine, there are dozens of sensationalist gore-fests written by the likes of Ann Rule and R.J. Parker. Good true-crime writing should do more than pile up the bodies. It should use crime to shed light on an underside of a society, teaching us the unspoken rules of the world we live in by telling the stories of those who break those rules in the most aberrant ways.
Few recent books do this as well, or as hauntingly, as Robert Kolker’s Lost Girls, about the murders of five prostitutes buried in shallow graves along Long Island’s South Shore. Lost Girls is an unsettling read because the murders remain unsolved, but Kolker provides a fascinating look into the shadowy world of Internet escorts. Unlike prostitutes of an earlier era, modern sex workers can connect with their johns online, eliminating the need for pimps or brothels. This means the women can keep more of their earnings and are freed from what is often an abusive and controlling relationship, but as Lost Girls illustrates, this freedom costs them the physical protection of a pimp, making them especially vulnerable to violence.
9. Sports Nut Dad
>As with true crime, the sports book genre breeds schlock. How many books on how to straighten out a golf shot can one man read? A good sports book, like a good true-crime book, should go beyond the details of its subject to make a larger point about society or about athletic excellence. Buzz Bissinger’s Friday Night Lights, about the subculture of high school football in Texas, does this. So does Andre Agassi’s surprisingly engrossing autobiography Open, about the trials of a man who succeeds at a sport he has come to hate.
To one degree or another, all sports books try to answer the question of what makes a great athlete tick, but in The Sports Gene, David Epstein takes this question literally, using science to explore mysteries like why Kenyans win so many marathons and what it takes to hit a major-league fastball. The book’s message that there is no one path to athletic success may trouble the sleep of those Little League dads dreaming of turning their eight-year-olds into future Hall of Famers, but Epstein’s intelligent use of sports science, and his willingness to embrace ambiguity, makes for absorbing reading.
10. Vinyl Collector Dad
The return of vinyl records has emboldened a generation of Boomer and Gen X dads to haul their high school LPs out of the garage and give them pride of place in the living room. But they need something to read while they’re listening to all those dinged-up copies of Kind of Blue and Exile on Main St. Launched in 2003 and now published by Bloomsbury, 33 1/3 is a series of more than 100 short books about classic albums, ranging from Tom Waits’s Swordfishtrombones (No. 53, by David Smay) to AC/DC’s Highway to Hell (No. 73, by Joe Bonomo). Each book in the series is by a different author, mostly music critics and musicians, with the occasional novelist like Jonathan Lethem (No. 86, the Talking Heads’ Fear of Music) thrown into the mix.
Some books in the series put the focus on the music while others take a more biographical or social-historical approach. One of the titles, No. 28 by John Niven, on The Band’s Music from Big Pink, is written in the form of a novella, telling the true story of how Bob Dylan’s one-time backup band created its iconic 1968 album from the perspective of a fictional observer. Overall, the series skews heavily toward Music White People Like, though acts like Public Enemy (No. 71, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, by Christopher Weingarten) and J Dilla (No. 93, Donuts, by Jordan Ferguson) do occasionally appear.
11. Aspiring Writer Dad
If you want to take the how-to route with your Aspiring Writer Dad, your best bet is Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. While Lamott’s reflexive (and, to these ears, highly calculated) hippy-dippy whimsy can grate, she is a gifted teacher and her chapter on writing shitty first drafts is justifiably legendary.
But giving an aspiring writer Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird is like buying a pocket dictionary for a college-bound high school graduate: It’s a cliché, and he’s probably got six copies at home, anyway. If the aspiring writer in your life is, like most aspiring writers, already up to his ears in well-intended advice, switch gears and give him Boris Kachka’s Hothouse, a gossipy insider’s history of how the sausage gets made in New York publishing. In this dishy corporate biography of the publishing firm Farrar, Straus & Giroux, which has published everyone from T.S. Eliot and Roberto Bolaño to 1950s diet guru Gayelord Hauser, Kachka serves up enough sex and intrigue to keep the lay reader turning pages, but the book is fundamentally the story of how one headstrong publisher and a handful of talented editors struggled to maintain an independent publishing vision in a rapidly consolidating industry.
Image Credit: The Athenaeum.
