“In the right context you can make words do all kinds of things.”
July 25, 2017 10:12 AM   Subscribe

The Last Days of New Paris is China Miéville’s novella about a surrealist Paris magically overlapping with our realist Paris.
At the back of the book, Miéville offers endnote citations of the surrealist art that inspired his writing. I corralled all the art in this post.
posted by adamvasco (26 comments total) 52 users marked this as a favorite
I liked this novella quite a lot! It really does all the things - the writing is dramatically improved over some of his early work, the characterization is sufficient (he's not really a "character" writer), the women characters are plausibly written, the setting is truly innovative and the magic genuinely eerie and modern.

Mieville always gives me the impression of being - and I mean this in a nice way - a kind of mechanical writer. Like, you take his Bas-Lag books, and they are full of all this pyrotechnic brilliance of invention, but the writing and the characterization leave something to be desired. And you see him, block by block, improve his prose and characterization, particularly his characterization of women. It's almost like each book has a set of ideological/prose goals - in Railsea and UnLunDun, he's trying his hand at YA, and obviously has a set of goals about writing gender and race. And each of his books has a marxist "lesson" which can be summed up in a sentence or so - they're all super moralistic. It's weird, he's like a less smug Cory Doctorow in this respect, probably because he's a marxist and not a technocrat*.

Possibly because I know a couple of people who have met him and possibly because he's so obviously coming from a very familiar left milieu, I've always felt that he's basically our guy in a way that I don't feel about too many other writers.

*I can't help it, the way CD writes female characters just fucking frosts me. Bellis Coldwine is a bit hit and miss, and the protagonist of UnLunDun may be a bit unspecific, but they're not "a lesson in character formation for the daughters of the professional classes" like CD's characters are.
posted by Frowner at 10:47 AM on July 25, 2017 [14 favorites]

I wish there was more about La Main à Plume in the English language. The dictionary of Surrealism has a brief description and wiki has a bit more in french which can be translated into English if you are using Chrome by right clicking on the article and selecting.
posted by adamvasco at 11:12 AM on July 25, 2017

Perhaps you would enjoy a slightly snippy, theory-heavy review. I thought it was pretty interesting.
posted by Frowner at 11:49 AM on July 25, 2017 [4 favorites]

Frowner, I've felt that he is trying his hand at every genre. Perdito Street Station is steampunk, The Scar is naval, Iron Council is a western, The City & the City is crime/noir, Un Lun Dun is a portal fantasy/YA, Railsea is a boy's adventure story/YA, Kraken is urban fantasy, Embassytown is aliens in science fiction and Last Days of New Paris is magical realism (this one is a bit of a stretch, I'll admit). I've bounced off This Census Taker a couple of times, so I can't characterize it.

I'm really glad to hear that he is one of us, his writing, no matter how abstruse has always made me feel that way.
posted by Hactar at 11:56 AM on July 25, 2017 [1 favorite]

I'm nearly finished with New Paris and have been enjoying it, certainly a lot more than his previous book.

Fans may be interested to know that the BBC commissioned a short serialisation of The City & the City back in 2015, while the link suggests a 2018, its on the BBC trail of upcoming drama for 2017. Seems to be featuring David Morrissey.
posted by biffa at 12:07 PM on July 25, 2017 [2 favorites]

The only thing I've really enjoyed of his is the 'Dial H' comic, mostly because of Open Window Man. His other stuff is somehow simultaneously too complicated and divorced from reality to get immersed in and also too simplistic in its analogies for political ideas. Almost every page has me groaning at obvious literary metaphors for modern politics while at the same time scratching my head at how the world he's created actually works. It's like he's in the room grabbing me by the shoulders, shouting "IT'S LIKE ISRAEL/PALESTINE! GET IT!? GET IT!?" "THE TRAIN IS A METAPHOR FOR A SOCIALIST REVOLUTION THAT NEVER COMES! GET IT!?"
posted by runcibleshaw at 12:42 PM on July 25, 2017 [3 favorites]

No, the train is a metaphor for a socialist revolution which is always imminent, at least until it actually is able to unfreeze and arrive. But certainly IMO Iron Council is, like, the least successful of the Bas-Lag books.

It's funny - the metaphors that really stay with me from early Mieville are not the "and the ReMade are the WORKING CLASS" ones, but rather scenes like this:

Tanner is very slow and cold. As he rises he passes a woman who still moves, too weak to swim up but not quite dead. He turns to her with soundless horror and hauls her skyward, but her movements become the juddering of dead nerves before they reach the air. And as Tanner lets her go he sees that there is more movement all around him, that there are men and women drowning as far as he can see, that he cannot help them, that they are too weak to live. He sees their ghastly desperate motions everywhere he looks, and he feels suddenly removed, conscious not of men and women, khepri and cactacae and scabmettler and hotchi, but only of countless, mindlessly repetitive motions, winding slowly down, as if he stares into a vat of rainwater at slowly dying insects.

Which to me perfectly captures the sense that I often have of being out of time, that no matter what I do or what political action I take, the world is full of people who are already dying, already dead, who it's too late to save. To me it's a really evocative and emotional metaphor for the capitalist condition.

