Looking back over what I wrote on this occasion last year, I see that my first sentence was this: “For me, 2012 has been at least as much a Year in Not Reading as a Year in Reading.” I re-read this now with rueful irony, like Beckett’s Krapp listening to the voices of his younger selves. What the hell did I imagine I knew about not reading in 2012? 2012? Before my wife and I had a son, and the remains of the day became consumed by the rigors of infant-admin — of feeding and changing and dandling and soothing and wiping and sterilizing? “No, no, no,” I mutter to my former self. “Believe you me, pal, you don’t know shit about not reading. But you’re about to learn. Stick around another few months, then we’ll talk about not reading.” I wouldn’t want that time back, of course — not, as Krapp would say, with the fire in me now — but I wish I’d been more appreciative then of how much leisure time I actually had, of how much I was, in fact, at liberty to read.
All of which filibustering is by way of saying, I suppose, that my year in reading has been compromised somewhat by my year in living; and yet — heroically, I feel — I still managed to consume a fair amount of high-end lit over the last 12 months. Looking back, my interest seems to have run more toward non-fiction than fiction, and the books that had the strongest impact on me tended to come in under that vague rubric. My favorite new book this year was Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby, which I read when it came out in June. It’s a beautiful and profound book of essayistic reflections on memory, family, grief, travel, and storytelling. The jacket copy (like its author) categorizes it as an anti-memoir, which makes it sound maybe more abstruse than it is, but it’s accurate enough. It begins with Solnit’s brother delivering a gigantic pile of apricots to her home — a haul from the garden of her Alzheimer’s-suffering mother who has just been placed into care. The fruit sits rotting on her floor, and become a pungent and seeping metaphor for mortality at the center of the book, prompting all sorts of beautiful meditations on time and loss and decay and storytelling. “The object we call a book,” she writes, “is not the real book, but its potential, like a musical score or seed. It exists fully only in the act of being read; and its real home is in the head of the reader, where the symphony resounds, the seed germinates.” Solnit’s book is at home in my head now.
This summer, I read Janet Malcolm’s new collection Forty-One False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers, which immediately made me realize that I needed to read as much of her as I possibly could. So I went on a minor Malcolm binge — although “binge” is not nearly the right word for Malcolm: it was more like a rigorous and salutary diet. So I read Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession and In the Freud Archives and The Journalist and the Murderer, and felt much the better for it.
Fiction-wise, I was very taken with China Miéville’s The City & the City — a book which I’d been meaning to read for a couple of years, but which I only got around to when I put it on a course I was teaching. (This, incidentally, is a great way to force yourself to read a book; I’ve found it to be pretty much foolproof over the years.) It’s a sort of speculative police procedural that slyly insinuates itself into your experience of everyday life. It’s set in the two imagined (but vaguely eastern European) cities of Ul Quoma and Besźel. These cities are culturally and economically distinct, but occupy the same geographic space — are in fact exactly the same city — a situation that is sustained by a brutally stringent system of laws and surveillance and the diligent disregard — or “unseeing” — of the two cities’ residents. Although it’s by no means a satirical fable, the experience of reading it nonetheless provokes a kind of unsettling realization of the ways in which we ignore certain obvious dimensions of the spaces we live in.
Another book that really got me was I Await the Devil’s Coming, the confessional diary of the 19-year-old Mary MacLane, written over three months at the turn of the last century (republished this year by Melville House after a near century of, I think, comparative obscurity). In a lot of ways, MacLane is a fairly typical teenage girl — exasperated by her family and bored insensible by the stultifying life of a small town — but she is also possessed of an unshakeable conviction in her own genius, a phenomenally snazzy prose style, and an erotic obsession — at once ironic and sincere — with the actual devil. It’s funny, troubling, touching, and finally kind of amazing. There are passages on her love of food (porterhouse steak in particular) and her fuming hatred of her family’s toothbrushes that will never leave me.
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BLDGBLOG, which has “always been interested in learning how novelists see the city,” interviewed China Miéville about “the conceptual origins of the divided city featured in his… award-winning novel The City & The City,” among other things. Architects, fans of urban decay, and general lit nerds are going to have a field day with this link, I promise you.
In 1826, the philosopher John Stuart Mill had a nervous breakdown, and one of its causes was pretty odd. “I was seriously tormented by the thought of the exhaustibility of musical combinations,” he wrote in his autobiography.
The octave consists only of five tones and two semi-tones, which can be put together in only a limited number of ways, of which but a small proportion are beautiful: most of these, it seemed to me, must have been already discovered, and there could not be room for a long succession of Mozarts and Webers, to strike out, as these had done, entirely new and surpassingly rich veins of musical beauty.