This is a story about how China Miéville opens eyes. It begins in Detroit in the 1950s with a boy who flat loves to read, who can’t get enough of Dr. Seuss, the Hardy Boys, and the Flash (Marvel and Zap Comix will come much later). He reads an actual newspaper every day, and he cherishes his first library card the way kids today cherish their first iPhone. (This doesn’t make him wiser or better than kids today, just luckier.) When the boy’s mother enrolls him in the after-school Great Books Club, he’s thrilled to discover such “grown-up” writers as Robert Louis Stevenson and Jack London, Rudyard Kipling and Arthur Conan Doyle, then Hemingway’s quietly complex Nick Adams Stories.
Some 50 years later that boy is me, a writer who has spent his life reading novels and short stories that can fairly be regarded as the offspring of that Great Books Club – what some people call “literary” fiction and others call High-Brow Rot. This dutiful quest for quality has familiarized me with most of the pantheon’s usual suspects, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that. But it left little time for supposedly inferior “genre” or “mainstream” fiction. Only a few things seeped through – the addictive crime novels of my fellow Detroiters Elmore Leonard and Loren D. Estleman; a few best-sellers that rose above the herd by being deeply felt and sharply written, such as Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent and Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River. As for science fiction and fantasy, only select boldface masters reached me – Verne, Wells, Tolkien, Huxley, Orwell, Ballard, plus the trippy paranoia of Philip K. Dick. I’ve read too few contemporary poets – Philip Levine and Fred Chappell are beloved exceptions – and I’ve never read a western, a vampire novel, a bodice-ripper, a self-help book, a political or showbiz memoir, or a single piece of chick lit. Overall, a pretty limited roster, and on bad days I began to suspect that my high-mindedness had blinded me to whole worlds of reading pleasure.
And that, conveniently, was when China Miéville came into my life.
He was recommended by a friend who has been a life-long fan of fantasy and science fiction. I trusted her because she’s smart and she made a documentary movie about William Gibson in the 1980s, when Gibson was helping forge the “cyber-punk” sub-genre of science fiction. At her urging I read Gibson’s early short stories, and I was blown away by their prescience and hip wit, particularly “The Gernsback Continuum,” “The Winter Market,” and “Burning Chrome.” To top it off, the writer who coined the term “cyberspace” didn’t even own a computer. He wrote on an old manual typewriter. My kind of Luddite!
Despite the pleasant surprise of reading Gibson’s short fiction and Neal Stephenson’s splendid SF novel Snow Crash – what’s not to love about high-tech skateboards in the service of on-time pizza delivery? – I had modest expectations when I opened China Miéville’s first novel, King Rat. Published in 1998 when the author was just 26, it tells the story of a Londoner named Saul Garamond who is wrongly suspected of murdering his father. He’s sprung from his police holding cell by a mysterious creature in a gray overcoat, the furtive, foul-smelling rodent of the book’s title. What ensues is a mind-bending journey across London’s rooftops and through its sewers as Saul learns that he’s part human and part rat and therefore a vital weapon in the war against a murderous Pied Piper figure who wants to annihilate all of the city’s rats and spiders. It ends with an orgy of violence at a Drum and Bass rave called Junglist Terror.
I wasn’t quite sure what to make of the novel. Was it just a delicious stew of weirdness? Was it an allegory about the need for solidarity among the underclass as it fights prejudice and oppression? Whatever it was or was not, the book whetted my appetite for more.
While King Rat was a respectable debut, it barely hinted at what was coming. Perdido Street Station, published in 2000, anointed Miéville as a star of the fantasy genre – or the “New Weird” – and gave birth to a cult following. The novel is an astonishment, the work of a writer with a fecund, feverish, inexhaustible imagination, a brilliant world-maker. We are on the world of Bas-Lag, in a suppurating cesspool of a city called New Crobuzon, where humans and strange races and brutally altered convicts called Remades jostle and thieve and whore under the eye of a vicious, all-seeing militia. The city festers around the spot where the River Tar and River Canker meet to form the River Gross Tar. It’s peppered with evocatively named precincts – Smog Bend, Nigh Sump, Murkside, Spatters – and rail lines emerge like an evil spider web from the titular train station.
There are human frogs called vodyanoi, half-bird half-men called garuda, green-skinned cactus people, and intelligent beetles called khepri. People get strung out on shazbah, dreamshit, quinner, and very-tea. In their midst, a rogue scientist named Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin receives an unusual commission: a garuda needs a new set of wings because his were hacked off as punishment for some obscure crime against the garuda code.
