The AV Club Interviews China Miéville

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.

Perdido Street Station/The City & The City — China Miéville

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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 and the city

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.

White Teeth, Perdido Street Station, and Last Evenings on Earth

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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.

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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.

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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.