Monday, 21 November 2016

"This Census Taker" China Miéville

You can always tell a good book by the opening line. This, I  think has long been the case. Perfect examples would be John Wyndham's first few lines from "The Day of the Triffids" - When a day that you happen to know is Wednesday starts off by sounding like Sunday, there is something seriously wrong somewhere.”

Another would be George Orwell's sheer genius from "Nineteen Eighty-Four" - "It was a bright day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen."

There are, of course, many others.  I first read Wyndham's book when I was thirteen. That first line has remained with my ever since. Orwell's classic was the year later. Again, both line and novel have become fixed in my memory. 

My introduction to Miéville came from his introduction to an omnibus edition of Mervyn Peakes "Gormenghast." To my utter disbelief and shame, with hindsight it has to be said, I had not heard of the author up until that point. As I purchased the book only two years ago this surely defines me as a bit of a muttonhead?  I mean, the more people I asked the more said, 'He's brilliant. Haven't you read his work?'

As with Wyndham and Orwell (Twain and Dicken's have an equal claim) so Miéville's first line to this little masterpiece carries the same impact. "A boy ran down the hill screaming." You have to read on, you have to learn why the boy is screaming but the final paragraph doesn't tell you, it only makes you want to read more. "The boy was I. He held his hand up and out in front of him as if he'd dipped them in paint and was coming to make a picture, to press down to paper, but all there was on him was dirt. There was no blood on his palms."

Do you see what Miéville does here? Two things. He shifts from the first person to third which effectively sends a shock to the reader's system, sort of throwing them a wobbly, a trick by which we feel a little dislocated. Secondly, he states that there is no blood subtly suggesting there should be. That inference makes us ask why should there be? It emphasizes the need to read on. And we do.

Somewhere remote and secluded, somewhere lonely and isolated in somewhere familiar yet somehow not, somewhere otherworldly yet somehow strange, lives a boy who witnesses a dreadful, traumatic event. When he flees the place the nightmare took place, running as he does to the town below where his home lies, he is met with disbelief. Although some listen to the tale of horror he has to tell only a few believe him. And children are so often disbelieved aren't they even when what the say is the absolute truth.

Forgive me if I am about to teach you to suck eggs as it were, but I need to tell you about China Miéville. So even if you already know all there is to know, bear with me, be patient, be tolerant as the guy is new to me.

Born in Norwich but raised in Willesden, London with a name selected from a dictionary. It was 1972. A lot of exciting stuff was happening then. His father, who he didn't really know as his parents separated when he was young, is British whilst his mother, Claudia is American. Mieville has joint citizenship. Perhaps this cosmopolitan upbringing gave him his curious outlook?  Scratch that thought. Too silly for words.

The author's intention is to write material in every possible genre. From detective/thriller to Western to Romance yet have them all within the same body of work. I instantly identify with that as that has long been my intention with own 'Fekenham Tales.'

I am a big fan of J.R.R. Tolkien. China Miéville isn't. He has tried to shift the fantasy genre away from the Oxford Dons huge influence into areas fresh and new. If "This Census-Taker" is anything to go by then he has succeeded. Really, though, "This Census-Taker" is less fantasy fiction than it is damn fine fiction. For me, this book smudges smug labels. It could be Science Fiction equally as it could Fantasy. Apparently, China Mieville is often placed under the 'New Weird' category. Chew on that awhile if you will. 'New Weird?'

What I so enjoyed is the wilful way in which Miéville plays with the rules of literature. Not only does he shift, as I previously mentioned, from first to the third person, he also slides through time turning cartwheels with the narrative yet never spoiling the plot or relaxing the tension. It is much like watching new cinema as it splashes images from different time spans each one creating stronger definition so that the splintered effect coalesces into one holistic story.

Do yourself a favour and read this book.

Photograph courtesy The Guardian

Russell Cuts the Corn From The Brewers Whiskers.

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