And then there’s Mr. Motley, the crime boss who commissions Isaac’s khepri girlfriend to immortalize him with a life-size statue fashioned from her spit. Mr. Motley is one malevolent eyeful:
Scraps of skin and fur and feathers swung as he moved; tiny limbs clutched; eyes rolled from obscure niches; antlers and protrusions of bone jutted precariously; feelers twitched and mouths glistened. Many-coloured skeins of skin collided. A cloven hoof thumped gently against the wood floor… “So,” he said from one of the grinning human mouths. “Which do you think is my best side?”
Then, just when you’re starting to get your bearings in this otherworldly world, Miéville brings in the slake-moths. These are flying beasts that use the pooling light on their wings to mesmerize their human prey, then proceed to suck the dreams out of their skulls, leaving behind drooling, inert zombies. For good measure, the slake-moths then spray the city with their excrement, fertilizing a plague of nightmares. A simple question comes to propel the galloping narrative: Will the humans and constructs and Remades of New Crobuzon find the will and the way to defeat the ravenous slake-moths? The answer makes for one very wild ride.
Perdido Street Station would have been a career peak for many writers, but Miéville was not yet 30 and he was just getting warmed up. In 2002 he returned to Bas-Lag with The Scar, but instead of revisiting the dank alleys of New Crobuzon he took to the high seas, where two New Crobuzon natives have been captured by pirates and sequestered on Armada, a vast floating city made of lashed-together boats, all of it dragged slowly across the world by tug boats. As they plot their escape, Bellis Coldwine, a gifted linguist, and Silas Fennec, a vaguely disreputable adventurer with curious powers, piece together the great mystery and mission of Armada: its rulers are working to raise a mythical mile-long beast from the deep, the avanc, so they can lash it to the bottom of the city and move at much greater speeds – toward… what?
Once again the fauna is irresistible: the Lovers, the autocratic couple who rule Armada and cement their bond by constantly giving each other identical scars; a Remade with octopus tentacles grafted onto his chest who gets gills cut into his neck and becomes an amphibious human; huge mosquito women who split open their prey (hogs, sheep, humans) and then suck them dry; amphibious cray who inhabit underwater cities festooned with seaweed topiary and 8-foot tall snails; a human killing machine named Uther Doul; and, of course, the monstrous avanc. Together they propel a rollicking, swashbuckling adventure.
By now my original questions were coming into focus. I realized Miéville was not writing allegories, in which things stand for something else in order to convey a deeper, unstated meaning. Miéville’s humans and hybrids and monsters are not symbols; they are simply what they are, and they demand to be taken literally. This was stunning to me, and I realized it would not have worked if Miéville were not so good at creating unforgettable characters and creatures, at making sentences, at telling compelling stories. I also realized that a couple of themes run like strands of barbed wire through all the books: the dubious merits of demagogues and messiahs, and the vital importance of resisting absolute power. These are grand themes, and in Miéville’s hands they help turn good books into great ones.
He expanded on these themes in Iron Council (2004), in which a group of renegade workers commandeer the construction of a railroad that is crossing the continent, crushing everything in its path in a mad quest for profit. With a civil war erupting back in New Crobuzon, the renegades succeed in traversing the uncharted, forbidding continent, ripping up the tracks behind them and re-laying them in front as they inch along, writing history. The train itself, this Iron Council, soon goes feral. It’s led by Judah, a master at making golems out of dirt, corpses, air, even time, and eventually it must decide if it should return to New Crobuzon to help the revolt, or continue on its epic journey. Interrupted by a long flashback in the middle, the novel is more overtly political than its predecessors, with a subtext about the pain of unrequited love between saintly Judah and a male disciple named Cutter. It’s both brutal and tender, with plenty of monsters and combat and high adventure, but fans and critics were sharply divided.
After its publication, Miéville cited Iron Council as his personal favorite among his books. It’s not hard to understand why. The writing is lean, free of pyrotechnics, fearless, a sign that the writer has attained full confidence in his powers, in his characters, and in the weird world they travel through. Miéville no longer had anything to prove to himself or anyone else. What writer wouldn’t revel in such liberating self-possession?