In a way, Mill was being prescient: within a hundred years, serialist composers would forge onward, like the Vikings colonizing Greenland, to combinations of semi-tones that were not conventionally beautiful. But in another way, Mill was being ridiculous: no, a contemporary composer can’t use a tune that Mozart also used, unless it’s a deliberate allusion, but she can certainly use a tune that Weber also used, because no one listens to Weber any more. Mill’s nightmare of permutational famine would only be a real danger if any motif that any composer invented was registered permanently in some sort of giant musical database. Perhaps such a database does now exist, but no composer would be silly enough to check it. I only wish the same were true for narrative art.
Discovering that the website TV Tropes began as a Buffy the Vampire Slayer messageboard is like discovering that Borges’ “Library of Babel” began as a one-volume cricketer’s almanac. Since 2004, TV Tropes has swollen into a frighteningly comprehensive taxonomy of all known plot devices across all known media. Every story that’s ever thrilled you is there in microscopic cross section. In some respects it resembles books like Georges Polti’s The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations or Christopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots, but it’s not nearly so reductive: it’s maximalist not minimalist, always delighted to add new categories. Really, its closest cousin is the Aarne–Thompson classification system, which attempts to anatomize all the world’s folklore into about 2,500 elements. And as a writer, I find it impossible to browse TV Tropes without feeling like Mill: how will anyone ever come up with anything new?
This fear isn’t abstract. Recently, I was on the point of starting my second screenplay when I thought I might as well check at the patent office for any prior art. On the TV Tropes page for Double Reverse Quadruple Agent, I came across a listing for Cypher, a 2002 film I’d never seen by Vincenzo Natali, director of the terrific Cube. The best twist in my outline was sitting there in Cypher. Dejected, I gave up on the screenplay. TV Tropes may have saved me from wasting my time on an idea that had already been wrung dry, but it may also have prevented me from developing that idea far enough that I could find something in it that was uniquely my own. So far, the same thing hasn’t happened with my prose fiction, but perhaps it’s only a matter of time.
Of course, this is only a problem because my writing happens to be so preoccupied with plot. Most literary fiction is inoculated against TV Tropes. When Zadie Smith updates Howard’s End in On Beauty or Cynthia Ozick updates The Ambassadors in Foreign Bodies, they are assuming that the storylines are not by any means the most gripping things about those novels. I once interviewed the critic James Wood, and he told me that in his reviews he deliberately describes the entire book because he likes “destroying the tyranny of plot.” In other words, if TV Tropes gives you writer’s block, then maybe you’re not much of a writer.
And you can even make that same argument starting from the other side of the field. I recently asked the author China Miéville about TV Tropes, on which he has his own lengthy entry; because his work wallows in plot, I thought he might find the website as lethal as I do. In fact, he told me that he loves TV Tropes but he doesn’t worry about it. You don’t need a database, he said, to prove that it’s almost impossible to come up with anything truly original – just riffling through the canon will do that. Your task is just to force new tricks on old dogs. (After all, both Cypher and my abandoned screenplay were basically variations on Philip K Dick. TV Tropes itself has an entry for this called Older Than They Think.) And I agree with Miéville up to a point. But a lot of the joy of his novel The City and the City, for instance, arises from its ingenious premise. If he’d read on TV Tropes that The Twilight Zone had used the same plot in 1961, he would probably still have written his book, but I find it hard to believe he wouldn’t have been disappointed.
And the horrible thing is, it doesn’t stop there. There’s a remark somewhere by (I think) Martin Amis about how all young writers have to confront the fact that there just aren’t many new ways left to describe an autumn sky or a pretty girl. It’s like peak oil for lyricism. And in the age of Google Books and Amazon Search Inside, we have to confront this even more brutally. Every time I come up with a simile that feels like it might be too obvious, I can put it into the search box and find that a dozen romance novelists have used it before me.
The answer, I think, is to think more about your audience. The average reader just isn’t as obsessive about precedent as the average writer. She is less likely to notice an echo, and if she does notice, she is less likely to mind. In other words, she is saner. To invent some contorted new plot twist because your previous one was already on TV Tropes, or some cumbersome new metaphor because your previous one was already on Google Books, is just self-indulgence: you like your book a bit more, but everyone else likes it a bit less. It’s best to spend just enough time on TV Tropes that you’re anxious to do something original, but not so long that you’re paralyzed. That’s easier advice to give than to follow, however, and whether or not I succeed, there is one pretty humbling circumstance I have no choice but to acknowledge: that the biggest existential challenge that I currently face as a novelist comes from a website that started life as a place for people to talk about whether Buffy should really have got together with Spike.
