I feel like a guest coming late to the feast. Eleven previous publications are listed in the front flyleaf of China Miéville’s latest publication, a slim novella bursting with hefty ideas.
I know I have gaps in my reading, and sometimes get on little hobbyhorses to get into new pastures. Saul Bellow – tick finally, Thomas Pynchon – one day, Ann Patchett – any day now, and so on. These are writers whose works I know I don’t know, but to co-opt the infamous speech by the US right-wing politician Donald Rumsfeld (which I never thought I would), for every known unknown in my literary world, there are an infinite number of unknown unknowns.
Like China Miéville, who has been hovering out there for me to discover. The world is very generous.
The connection is that we were counted in the census in late 2016. I did my form on-line, but Census officials also walked the streets with big yellow bags that also acted as anti-dog shields. I like to think each and every one of the officials on our streets was as dedicated as the census-taker who appears towards the end of this compelling novella.
Where are we, when are we? These questions oscillate as the world on the mountain opens up. This world is decidedly odd. I was not surprised to read that China Miéville is considered part of a genre called ‘New Weird.’ This might put some readers off, but for all the fantasy elements, the narrative reads as rich in detail and emotionally real.
The point of view is a master class in how to use it and then push the rules. A sophisticated and nuanced understanding allows a first person boy’s voice to shift to ‘he’ at times: the he that is I. As you probably would when narrating trauma in your life. The boy sees his father kill his mother and runs down the mountain in fright.
The writing itself is always sublime. It may take a bit to get your head around the articulated ambitions of bridges, but then we are back into the recognisable: ‘Dirt seemed so worked into him that the lines of his face are like writing’ (p. 30). The description of the bat fishing from the town’s bridge is mesmerising: securing still live insects – like cicadas – to a line at the end of a long pole, they fly up and the bats coming out at dusk go after them and are hooked. Which makes good eating for the street urchins who are the kindness at the heart of the book.
There is also a bottomless pit in a cave on the mountain that we may or may not get to the bottom of. The best kind of ending.
The image is of a China plate – very fine. Though I am sure the author is sick of china puns.