It started with Nick Adams.
I discovered Nick while reading through the collected stories of Ernest Hemingway a while back, and it is his voice, more than any others in the Hemingway corpus, that sticks with me years later. Nick Adams is in many ways Hemingway’s alter ego. Like Hemingway, Nick grew up in a rural part of the Midwest that still felt like (that still was, perhaps) Indian territory. Like Hemingway, Nick had a doctor for a father. Like Hemingway, Nick’s father commits suicide when Nick is a boy – this is the subject, by the way, of one of Hemingway’s most arresting Nick Adams stories, “Fathers and Sons”. As Nick grows up, and the stories progress and begin to slightly contradict one another (these are distinct stories, after all, and were never meant to be a coherent novel) his life grows murkier.
The Nick Adams stories, though published as a complete volume in 1972 – years after Hemingway killed himself in a manner similar to his own father – were never meant, I think, to be read in one sitting. The Nick Adams stories were written over a period of decades – during, not coincidentally, Hemingway’s most productive and most fruitful period – and they are each one of them distinct, many of them gems. They can be read together, that is certain. But part of the beauty of these stories is how well they stand on their own, each one highlighting a facet of Nick’s character, a specific moment in time. A day, as it were, in the life.
Don’t get me wrong. It is a pleasure to piece these stories together, to chronologize them and evaluate them – and the character of Nick Adams – fully. But the real pleasure of these stories, for me, is in realizing that while they do not exist in solitude, they can and do stand alone as complete works of art.
Nick Adams hooked me on the episodic short story. By which I mean, as it should by now be obvious, the tale of an individual told over several loosely related episodes. Finishing a story – a good, well-written story – about a character both well developed and personally intriguing, and knowing that another story about that very same character is out there somewhere, has become, for me, one of the best feelings in the world.
One of the finest modern practitioners of the episodic short story was the late Leonard Michaels. Though Michaels is most well known for his 1981 novella of male angst, The Men’s Club, in my opinion his greatest achievement came near the end of his life, when he started chronicling the fictional life of a mathematician named Nachman. Nachman, a professor at Berkeley (where Michaels himself taught) is a lonely, trusting man who understands the most complex equations but cannot begin to comprehend the subtleties of human interaction.
Michaels, along with his character Nachman, pulls you in from the very first sentence of the very first story, and never lets go. Here is that first sentence, of the eponymously titled story, “Nachman”: “In 1982, Raphael Nachman, visiting lecturer in mathematics at the university in Cracow, declined the tour of Auschwitz, where his grandparents had died, and asked instead to visit the ghetto where they had lived.”
There may be a better first sentence to a short story in existence, but I don’t know what it is.
The Nachman stories, like those of Nick Adams, stand well (stand very well indeed) on their own. Pieced together, though, they really are something of a masterpiece. The seven Nachman stories Michaels completed before his untimely death can be found at the end of Leonard Michael’s Collected Stories. They are well worth the price of the book.
In my opinion, the most promising episodic short story sequence currently being published is being written by Nathaniel Bellows. Bellows is the author of On This Day – a beautiful, painfully moving novel of a pair of siblings who lose both parents in the same year – as well as a magnificent poetry collection, Why Speak. While I am a great fan of all of Bellows’ writing, it is his Nan stories that really blew me away.
Bellows has a strong New England sensibility. With his vivid evocations of cold Maine winters and lonely, ice-strewn landscape, the poet he most consistently reminds me of (in content if not in form) is Robert Frost. Wisps of Emersonian self-reliance – as well as, perhaps, tacit acknowledgments of self-reliance’s limits – also carry through his work. In his Nan stories, Bellows takes that lonely New England self-reliance and brings it to New York in the character of Nan, a magnificently drawn Columbia University undergrad who comes from a sheltered, broken (in ways that I won’t ruin for you here) lower-middle class Maine family.
Nan, like Bellows, comes from upstate New England. Also like Bellows, Nan comes to Columbia to study literature and to become a writer (Bellows received his MFA from Columbia). Nan, like Michaels’ Nachman, has a fundamentally good although somewhat naïve personality. In these stories, she faces a world, often complex and underhanded, that she does not (at first, at least) really understand. The beautiful imagery of the stories, as well as the slow-paced, heart-piercing development of Nan’s character, make these stories not simply delights but, I would argue, necessary reading.
The three Nan stories that have so far been published – here is a link to the first one, published in the excellent literary magazine Post Road – are uniformly fantastic. According to Bellows’ website, there are at least four more Nan stories awaiting publication. I am sure I am not the only one who eagerly awaits piecing the rest of the puzzle of Nan’s life together.
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.