Today’s New York Times profiles one our favorite bizarros, China Miéville. Read the article here. Topics include embarrassing apocalypses, Star Trek, and his new book Kraken. From the article:
Mr. Miéville says what attracts him to the genre, as a reader and a writer, is the importance of the imagination — “that sense of the world blown apart, that sense of a crack in reality, that visionary sense, that ecstatic sense,” as he described it.
“At a certain stage some people end up not trusting their own imagination,” Mr. Miéville said. “You get this kind of baleful set of voices in your head that tell you, ‘That’s silly; you’re being silly.’
“But I think most people have more ideas in their heads than they think they do. It’s just that those of us in the fantastic fields — either we don’t listen to our own filters, or we have a much higher ridiculousness threshold.”
The AV Club interviews author China Miéville about his new book, Kraken. From the interview:
Kraken is a very undisciplined book. That’s a gamble. If it doesn’t come off, it’s disastrous. But there are pleasures, I think, to a meandering lack of discipline that you can’t get the other way, and vice versa. You gain something and you lose something. My second book, Perdido Street Station, was the one that a lot of people really, really liked, and it was tremendously sort of rumbustious and ill-disciplined. I feel like I’ve been getting increasingly disciplined since then, and some readers seem to miss that kind of amiable chaos. What I wanted to do with Kraken is tap into what you’ve kindly called an eruption. I wanted to indulge that. It does have a very different feel than The City & The City. It obviously won’t work for everyone, but I always think about books like—and I don’t mean this hubristically—Gravity’s Rainbow. If Gravity’s Rainbow is anything, it’s kind of this dreamlike meander. The idea of saying to Pynchon, “You know, you need to tighten this up,” it would destroy it. Kraken was an effort to tap into that same kind of pleasurable ramble. In some ways, Kraken is more like Perdido, whereas The City & The City was a departure. It’s the kind of thing I’d like to do a lot more of. In some ways, this was getting back to what I was better known for.
One of Biblioklept’s favorite weirdos, China Miéville takes on a perceived overabundance of apocalypse movies in his article “The End, The End, The End, Etcetera” published in McSweeney’s #33, aka The Panaroma, aka the giant-assed newspaper issue (here’s a quick review: Jeesy Creezy the thing is massive. It’s like a bizarre aesthetic tchtochke that just happens to be overstuffed with all kinds of great writers writing on all kinds of great stuff. I’ve been trying to digest it on Sundays after breakfast with a few coffees but it’s too big. It’s really too much, and it’s also the sort of document that should tell McSweeney’s-haters to fuck off, or at least reveal them as kinda mean-spirited. It’s like a strange, thorough dream, where Stephen King writes your sports section and William Vollman does in-depth national reporting and Chris Ware handles the comics page. Hang on–that’s probably not a legit review. Anyway).
So Miéville basically tells Hollywood to give it a rest with all the apocalypse movies, saying that it’s not that he doesn’t love them, it’s just that there’s such a surplus as of late. “Hollywood has studied at porn’s knee,” he writes, arguing that end-of-the-world flicks like Armegeddon, The Day After Tomorrow, 2012, Wall-E, 9, The Book of Eli and Deep Impact are “sexual fantasies . . . These apocalyptes are clearly scratching various itches.” Miéville dubs the trend in disaster flicks “bukkakalypse,” arguing that these films are “obsessed not only with the world-drenching spurt itself, but with the Face of the Earth wet with its effects, stoically putting up with the soaking.” Charming. +100 internets to any soul daring enough to google “bukkakalypse.”
Miéville focuses the thrust of his article on John Hillcoat’s film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road. His shorthand review kinda sorta captures my own ambivalence about the film: “Is The Road a good film? Sure. Maybe. Whatever. It depends on what you mean by ‘good.'” Miéville suggests that, “For all its portent, The Road displays a preemptive nostalgia perhaps even more pronounced than in its pulpier cousins.” Citing the father and the boy’s use of a consumerist emblem, the shopping cart, to move on and “carry the fire,” Miéville goes on to argue that,
The film, then, is structured around a punning triptych. There’s that good, lost consumption early on [the loss of a consumerist world]. Then, in the absence of commodity, there’s the terrible, Hobbesian predatory consumption of cannibalism, relentlessly stressed as an ultimate evil, rather than the relatively everyday sordidness it would almost certainly become. And refuse to eat each other? What then? Then the final iteration of the term. The father at last doubles up, coughing bronchially, and hawks up blood. In that shopless nightmare, what else is afflicting him but consumption.
