When I recently read The City and the City, the first China Miéville novel I picked up, I was impressed by MChina Miéville’s Atrophied Clockwork Heart
When I recently read The City and the City, the first China Miéville novel I picked up, I was impressed by Miéville’s ability to mimic the noir genre, the stripped-down hard-boiled style of Raymond Chandler, while turning it to his own aesthetic ends. What Miéville seemed to have missed though was that Chandler’s detective stories work not because Philip Marlow exists in a dark world of “mean streets,” but because the hero has an emotional, psychological, and moral complexity which allows urban criminality to represent the exigencies of the human heart.
Hoping this was only Miéville’s misreading of the genre, I picked up his most acclaimed work, the new weird fantasy Perdido Street Station, hoping that here the author would turn his obvious talents to the construction of truly effective characters. I was sorely disappointed.
Miéville is clearly one of the most proficient and imaginative users of language in contemporary fiction. There is no denying this. His world oozes with inventive descriptions, with vocabulary that makes most readers jealous, with color and texture that spirals vertiginously across the page. Sadly, if color and texture alone made a good story, home decor catalogs would be on the best-seller list. Vocabulary alone does not make one a good writer. Miéville spends so much time building up the environment and atmosphere of the decayed, steampunk city of New Crobuzon that I often found myself drifting off for pages at a time, growing bored with repeated details that did nothing to further the plot or tell us something significant about his world and its inhabitants. A city is its people, not its architecture. If this book was stripped of all unnecessary detail of this sort it might be only a quarter of its length. Maybe this is excusable; Miéville is the SFF world’s golden boy after all, so can he really do wrong?
The problem for me was that, because the whole world in which the story is set is described from the get-go in extreme and alien terms, I felt nothing of the horror that might have been evoked when something truly alien breaks in to threaten that world – the nightmare-eating monsters were nothing but more linguistic varnish to wade through. While the slake-moths are described in far more gruesome terms than, say, the night-guants of H.P. Lovecraft, Lovecraft is able to evoke far more horror because his descriptions are terse and evocative, and because the monsters are seen not as in a movie screen but through the dim terror of human consciousness.
The thing that frustrated me the most, though, is that in Perdido Street Station Miéville once again flounders to create the kind of solid characters that would move his stories beyond the realm of grossly amusing to truly powerful literature. Most of this problem once again, I suspect, falls to Miéville’s love of detail: he is too busy constructing the surface and externality of his world to be able to tell what goes on inside of his characters, not just in their heads and fleeting thoughts, but in their hearts, their memories, their souls. There seems to be a debate going on in the literary world as to whether interiority makes for good fiction – do characters need to be complex, have “personal problems” so to speak, in order to come off as realistic enough for the reader to sympathize with? If not, then what is to keep characters from feeling like so many flat cartoons or caricatures as they do here?
Like many contemporary attempts to construct some small form of character drama/interiority, Miéville falls back on the old trope of sexual hangups. Many contemporary writers, particularly of the McSweeney’s school, believe that everyone is a modern-day Oedipus. Fortunately Miéville doesn’t go that far, but the only real interpersonal drama that his characters have to deal with is their sex lives. In Perdido Street Station two of the main protagonists have a cross-species relationship which, at most, makes them slightly uncomfortable. While issues of race could be a crucial problematic for a world in which numerous sapient species cohabitate, it is treated like window dressing and never becomes a significant plot twist in the narrative. Even more aggravating, this is inevitably resolved simply by removing one of the characters from the equation without this having a believable emotional effect or being resolved in a manner that forces the characters to confront themselves or their world in a deeper emotional manner (and this isn’t to even mention the big reveal that, even in this world, rape is a heinous crime, but it is one that you can still walk away from committing as if it never happened).
And this is really what irritated me about the novel. Whatever problems the characters may have, they are allowed to get away with without having to confront themselves, forcing the story back into a farcical and shallow adventure tale. This is most clearly illustrated through the issue of morality. Something that is fascinating about the world of Bas-Lag in which this story is set is that everyone, from protagonists to antagonists alike, is morally chaotic-neutral. No one really tries to do good, and certainly not because they believe it is the right thing to do. No one questions the morality of their actions, and when they do it is far too late for the reader to believe that the characters are actually displaying a conscience. I was aghast at the casualness with which the scientist-protagonist of the novel tortures animals for his experiments, too wrapped up in his work to even clean their cages or display a conscious regard for other life. However, later on, the characters moan endlessly about how immoral their actions are when they have to use a human in their experiments; but what can they do? It is all for the adventure. The human they torture dies and who really cares? He was just a bum, to be forgotten five pages from now.
