In Which You Can Count On China Miéville To Split

Bridge Work


This Census-Taker
by China Miéville
Pan McMillan, 190pp

The last pieces of writing we have received from the scrutable, inscrutable novelist China Miéville have appeared in December and January, respectively. Both emanate from a worldview that is distinctive and finite. “You are trapped in here with us,” reads one of the mottoes of the journal Salvage Miéville founded with Verso Books editor Rosie Warren, and we know this is true for so many reasons.

In his essay in those pages, “On Social Sadism”, Miéville manages to go on about the cruelty of the United States for thousands of words without ever mentioning Christianity, which I have to say is impressive. To say religion does not feature prominently as a theme in Mr. Miéville’s work would be the understatement of the millennium.

In his debut novel, King Rat , Miéville did touch on the idea of gods, plural. It is his way of criticizing monotheism, that each being may have his own silly path of worship. The new King Rat might turn into a small god at the end of his story; instead he abdicates the throne and establishes a republic. Democracy is very much to Miéville’s liking, he is a socialist dedicated to the virtues of self-interest. (Ironically, this has never been a particularly inaccurate description of a Christian.)

What is apparent in both “On Social Sadism” and his novels is a love of poor and distressed individuals that is quite shaming for any Western reader. Like his spiritual predecessor, the young adult novelist Michael de Larrabeiti, Miéville takes great pains to find heroes among the homeless, the indigent, the malingering elements of any society. Even more so than de Larrabeiti, who forced himself to be somewhat evenhanded about the most degrading aspects of poverty in his devastatingly sincere Borrible Trilogy, Miéville is a champion of those who he believes have no ability to speak for themselves.

Miéville has taken great care to ostensibly separate his politics from his novels. His best book, the alien saga Embassytown, was mostly focused around how class power proceeds through linguistic expression. Language has always been one of Miéville’s many fortes, and his latest effort, This Census-Taker, wrapped tightly around the smallest of conceits, shows just how far he has come as a prose stylist. I imagine it is difficult for Miéville to look back at the languorous sentences of Perdido Street Station and his dreary polemical novel Iron Council given how his efforts have continued to evolve.

The difference between that Miéville and the one we have now is the different between a lengthy, overlong fireworks display and an atom bomb. This Census-Taker is classified as a novella, but it is really no less a novel than his longest book, the brilliant feminist steampunk novel The Scar that stands as his most tolerable early work.

Mieville dislikes the path that recent literary fantasy has taken. This Census-Taker might nominally be described as the author’s Kafka book, but it veers away from those tropes with just as much precision as it embraces others. A boy lives in the uphill with his parents — below their small house is a town that provides their food and other necessities. One night the boy sees his father striking out to kill his mother. He is sure she is dead, so he runs down the hill, and the first thing he can think of to say is, “My mother killed my father.”

It isn’t true, but nobody believes him anyway, not even when he tells the events of his life as honestly as he can. In This Census-Taker, Miéville tells us that we can keep three books in life. The first is our everyday book — the words and numbers we require to live. The second book to which we are entitled is our own story, as truthfully as we can tell it, for the largest possible audience. The third book contains our secrets and should never be read by anyone.

It so emerges that we are reading a prologue to the second book of the author. It is interesting to hear Miéville talk about how much he dislikes torture and sadism in his political writing, since most of his characters are not exactly beacons of empathy. He gives us his most sensitive moments as glimpses of the world as seen by his supporting characters, who are generally weaker in comparison to his narrators. You can sense he has an affection for the sad cases, but that is not the same as considering himself as one of them or even empathizing with them. We are never so much in the shoes of the powerless in Miéville as hearing the footfalls.

There is a bizarre scene in the smash novel that established Miéville’s reputation worldwide, Perdido Street Station, that I always think of when I read Mr. Miéville’s political writing. A bird/man character by the name of Yagharek has had his wings cut off because of a criminal offense in his native country. He comes to the city of New Crobuzon in order to have new wings fashioned for him by a scientist named Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin, or else another solution for his problem that would allow him to fly. The nature of Yagharek’s offense is not made clear, so we feel the utmost sympathy for his plight. Reading Perdido Street Station is basically just an exercise in wishing good things for Yagharek — the main plot is nothing special, it is more about getting those wings.

At the very end of the novel, we find out that the reason Yagharek had his wings cut off was because he raped a woman. All sympathy vanishes for the birdman, and no one wants to help him anymore. But we spent like 800 pages wanting something desperately, until we didn’t.

If you have ever met someone with very strong political convictions, you know what am I hurtling towards here. Miéville might meet the kindest half-bird, half-man creature in all the world, but if he has any cruelty in him at all, he’s a piece of shit that can die. This is a somewhat incongruous state of affairs, since cruelty begat cruelty in this circumstance. Miéville’s catalogue of sadism in Salvage does not so much explain the reasons for it, like more faithful Marxists seem obliged to, but amounts to a list of pithy complaints, as if no one else in the world were aware of what an asshole is.

Well, if you have read any Christian texts at all, you know what delineates an asshole. He is defined by the Bible as someone who does not follow the word and mission of Jesus Christ. But Christianity doesn’t tell us such nonbelievers are sadist Americans speckled by their love of money or some such thing. It informs us they are lost, and can be brought into the light!

Positioned this way, I have to admit that faith in God sounds like a much better bargain than anything Miéville offers, since believing the world is full of monsters is about as ridiculous as saying it is full of saints. There’s just people. But that is not the entire story, since the West seems to be losing its faith anyway. Say what you want about whatever peripheral evils God seems to have inspired, I shudder when I think of what might replace Him.

Maybe something great? Miéville offers no hope or credibility to the concept of revolution, which has always ended with disaster in his fiction. In This Census-Taker, the question of how to affect change is taken up scrupulously, and the answer Miéville emerges with is not all that satisfying. Revolution, in this neo-Marxist view, is kind of like a false hope built into the system for its own protection.

Then again, sometimes you want to stop thinking about the horrors of late capitalism and start being absorbed by the detailed world Miéville weaves for us. This Census-Taker offers a bevy of hints and shadows of its complicated setting. Unravelling these clues makes what might otherwise be a long short-story into a much deeper work, one of Miéville’s very best. His more Lovecraftian adventures were very creative, but his writing is so much improved as a testimony of various individuals who saw things they can’t necessarily explain. His oeuvre as a whole provides definitive proof that the first person narrator is wholly superior to the third.

Miéville no longer feels such a need to describe how things are, an easy temptation for young novelists. In middle age we sicken of that introductory material, and seek the only way it can realistically be altered: by the changeable minds and perspective of the people who live in it. China’s political writing has undergone a similar evolution: optimism or novelty has been wrung out of it, and Miéville retreats into himself.

The narrator of This Census-Taker is somewhat confused as to whether he might actually be his father, the last in a fading race of men. He is unsure in himself and appeals to something larger than his little bubble:

The dream of a bridge is a woman standing on one side of a gorge and stepping out as if her job is to die, but when her foot falls it meets the ground right on the other side. A bridge is just better than no bridge but its horizon is gaplessness, and the facts of itself should still shame it. But someone had built on this bridge, drawn attention to its matter and failure. An arrogance that thrilled me.

That interiority constitutes an appeal to God, only this deity talks and sounds a lot like the author. I can think of worse omnipotence. China Miéville has become a great deal more of a pragmatist than his fellows, and for this reason faith has never appealed to him. Unlike the character of Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin, he does not care what crime Yagharek committed. A man needs wings.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.

“Mercy” – Saint Saviour (mp3)

“Tightrope” – Saint Saviour (mp3)

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