Puns! Okay. As a committed Marxist or materialist (or whatever he is), of course Miéville’s gonna read The Road as an allegory of apocalypse as loss of consumerist possibility (he reads the whole Coca-Cola-drinking episode as a version of lost sacrament). Fair analysis, I guess–not one I particularly buy, but without getting into a whole ball of wax over the intentional fallacy and whatnot, I think that Miéville’s criticism that the film (and book) doesn’t recognize the Darwinian endgame of “Hobbesian predatory consumption” as “the relatively everyday sordidness it would almost certainly become” kinda sorta misses the whole point of the narrative. In my own review of the book, I argued that McCarthy’s refusal to give into the infanticide that the novel’s schema overwhelmingly predicated was hard to swallow (“cop out,” I believe, was my term), but it also seems to me that the moral impetus of the novel involves a refusal of cannibalism, an idea that to survive as a human is more than just to survive as a body. But back to film.
I didn’t particularly care for Hillcoat’s version of The Road, even though I wanted to, even though the actors were great, even though it looked great, etc. I don’t know what I didn’t like about it (okay, I thought Nick Cave’s score was both awful and intrusive, but that seems minor here). It just seemed thoroughly unnecessary and ultimately unfun. Miéville again, this time on an end-of-the-world film I can’t help but love:
The “hope” at the end of Mad Max: Beyond the Thunderdome is that the lost tribes have managed to turn on a few lights in Sydney. Such hankering for drab normality doesn’t have to be particularly convincing to do its rhetorical job. Just as well, really, because seriously? After all the splendidly coiffed and colorful shenanigans of Tina Turner’s Bartertown, is living in a partially revived Bondi really an improvement? Couldn’t we take everything in a different direction altogether? Do something new? The aspirational Good Futures of these Bad Futures are always their pasts–our present.
Although Miéville gives The Road the credit it deserves for being one of the rare apocalypse flicks that “evades this pre-post-facto nostalgia,” he also reiterates my own criticism: it’s just not that fun. And the end of the world should be fun. Miéville doesn’t mention films like Zombieland, a forgettable but enjoyable farce that posits apocalypse as freewheelin’ opportunity, or the self-aware (but not too-self-aware) pastiche Doomsday, a film that fuses every hoary apocalypse trope into 90 minutes of escapist, ass-kicking, thoroughly nonsensical fun. Neither film aspires to great art (unlike Hillcoat’s take on The Road), nor do these films aim for the catharsis-via-annihilation of blockbuster fare like Armegeddon. They’re just good fun, which is all I really want from the end of the world.
Despite being a bit too long, I enjoyed listening to Random House’s new audiobook recording of China Miéville‘s second novel, Perdido Street Station, read by John Lee. Perdido Street Station is Miéville’s first novel set in the steampunk world of Bas-Lag, a strange world populated by plenty of bizarre races and even more bizarre “Remades,” persons who have been forced (or in some instances have chosen) to restructure their biological makeup to perform (very) specific jobs. This sci-fi adventure story centers around protagonist Isaac Van der Grimnebulin, an overweight renegade scientist trying to perfect a new technology he calls “crisis energy.” Isaac is trying to help a Garuda named Yagherak who, as a form of punishment, has had his marvelous wings cut off. To this end, Isaac experiments with a strange caterpillar that feeds off of an hallucinogenic drug called “dreamshit.” Unfortunately, the caterpillar turns into a giant dream-feeding, brainsucking moth that, along with its relatives, terrorizes the city at night. Isaac tries to stop the moths and save his girlfriend, an artist with a bug’s head. Lots of picaresque adventuring ensues.
Miéville’s Bas-Lag world is finely detailed and richly imagined, and will no doubt appeal to anyone who digs H.P. Lovecraft or William Gibson. Miéville certainly has a handle on both of his many concepts (artificial intelligence, the nature of bodies, difference and (literal) alienation), and his story unfolds with the thrilling clip one expects from pulp fiction. Still, the book felt overwritten to me. Miéville never settles on just one adjective if two (or three) come to mind, and he’s in love with adverbs (oh the adverbs in this book! Is there a sentence without one?). And while exposition of a sort is certainly necessary in a novel about such a profoundly strange world, I think that Miéville would get a bigger payoff if he trusted his reader a bit more. Perdido Street Station feels rhetorically claustrophobic, as if Miéville is afraid to let his reader imagine even a little of Bas-Leg for him or herself. It’s a bit selfish, really. On the whole though, a great read (or listen, in this case), and it intrigued us enough to go straight into Miéville’s latest book, The City & The City (also newly released this summer from Random house, also read by John Lee).