Miéville was entitled to a breather, and he took it in 2007 with Un Lun Dun, a delightful children’s book that posits there are “abcities” that live alongside real ones – London has Un Lun Dun, and then there’s Parisn’t, No York, Lost Angeles, and others. Into Un Lun Dun come two London girls, Zanna and Deeba, lured to the abcity because, as they learn, Zanna is the much-coveted Shwazzy (a play on the French word choisi, or Chosen One), who supposedly possesses powers that will help the residents of the abcity defeat the virulent Smog. This noxious organic cloud, fed by London’s pollutants, threatens to burn everything in Un Lun Dun – books, buildings, people – then inhale their smoke, increasing its size and power and knowledge until the abcity vanishes.
One of Miéville’s themes – the dubious nature of messiahs – is cleverly tweaked here when it turns out that Zanna is a zero and Deeba, the unchosen one, is the true heroine. As Alice did in Wonderland, Deeba fearlessly negotiates the wondrous abcity with its donut-shaped UnSun, its flying double-decker buses, its “moil” buildings (Mildly Outdated in London) made of discarded TVs and record players, and Webminster Abbey, a church made of cobwebs. She teams up with a kindly bus conductor, a talking book, a cuddly milk carton named Curdle, and the binja, protective trash bins that know karate. Their battle against the Smog and its devious human allies draws on Miéville’s twin strengths – his boundless imagination and his ability to whip a narrative into a frenzy. He even illustrated the book with deft pen-and-ink sketches.
Next came The City & the City (2009), which, though it just won the 2010 Hugo Award, strikes me as the weakest of Miéville’s novels. It’s essentially a noir police procedural set in a pair of intertwined cities, Beszel and Ul Qoma, which occupy the same space but never interact. Under threat of severe penalty, citizens of each city learn to “unsee” the other. Miéville is to be applauded for resisting the temptation to get too comfortable on Bas-Lag, in London or in Un Lun Dun, but for me the novel is a one-trick pony, under-worked, thin. Not everyone agreed. The novel won the Arthur C. Clarke Award and the Locus Award for best fantasy novel of 2009.
Miéville returned to London with this summer’s Kraken, which is the German plural for “octopus,” and a bit of a misnomer because the novel’s titular creature is actually a giant squid. When it disappears mysteriously from the Natural History Museum, a curator named Billy Harrow is drawn into the police investigation and soon finds himself in the other London – a netherworld of cultists, magickers, angels, witches, stone cold killers, and some people who are trying to engineer the end of the world. One of them is a talking tattoo. Another wants to erase the achievements of Charles Darwin. More than a few people believe the giant squid is a god. The novel is Miéville’s grandest achievement to date, brainy and funny and harrowing, its pages studded with finely cut gems, such as: “The street stank of fox.” And: “The presence of Billy’s dream was persistent, like water in his ears.” And: “All buildings whisper. This one did it with drips, with the scuff of rubbish crawling in breezes, with the exhalations of concrete.” This other London, Miéville writes, is “a graveyard haunted by dead faiths.” Like all of his worlds, it is not merely plausible, it is engrossing precisely because it demolishes old notions of plausibility and writes its own. In other words, it’s an eye-opener, a revelation.
By the time I finished reading Miéville’s novels I had come to understand that what matters most about fiction is not somebody else’s idea of what’s great, what’s good or, worse yet, what’s good for you. What matters is a writer’s ability to create a world that comes alive through its specifics and then leads us to universal truths. Miéville engages me with his writing because he is brilliant and because he cares about me as a reader, and this, I’ve come to see, is far more precious than a book’s classification, its author’s reputation, or the size of its audience. As the late Frank Kermode said of criticism, Miéville understands that fiction has a duty to “give pleasure.”
He does this by working that fertile borderland where pulp meets the surreal. He’s an equal-opportunity plunderer of the high and the low, mining not only the texts of his chosen genre, but also mythology, folklore, Kafka, children’s literature, epics, comics, Melville, westerns, horror, and such contemporary pop culture totems as graffiti, body art, and Dungeons & Dragons. For all that, his worlds are surprisingly low-tech, more steam-punk than cyber-punk, which speaks loudly to the Luddite in me. People use gas lamps, typewriters, crossbows, flintlock rifles, and bulky “calculation engines.” There are no spaceships, death rays, or other threadbare hardware that furnishes so much old-school SF. The one exception is a witty nod to “Star Trek” in Kraken, including some acts of teleportation. But it’s the exception that proves the rule.
