A brief deviation from the award nominee schedule into a novella I had faith would be amazing (and could borrow from boyfriend without having to buy it myself…). I’m at the point now where I’m just going to start anything by Miéville and be confident I’ll like it, which is quite comforting. It means I can pick a book up when I know I want something good and have a fair deal of certainty that it’ll live up to that. Shockingly, this book hasn’t dispelled that notion.
What it has done, though, is go against one of my other Miéville certainties (or what I thought certainties) – that for all that each of his books are very, very different from one another, he always sounds like himself. In this, he really rather didn’t. So many of the features I often comment on are there and exactly the same, but the authorial voice is somehow changed. It’s not better or worse… just different. It’s rather peculiar. But I suppose that may have been deliberate, since it’s rather apt for the very peculiar indeed nature of the book.
The Last Days of New Paris is… well… it’s about Nazi occupied Paris filled with surrealist monsters, and demons from hell. And it is precisely that weird. We follow a resistance fighter – not exactly chronologically – through a brief episode of his life within the quarantined and suffering city. The Nazis and Parisians are trapped in there together with the monsters, and fighting them and each other while trying to learn how to control them. It’s a fascinating and confusing setting… which is what Miéville does best, really.
The book is absolutely laden down with its surrealist inspiration though, to the point where I really felt my ignorance about the subject. I’m sure much of the monsters and images described are meant to be famous paints and sketches, and much of the literature quoted likewise well-known… but I know naff all about surrealism, really. I recognised the odd name of artist or author, scattered amongst five or six I’d never seen before. But for all that I think I’d have enjoyed the book more had I had that additional context, I don’t think it really suffered for me not. If anything, the ignorance embellished the weirdness of the landscape of a war-torn city, so I got more of the atmosphere and emotional impact, even as I lost out on seeing the clever links of what Miéville has done by invoking this or that artist. It’s a skillful little thing, but it means that whichever bit of the audience he gets, Miéville has them appreciating it on one level, even if they’re not quite there on the other. It’s neat, and I am fairly certain it’s something he’s done deliberately, rather than lucking out on.
Much like This Census Taker, this is a book about atmosphere – where you’re caught up in his use of language and visualisations, where you really feel like you’re seeing the world he’s creating, rather than one driven by a plot, pushing your forward. It has one more than This Census Taker, sure – and is a longer book, though still piddly at under 200 pages – but it’s one for sitting and admiring, not desperately turning the page to see what happens next. You wallow in it, picking over each thing he’s done with the view.
Which is probably a good thing, because he’s still Miéville and still isn’t writing characters I care much for.
There’s a sense of detachment to the book – as there is to many of his, but more so – that pushes you more to that appreciation of the atmosphere, but does so at the expense of the people you’re following on the way. You need dialogue and focus to really make characters feel real, I think, and neither Thibaut nor Sam, the two we spend most time with, have either of these. But I can visualise them very clearly indeed. It is something of his I have noted before, and it’s not something I really like, but knowing that it exists, it’s a trade off I’m willing to make for the quality of his prose.
Which I think may be the thing that really differentiates this from much of his other work. In Kraken particularly, Miéville lays it on heavy with beautiful wording. You have to pay attention to his writing because it’s so prominent. It never sits back to let you get on with the plot, because if anything, it’s as much a point as the plot is. He uses how he writes, right down to the smallest level, to create the world, as much as the higher level descriptive stuff. You feel like he’s chosen each word specifically, and thought about it and how it interacts with the whole sentence. There’s a care and focus and artistry to it that is very particularly Miéville… but it’s not there here. I’m not saying the prose is bad (it isn’t), or that it’s dull. If any other author had written this, I’d be saying the prose was lovely. But it’s a vastly pared down version of what Miéville normally does, and so that’s really rather noticeable. And I can’t quite decide why he’s done it this way. If anything, I’d have thought the madness of surrealist war-Paris would merit as much heavy-laden description as Kraken would and did. But it evidently doesn’t. It was odd, and strangely noticeable when I started reading… but ultimately, Miéville is still a great author, and it is at no point bad. I’m just not used to his wording being… simple.
Not many authors could get away with a book so heavily reliant on Nazis as one of the antagonists, and I think, more than anything else in the book, this is the greatest testament to Miéville’s skill as an author. You have a recognisable surrealist image fighting Nazis… and however intellectually you know it to be ridiculous, in the moment and emotionally… it works. It’s serious. It’s not laughable.
I mean, minor spoilers – Mengele turns up. You’ve got to be pretty damn good to manage that, especially in such a small work.
Basically, it’s somehow very Miéville and very not, and thoroughly enjoyable and thoroughly weird. As anyone who’d read him before would be completely unshocked to discover. It’s not my favourite of his, for sure, but it’s still a brilliant little thing, and a length and conceit that really work. The afterword is very important, too, and vastly changes how you look back at what you’ve just read… if anything changing the whole context of the book… which is another thing I think is rather hard to manage well. It’s a good book, showing off the author I know Miéville to be by now. Four stars on Goodreads, and a wonderful interlude after the previous book’s trash.