The thing that Chandler understood about the noir genre that Miéville lacks, which should really be central to all narrative undertakings, is that actions have consequences, that what the characters do and how they feel/act toward the world effects them intimately. You can’t just get away with murder and rapine unchanged, or, if you do, then social structures have to break down at other points. But in the perditious world of Perdido Street Station there is no moral high ground, only hellish slums of half-hearted clockwork villainy, criminal acts repeated so often that they have become atrophied and commonplace, not the eternal damnation of a moral religious worldview from which the book draws its title but the yawning amorality of its absence. In New Crobuzon, no one cares if you scream....more
Mieville's The City and the City is a fascinating portrayal of the idea of doppled geographies - two cities that exist in the same physical space, butMieville's The City and the City is a fascinating portrayal of the idea of doppled geographies - two cities that exist in the same physical space, but whose inhabitants cannot (or must not) see or acknowledge each other - and the crime that threatens to collapse the boundaries between the cities and throw their whole world into breach.
As this is the first Mieville I've read, I can't comment on the fact mentioned by other reviewers that this novel draws on themes of urban interstitiality found in other of Mieville's works. I can say that the book draws heavily on a number of influences to great effect - the hard, humorous noir of Chandler and the surreal settings of Bruno Schulz (both mentioned in the author's introductory note). But even more significantly, this book felt like a dramatization of Borges's "Tlon, Uqbar, Tertius Orbus," even down to its use of artifacts bleeding between the cracks of one world and another.
On the whole, I was highly impressed by the writing style and the construction of a dual, urban world - Mieville is clearly a gifted and intelligent writer. However, the novel seemed far more invested in working out its philosophical implications than it did in telling a story with any sort of emotional or psychological depth - something that is pivotal to both Chandler and Schulz's works. Not that I think Mieville is incapable of this (and I hope reading more of his work will prove that he can), but this book is not about the people who live in the city and the city, but about the relationship between the two insensate urban environments, in which people just happen to live, like frail shadows struggling to unsee each other....more
Published in 1897, the same year as "Dracula," Richard Marsh's imperial gothic novel, "The Beetle," outsold Stoker's vampire tale for a quarter of a cPublished in 1897, the same year as "Dracula," Richard Marsh's imperial gothic novel, "The Beetle," outsold Stoker's vampire tale for a quarter of a century before, oddly, falling out of print.
Telling the story of a fantastic creature with hypnotic powers who stalks a British politician through fin de siècle London in revenge for defiling an Egyptian cult to Isis, this book not only presents a radically critical stance on the failures of late 19th century imperialism, but it does so with an action-packed, whip-smart panache sure to appeal to postmodern audiences. It reminded me favorably of the absurd humor of Bulgakov's "The Master and Margarita," while at the same time displaying that quintessential Victorian reticence to talk about anything out of the norm.
But out of the norm this book is, not only in its portrayals of monstrosity and mesmerism, but also in its fantastic representation of the human psyche confronted with what it can not explain. Like a Lovecraft story, much of the horror in "The Beetle" comes not from what is seen but what is suspected, what whirs behind the corner of the eye, what preys on the brain late at night. Here is rational explanation grasping at straws in the age when rationality ruled. Freud would have a fit, but it should appeal to modern skeptics and occultists alike, tired of the easy and unbelievable portrayals of magic in a post-Harry Potter literary world.
One similarly wonders what our cultural fascination with monsters would look like if, instead of vampires, The Beetle had stayed in print and sunk into our psyches. Though just as hypnotic, this is one night walker you wouldn't want to have cutesy teenage sex with, no, it will serve your Sookie Stackhouse's up as human sacrifice. It will break your handsome leading man into gibbering insane tears. And it will do so making you laugh out loud while simultaneously shivering on the edge of your seat....more
I was already familiar with a number of the world's mythologies before I first read Gaiman's Sandman comics as a kid, but the thing Gaiman managed toI was already familiar with a number of the world's mythologies before I first read Gaiman's Sandman comics as a kid, but the thing Gaiman managed to do was make the characters from myth living and real, still active forces at work in our contemporary skeptical world. In American Gods, he takes this to the next level, telling a story in which all the old gods are still real and now living in America, struggling against the new gods of media and infrastructure to stay relevant and alive. The notion that gods are kept alive and real through belief in them, even just in the casual stories told about them, is I think a rather vital point, with both literary and theological implications far beyond what Gaiman manages to hint at in the novel. On the whole this is a fantastic and necessary work, which moves with the exceptional pacing and detail readers if Gaiman have learned to expect and love (even the sudden twist of the ending makes sense, if you consider the role those gods have played in other Gaiman representations of them).
My biggest problem with the novel however is that the protagonist, essentially the reader's window into identification with and belief in the imaginary world, is entirely affectless, to the point of unemotionally going along with every absurd event, even his wife's return from the dead. This might be explained due to the protagonist having been a convict prior to events in the story, but the result is that it makes the events unbelievable, at least in terms of the real human reaction to supernatural occurrences. Actually, the gods are more believable than most of the human characters, which is an amusing angle to take, but doesn't I feel make for as compelling a literary case for the necessity of continued belief in American culture. Though as numerous characters point out through the book, America is not a good place for Gods (while refraining to really dig into actual native American mythologies or the influence of monotheistic gods on American cultural landscape that might disprove this point). ...more