The City & The City combines noir detective fiction with one of science fiction’s greatest gambits, namely, positing something utterly implausible, unimaginable, and then making it ordinary. In The City & The City, two cities, Beszel and Ul Qoma, occupy the exact same geographic space, yet their citizens are trained from birth to “unsee” and “unhear” all aspects of the other city. Inspector Tyador Borlu is drawn into the mysterious death of a beautiful young woman (is there an older trope? Edgar Allan Poe even wrote an essay on why and how you should use beautiful yong dead girls in your literature). His investigation leads him into crossing the border between the cities, an impossible border, of course, and yet the genius of the book here is that, through Borlu’s narration, the reader doesn’t experience this bordercrossing (and its attendant “unseeing”) as satirical or even ridiculous; rather, we witness the uncanny alienation of double consciousness. Miéville, a Marxist, is working in part from some of Althusser‘s ideas, and he’s not afraid to namedrop Foucault or Žižek. Thankfully, however, Miéville not only knows his theorists, he knows enough not to let theory get in the way of a Chandleresque murder mystery that explores themes of surveillance, alterity, and what it means to see someone seeing you seeing them seeing you (seeing them seeing you . . .). Great stuff.
And so well with the help of Jenny Sterlin’s narration and my handy-dandy portable mp3-playing device, I finally made it through Zadie Smith‘s 2000 novel White Teeth, and, having digested all of it, am now fit to declare it hilarious in places, larded with moments of intensely brilliant prose, wildly ambitious, and ultimately hollow, overstuffed with flat characters who, despite Smith’s best efforts, do not manage to earn the Big Important Climax she shoves them toward. Smith succeeds in communicating the multicultural problematics of late-twentieth-century London, but her massive scope (the audiobook is 23 hours and my unfinished paperback runs to nearly 500 pages) is just too massive. Smith seems to think that loads of concrete detail will automatically conjure emotional force, but what we get instead verges on soap opera at times–more bathos than pathos.It doesn’t help reader expectations of course that White Teeth was wildly overpraised after its debut. While White Teeth‘s attempt to reconcile the personal traumas of a postcolonial world with the demands of family, tradition, and personal worth is admirable, its aim exceeds its grasp, and the end disappoints. Still, I enjoyed it as an audiobook–Jenny Sterlin mugs enthusiastically through the various accents and argots of a melting pot London, and Smith’s concrete emphasis on detail makes it an ideal listen for a few summer afternoons of gardening or housework. Not the Great Book we’ve been told it is, but a fine listen nonetheless.
Summer is, of course, a great time for audiobooks, and I’m thrilled that China Miéville‘s breakthrough second novel Perdido Street Station is finally available on mp3. I’ve been wanting to read Miéville for quite some time now, but the length of his dystopian tomes has made it difficult until now (I am a very busy, important man, with busy, important things to do). Perdido Street Station, set in a bizarre, gross world of humans, Re-mades, and other sundry races, is weird fiction at its finest (so far)–a great hybrid of Charles Dickens and PK Dick, HP Lovecraft and JG Ballard. It trawls the line between real and surreal, art and science, grime and enlightenment, in lovely, if dense prose, that could never be mistaken as genre fiction. Great stuff, so far.
Also great stuff, so far, is Roberto Bolaño‘s collection of short stories, Last Evenings on Earth. I read the first three tales in succession last night, unable to put the book down although it was well-past my well-established “you must go to bed now or your toddler daughter will wreak havoc on you in the AM” bedtime. The first three stories are about, get this, (big surprise if you’ve read Bolaño), writers–good, bad, indifferent writers, failed, semi-failed, miserable writers. Sad writers, mad writers. The opener “Sensini” tells the story of an epistolary relationship between a young writer and an aging, uncelebrated writer. It’s sad yet measured in its pathos, and it earns its happy ending by loading that ending with the seed of potential disaster. The next story, “Henri Simon Leprince,” is the hilarious (and sad) tale of a miserable writer, a hack who teams up with the Resistance in WWII France. Despite his best intentions, he’s roundly despised by all those he helps. And he’s a terrible writer. The third story, “Enrique Martín,” literally made me laugh out loud, several times, to the point of tears. Narrated by Arturo Belano, Bolaño’s literary stand-in, it tells the desperate story of the titular failed poet, a would-be artist and sometime UFO hunter who slowly watches his dreams disintegrate.
All of Bolaño’s stories so far have extended past the mad force of his own strong voice(s) and implanted themselves into my mind, reaching into my own past; his characters, in hashing out their strange young lives (from a bit of distance, now) repeatedly evoked my own youthful memories, stuff I hadn’t thought about in years. There’s a sad brilliance under all of Bolaño’s stuff, like bright noon sun perceived through an ambiguous tear resting on your eye. Reading the beginning of Last Evenings on Earth last night, it occurred to me for the first time that Bolaño had died, and he’d died really young, and there weren’t going to be anymore books from him. But that’s a bummer note to end on. Let’s leave it at this–Last Evenings on Earth is some seriously great stuff.