Previously: Trope is the New Meme
Image credit: bo foto/Flickr
Because I must read for my work, there are always two book lists winding their way through my life. There are the books that I must read for my job –not that I am complaining, for the most part I love these titles, and anyway, who wouldn’t want to be paid to read? – but then there are also the books that I read for myself.
Very often the books that I read for myself are last year’s books – or older – that I never got around to reading at the time of their release but now cannot bear to leave behind. So I sneak them in on weekends and evenings and during long subway rides.
Among 2010 titles, there were so many winners on my list that it’s hard to pick favorites. But on the nonfiction side perhaps The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson, Travels in Siberia by Ian Frazier, and The Chocolate Wars, by Deborah Cadbury did the best job of either surprising, teaching, and/or impressing me – all for completely different reasons.
Among fiction titles, I especially enjoyed the cleverness of 36 Arguments for the Existence of God by Rebecca Goldstein, the enchantment of Ruby’s Spoon by Anna Lawrence Pietroni, and the lovely precision of Tinkers by Paul Harding.
The books that I read for myself this year were mostly fiction. My only real criterion for picking them was that I thought I would like them. For the most part I was right, but there was one particularly good streak when I read three books in a row that turned out to be three of my absolute favorites. These were In Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Daniyal Mueenuddin, American Rust by Philipp Meyer, and The City and the City by China Mieville. Maybe someone will see a pattern here but I do not. It seems to me that each one appealed to a completely different side of my being for a reason uniquely its own.
Then there were two more titles that I must add. They were not part of that magic streak, but they belong on this list. One is the linked short story collection Ms. Hempel Chronicles by Sarah Shun-lien Bynum which I think I will have to add my list of all-time favorites. Something about it – so simple yet so evocative – appealed to me enormously.
And then there was The Appointment by Herta Muller. I picked it up simply because she won the Nobel Prize and yet I knew so little about her. The edition that I found had her Nobel lecture appended to the end and I’m so glad that it did. I think that Muller’s description of the handkerchief drawer in her childhood home, with her father’s, her mother’s, and her tiny child’s handkerchiefs all lined up in separate compartments in the same drawer – the drawer from which her mother pulled a handkerchief to bring with her the day she was taken away and interrogated – will stay with me forever.
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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.
I read China Miéville’s The City & The City recently. It’s one of the best and most inventive books I’ve read in a while, and I’ve read some good ones lately. It’s a police procedural set in a fictional European city state, but that’s not quite accurate: it’s set in a city state and also in the other city state that overlaps the first one. The story begins when Tyador Borlú, a detective in the City of Beszel’s Extreme Crime Squad, is called one morning to a crime scene in a decrepit neighborhood.
A woman has been killed. But what at first seems like a straightforward murder of a prostitute rapidly becomes much more complicated, when it begins to seem that the crime may have transpired in the parallel and not particularly friendly city state of Ul Qoma. Beszel and Ul Qoma occupy precisely the same geographical territory, but moving between them requires a passport. Citizens of Beszel are trained from birth to see only the citizens and structures of their own city, and to “unsee” the citizens and structures of Ul Qoma that exist all around them. On a given street, the first three houses might be Ul Qoman, while the fourth might be Besz; a citizen of Beszel, trained from birth to pick up on the most subtle visual cues, will see only the fourth house. The set-up is absurd and yet eerily plausible: how often, in your movements through your daily life, have you chosen not to see something?
The novel moves well. The plotting is intricate. But what fascinated me most about this story was the setting. It reminded me a little of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, with its shadowy undercity (London Below) existing as a mirror of the more familiar London (London Above.) But whereas Neverwhere involves an element of magic—the workings of London Below are not bound to earthly logic—the fracturing of Miéville’s landscape is entirely psychic.
I’ve been thinking lately about the ways in which our cities are layered, the way different versions of a given city exist as shadows of one another, and coming across a story wherein the layering was so explicit delighted me.
I attended a literary festival in Canada last year. It involved being far away from home for well over a week, and I spent hours on end drinking free tea in the writer’s lounge at the hotel and talking to my fellow writers, several of whom were from Quebec. One evening a fellow novelist—let’s call her Dominique—began talking about the city of Montreal. I find this to be a delicate topic, but I like listening to other peoples’ impressions of the cities I know.
“Montreal now is like Paris in the 1920s,” she said. She went on to describe a vibrant metropolis of art and light, a bohemian intellectual paradise of writers and painters and sidewalk cafes, more European than North American. Dominique’s love for her city shone through everything she said. She asked me if I’d been there. I said that I’d lived there some years ago, and managed to change the subject.
