A brand-new, fresh from the press Miéville, this time a novella. Don’t be mislead; it’s coming up to over 220 pages and at that page-count is nearly a full-fledged novel for other authors – but for Miéville it’s almost a short story ;).
The story is very simple. One is tempted to use the word “deceptively”, but it would not be true. It’s just plain simple, the bare story arc would fit no more than half a page. I would venture an opinion that it’s a form of literary experiment: to tell the story from a perspective of a traumatized insider who relives the events he witnessed as a boy. The perspective of a child is key to understanding this little work of Miéville. It colors the story; it gives the story its character, its peculiar form, its premeditated, not entirely intuitive imagery.
This Census-Taker is set in a post-apocalyptic world (the apocalypse is never stated or described openly; we get hints here and there that the world looked different before – a mention of wars, some long-forgotten remnants of an android, its face half-hidden in a pile of trash, the idea of census-takers, etc.), a world painfully constricted and fragmented, only half-aware of its previous might and the possibilities it entailed. In that world, high above a derelict town, in a dysfunctional family consisting of a cold, detached mother and deranged father, lives a boy. The world around him is strange, not only from the natural strangeness infusing the perspective of every young boy or girl, but also from a weirdness inherent in the reality itself: the boy’s father makes keys that are supposed to fulfill the wishes of their owners, strange creatures walk unseen, or half-glimpsed from far away, there are safe and unsafe ways to travel down the rocky hill. Orphaned kids live in the shacks and ruins littering a bridge spanning two hills. The police comes into town every few months to check up on the inhabitants, but apart from them the town governs itself in a chaotic, ineffectual way. There are almost no travelers, except for some merchants, few and far between. There are ruins, the electricity is scarce. Things that are natural for a grown-up seem strange to a child; things not fitting even a broadly defined social norm, deviations obvious to a mature person, seem normal to a child who didn’t yet have the chance to see or experience anything else. That’s the only reality the child knows; that’s the fundamental axiom on which his or her world is built. The idea is nothing new, but Miéville’s execution of it is quite nice.
That’s the worldbuilding of This Census-Taker, executed, as usual for Miéville, with panache and a penchant for uncanny. But what about the plot? There’s a murder; there are attempts of escape; shots; investigation; help from a band of orphaned children; there’s even the long-awaited, albeit very crooked form of justice. But all that action is on the back burner, there to serve only as an engine laboriously pushing the story forward. Even so, the story almost doesn’t move, despite the action, despite the anguish of the narrator, despite the mystery woven tightly around the whole world and the narrator’s new place in it. Accustomed to the usual structure of short stories and novellas, I was looking for a conclusion. It never came. The story might have been written to show the internal evolution of the narrator, but I doubt it. Miéville is a very proficient writer, sloppiness is not his style. If the narrator doesn’t evolve, as in This Census-Taker, it’s because the author didn’t plan him to evolve. If the whole story, the bracketing of the narrative and the telling itself, are set in the same, unchanging tone it’s because they were designed this way. Even so, knowing it doesn’t make the reading experience any better.
I suspect that This Census-Taker started off as an exercise, a dare Miéville set to himself: to write something different, to attempt a change of perspective, to create a world unfinished, mysterious and obvious at the same time. His prose is, as usual, precise and poetic, the words pliable and submitting to the author’s will without apparent effort on his part. But the story itself was a major letdown for me. I expected more; I expected change and evolution and growth; I waited for at least a few loose ends to be tied – and that’s an expectation I have for any novella or short story, not just for Miéville’s work. But in the end I’m quite fine with the questions being unanswered. What really bothered me was the lack of the impact; the fact that, at least for me, the story ultimately failed to deliver. Storytelling has to be engaging, it can be elating or harrowing, or both, but it has to be moving – that’s the prerequisite, the essential condition. The beautiful, fluid prose is a value added, one I cherish deeply, but without a story to tell it all boils down to a lot of empty words.
P.S. I’ve read some reviews where the authors are wondering about the title – the usage of “This” instead of “The”. Not sure how much my guess is worth here, I not being a native speaker and all, but my intuition is that it refers to the narrator himself, as in an old polite form of presentation of oneself.