This Census Taker – China Miéville

51RF3XUXlBL._SX340_BO1,204,203,200_It’s like China Miéville got distilled into one tiny, 140 page, concentrated form. It’s a stunningly beautiful little piece of writing – you really feel the trees and the damp and the cold and the fear – and at the same time utterly bewildering and completely alien. It’s not really like anything else.

What strikes me most, I think, is all the things I definitely saw Miéville doing along the way – the slips between tenses and pronouns, are we in first person now, or second or third, or all of them in one sentence – but somehow didn’t think about them. They were there, and real and made an impact on the story, it’s not like they slipped past me, but somehow they weren’t something I needed to think about right in the moment of reading, because the sense and feel of the story were too important to get distracted by the details that made it what it was. Perception in the story shifts wildly – between different versions of the narrator, from the narrator to the reader (or rather the Reader) – and in anyone else’s writing it would probably be confusing and distracting, but here all it does is contribute to that sense of atmosphere, to a baffling world as seen through the eyes of a small child. He’s done a wonderful job of situating an alien adult world into the mind of a child, so that not only do we grasp that the world is alien and magic, but also can still grasp how the child is misunderstanding the normal as a child does, grasping for the familiar, even when those two are tangled up together.

The other thing he does here, and which I think is very much a distillation of his other work, is he takes the coldness, the emptiness his characters often have, and he turns it up to 11. He clearly knows it’s there and he’s doing it, and has decided to own it and make it part of what the story is. And it is. The coldness of everyone very much contributes to the feeling of the world he’s managed to clearly build in just 140 pages. Where I’ve complained about this in other works of his, here, I think it’s perfect. It wouldn’t have been the same story without it.

The story… I don’t think I can give you a blurb that does it justice. It’s about a child, and what they have seen, and them trying to pass that experience on to the world, at different times and in different ways, to different people, some of whom are himself. I don’t know that we’re meant to trust the events of the book – the narrator manages to cast himself as unrealiable quite quickly, in some senses – but the events are not what the book is about. It’s about feeling, about atmosphere, and about different ways of seeing.

And in that way, it has a very dreamlike quality. Not in that it’s fuzzy and ill-defined, since it defines itself quite precisely in some ways (if not in others). But in that, while you’re reading it makes… if not perfect sense, then some sort of intuitive, fundamental rightness. While you’re in the dream, the dream is real, no matter how outlandish it is. And so here, while you’re reading, the vacillations of person and perception make total sense, they come as naturally as they would if you were reading one coherent and authoritative narrative voice. You slip between times without a hitch, and know you are still with the same narrator, and that they are older, barely needing to be told. You get very few names, of people or places. Very little to cling onto rationally. Miéville skips right past your brain, leaving you with just the sense of definiteness that you know what’s going on, even when you really don’t, and won’t. And it’s only when you put the book down that you realise how odd it was.

There are very few authors who can do this sort of thing, and Miéville has pulled it off beautifully. It’s the sort of book to give you shivers. Boyfriend*, who lent it to me, described it as “atmospheric”, and I think he’s absolutely right. Not that the story doesn’t matter, of course. But the story serves that atmosphere, and it’s that atmosphere, that feeling, that I’m finding myself caring about. And when I look back on this book in five months, it’s that atmosphere that I’ll remember. And I’m very much ok with that, because it was absolutely beautiful.

*Previously referred to as flatmate, because it’s no fun if I don’t get to be inconsistent and confusing.

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About readerofelse

A student of a redundant, useless and thoroughly interesting subject and reader of many books, particularly fantasy, science fiction and plenty else besides.
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