In truth, I could just as easily and just as accurately have said no, no I haven’t, I’ve never been to the city you’re describing. I did live in Montreal for a while, but the Montreal I inhabited was very different from hers. I blame myself for my failure to build a viable life there. In retrospect, I was appallingly naïve. I’d thought that as a native speaker of one of the city’s two official languages, I’d be able to live there without too much trouble, but I was worn down over time by what I perceived as blatant xenophobia, by the daily small insults and the anti-English graffiti on my street. I met some kind people, but it isn’t, to put it very mildly, a place you want to move to if you’ve never studied French before. I couldn’t find language classes that I could afford, and my efforts to teach myself the language seemed hopeless. The winter cold was breathtaking. I felt adrift in a hostile city, and I fled after eight months.
My first novel took place largely in Montreal. I began writing it while I was living there. I’ve been criticized by two or three people for my depiction of the city, most regularly by a particular blogger who pops up to accuse me of inaccuracy every now and again. I don’t hold it against her. I get it: she read my book and she didn’t recognize her city. It’s not unreasonable of her to think I got it wrong, but I described the city that I knew. (I in fact made a conscious effort, when writing the book, to lighten things up a bit; the place in Last Night in Montreal is frankly a milder city than the one I experienced.)
Which, then, is the real Montreal? Dominique’s, or mine? Both. Montreal is a spectacular bohemian paradise filled with color and light; it’s also a dark city infected with bigotry and marred by Quebec’s honest-to-God entirely-non-metaphorical language police. This duality isn’t, of course, limited to Montreal, and it isn’t merely a duality: what I’ve come to believe is that there are as many versions of a given city as there are people who’ve been there. My New York City is a brilliant, exciting kind of a place, full of books and music and culture and good friends, similar in spirit to Dominique’s Montreal, but I know people for whom it’s a grinding filthy hellhole that eats people alive. I always found the Toronto that I lived in to be an interesting and vibrant city, but I know people for whom it’s soulless and grey.
“No two persons ever read the same book,” the writer and critic Edmund Wilson said. Let me expand that sentiment outward into the geography of experience: it seems increasingly clear to me that no two persons live in the same city.
Other types of urban shadows: I return every so often to Rem Koolhaas’ Delirious New York. I don’t love the writing, but it’s a fascinating book. Of the island of Manhattan, Koolhaas writes:
Not only are large parts of its surface occupied by architectural mutations (Central Park, the Skyscraper), utopian fragments (Rockefeller Center, the UN Building) and irrational phenomena (Radio City Music Hall), but in addition each block is covered with several layers of phantom architecture in the form of past occupancies, aborted projects and popular fantasies that provide alternative images to the New York that exists.
There are places where past versions of the city blocks seem almost still to exist. Not just in the obvious architectural shadows—the midtown theatre with an enormous bank vault door in the lobby, the grocery store downtown with the grand staircase and marble pillars—but in our memories. The Korean deli at Columbus and West 81st, for example, where for four and a half years I bought my vegetables: it’s gone now, replaced—the last time I was there, at least—by a stunningly beautiful sushi restaurant. Walk in and I see the restaurant’s cool lines, the gray slate and the orchids by the sushi bar, but I also almost still see the afterimages of plastic buckets filled with potatoes and ginger, the lines of teaboxes on the shelf, the counter where an old man in an elegantly patched cardigan and his long-haired son bagged and accepted money for groceries.
Or The Thinking Man’s Jeweler, a tiny store a few blocks from there, where the stone from my mother-in-law’s engagement ring was set into the band that I wear on my finger. The business collapsed and was replaced by a cupcake shop and then a sandwich place, and I can almost see all three businesses every time I walk by.
No version of a city is permanent. I went back to Montreal a few months ago. A last-minute email from the publisher that distributes and markets my books in Canada: they were sorry for the short notice, they said, and they knew I’d only just returned from that literary festival in Calgary, but another author had dropped out of a lecture series, and would I like to fill in? I boarded a plane and flew north.
It was October, the heat of summer long gone but the snow not yet falling, a bright windy day. I landed in the late afternoon and my event wasn’t until the following morning, so I spent some time wandering; up Rue McGill to Paragraphe Bookstore, where I’d spent a great deal of time browsing when I’d lived there. Down to the massive Chapters and Indigo stores on St. Catherine. Back up McGill to the edge of the university campus. It was the end of the afternoon, wind moving in the trees. The city was beautiful and the air was bright all around me. This wasn’t the grim city of my memories: I was walking, I realized, through Dominique’s Montreal.