Best of all, Miéville’s worlds are not governed by tidy morality any more than they’re governed by the strictures of hard realism or hard science fiction. Virtue is not always rewarded and evil often goes unpunished, which is to say that his weird worlds have a lot in common with the world we’re living in today. In fact, weirdness for Miéville is not something that exists outside reality; it’s just beneath, and next to, and right behind, and inside of the everyday. “‘Weird’ to me,” he has said, “is about the sense that reality is always weird.” In the end, his fantasy novels are not about otherworldly worlds, not really. They’re about the possibilities that are all around us, waiting for someone to open our eyes so we can see them. Someone with the imagination and the writing chops of China Miéville.
For him, weirdness is not an end in itself, but a means to a much higher end. He has said that his “Holy Grail” is to write the ripping good yarn that is also sociologically serious and stylistically avant-garde. The only better description I’ve heard of his writing came from a fan who wrote that, in Miéville’s books, “Middle Earth meets Dickensian London on really good acid.” Perfect.
As fine as it often is, Miéville’s writing is not flawless. Especially in the early novels, over-used exclamations become tiring, such as “By Jabber!” and “godspit!” A handful of words get worn to the nub, including “judder,” “drool,” “thaumaturgy,” and “puissance.” Some predators “predate” their victims instead of preying on them. Miéville – godspit! – has been known to use “impact” as a verb, which ought to be an international crime. And like many middle-aged faces, his prose would benefit from a little tightening here and there. But these are quibbles, and they should have been addressed by a halfway competent copy editor. Besides, they’re a bit like walking away from a sumptuous banquet and bitching that the shrimp weren’t big enough. No writer is perfect, mercifully, but a few, like Miéville, start with a bang and just keep getting bigger and stronger and weirder and better. That’s as much as any reader has a right to ask of any writer.
Word is getting out of the genre ghetto. Even the Decade-Late Desk at the New York Times gave Miéville the full treatment after the publication of Kraken – an interview in his London home that duly noted his middle-class upbringing, his shaved skull and multiple ear piercings, his degree from the London School of Economics, and his numerous literary prizes. “And,” the article concluded with tepid Gray Lady praise, “his fan base has come to include reviewers outside the sci-fi establishment.”
True, as far as it goes. But the Times article barely touched on what might be the most startling aspect of Miéville’s career to date. Rather than trying to distance himself from the fantasy genre, he has embraced it. Another writer who has done this is Neal Stephenson. “I have so much respect for Neal on that basis,” Miéville once told an interviewer. “I could kiss him. So many writers perform the Stephenson maneuver in reverse. They perform the (Margaret) Atwood – they write things that are clearly weird or in the fantastic tradition, and then they bend over backwards to try to distance themselves from genre.”
Not China Miéville. Which is why I’ve written this mash note – to thank him for helping me see that genre books, that any books, can be great, and for teaching me to quit worrying and just kick back, relax, and realize it’s totally cool to love the monsters.
Longtime readers of this blog may know that I’m an enthusiast of HBO’s serial dramas… which these days is about as unique as being a Springsteen fan. (Which I also am, but nevermind). Still, I don’t spend nearly as much time thinking about The Sopranos or Deadwood as I do thinking about books. And so it was only this week that I discovered that a “dream team” of crime novelists has taken over the writing of my new favorite show, The Wire.My wife had popped in the second disc of Season Three, and I heard myself say, “Wow, this is really well-written.” Plot, character, and setting have always been The Wire’s strong suits, but in this particular episode, the dialogue and symbolism attained a nearly Milchean richness. I jogged back to see who was credited with the teleplay, and found that it was… Dennis Lehane, of Mystic River fame.Turns out Richard Price, author of Blood Brothers and George Pelecanos, author of The Night Gardener are also sharing writing duties. I have a lot of respect for these three, for whom crime fiction is art, as well as entertainment. Price’s Clockers may not be Faulkner, but the depth of its reportage on the drug trade elevate it far above the kind of by-the-numbers pulp that fills the airport racks. “I really admired that book,” David Simon, creator of The Wire, told an interviewer. “It unearthed an entire world that had never been contemplated by the literary world. ‘Clockers’ paved the way for a lot of the split point of view that The Wire relies upon.”And given the solitary nature of the novelist’s art, the idea of these three, bound by geography and class sympathies as well as by trade, trading ideas over pizza and beer… well, it’s enough to make a fellow writer jealous. Simon joked with a co-producer, “I got Pelecanos, Price and Lehane. Who do you want next year, Philip Roth?”Stranger things have happened. Quick – someone call Elmore Leonard’s agent.