The Scar is one of my favorite fantasy novels in spite of its flaws, which are many, because it teaches you how to look, and because it is structured as a possible novel - the way we both see and don't see the fall of the city never fails to delight me. But in any case - it teaches you how to see, in that it's full of moments like the above. All the figures are allegorical, it's sort of a clockwork city. I can't tell you how many times I've thought about the one riding where everything is totally privatized, so the interiors are luxurious but the exteriors are hideous, crumbling and trash-strewn. Or the different ways in which people tell self-serving stories - Bellis just wants to feel better about herself, but Fence is materially self-serving on every level, at every moment; even the very decisive self-narration at the end that begins the uprising is quite possibly a total lie and revealed to everyone at third-hand in any case.

Also, it's a book in which everyone is wrong and history happens anyway. Like, there isn't a single person in the book who has a total understanding of the social forces in play and their own powers, and most people actively believe something that is completely incorrect for most of the book. It's a diagram of how history emerges from all these partial understandings. There isn't, like, a Lenin...of course, there isn't exactly a revolution, either, but even in Iron Council the revolutionary figures make some pretty bad choices.

With The Last Days of New Paris Mieville does something very interesting, as gets pointed out in the review, sort of - he's always been very much an allegorical/metaphorical writer, but the metaphors in LDONP don't represent anything except themselves. They're an allegory without a foundation, and it's the Nazi artwork which is the bad one because it's trying to sort of mash metaphor and reality.

He's always been moving in this direction, though, I think - you look at things like the trains in Railsea and while they're cool and everything and certainly fit into the larger narrative about capitalist development, they're also sort of unnecessary and weird - you don't need to have everyone be on trains to tell the underlying story. Or all the little stuff in UnLunDun - it's not whimsy, exactly, but it's not operating at the same level of metaphor as the stuff in the Bas-Lag books.
posted by Frowner at 2:09 PM on July 25, 2017 [10 favorites]

Miéville is not any sort of ally or fellow traveler. In his novels, any attempt to change the status quo is a farce to start out with, but he takes the sadistic satisfaction in showing how far the cruel will go to exercise their power, and how useless the most heroic efforts at change are. The man is a psychopath, and this novel was written simply to rip the guts out of surrealism, which he sees as an agent of change the powerless have. No, I am not kidding.
posted by Slap*Happy at 5:19 PM on July 25, 2017 [2 favorites]

Ask me about the Bas-Lag Malarial Empire, where the men are not permitted to speak, but the empowered women infect you with disease...

He dons the trappings, because he knows he's smarter than anyone and thinks he can pull one over. I love how the cactus-folk are stand-ins for American-style immigrants. This is not the fantasy world we need or deserve.
posted by Slap*Happy at 5:25 PM on July 25, 2017

I guess I'm a pyschopath too--I read his works because I enjoy them. Some yearn for the days of Stalinism when all art was subordinated to whether it pleased some ideal.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 5:36 PM on July 25, 2017 [2 favorites]

Some folks read Heinlein and yearn for the days when Charles Lindberg was a quiet voice of treason. Reason. Typo.
posted by Slap*Happy at 6:20 PM on July 25, 2017

China Mieville is great. Sorry his left-leaning politics aren't perceived as the correct kind of left-leaning for you. He is a horror writer at heart and I suspect he is often horrified by some of the things he has written. I can't think of a more evocative writer. He's capable of creating such a heavy sense of dread and futility. There's certainly more problematic authors one could complain about.

He's certainly a fellow traveler in the classic sense. I don't suspect he's concerned about being an ally. That being said, the intersectional politics of Bas Lag would be fraught to say the least. I mean, are Vampirs natural allies with Vodyanoi against the the sinister mandarchy of the Handlingers? Tough to say.
posted by Telf at 6:44 PM on July 25, 2017 [1 favorite]

Sorry, got sidelined. Thanks for posting this. Also enjoyed Frowner's link.
posted by Telf at 6:45 PM on July 25, 2017 [1 favorite]

Miéville is not any sort of ally or fellow traveler. In his novels, any attempt to change the status quo is a farce to start out with, but he takes the sadistic satisfaction in showing how far the cruel will go to exercise their power, and how useless the most heroic efforts at change are. The man is a psychopath, and this novel was written simply to rip the guts out of surrealism, which he sees as an agent of change the powerless have. No, I am not kidding.

Okay, wait, I understand this sentiment because there are several SF authors where I just experience their work as basically sadistic (or, like Card, basically masochistic). But Mieville is, like, active in socialist politics - IIRC he's been kind of a big deal in the SWP but left over the mishandling of sexual assault charges a few years ago. So unless he's lying all the time there's something else going on.

I don't think it's true that any attempt to change the status quo is a farce to start out with at all, except to the extent that he is being farcical or parodic in general. Railsea and UnLunDun are pretty sunny - the attempts to change the status quo are successful and fairly uplifting. Perdido Street Station and Iron Council are real downers - Iron Council actually really bugs me in all kinds of ways. In The Scar, I think some progress is genuinely made - the imperialist ambitions of New Crobuzon are definitely scotched, Simon Fench is properly, horribly punished and IMO the situation of Armada is slightly better than it was when the Lovers ran everything. Kraken - well, in Kraken they're actually doing pretty well to have prevented the apocalypse, I guess. Iron Council is a book of the millenium, when everything seemed pretty stuck in ways that it does not now, IMO.

I think your reading of the malarial queendom is a bit off, although my feeling is that his monsters pretty much get away from him there - he basically wants to have scary mosquito people more than he wants them to be politically coherent. But if I had to read them politically (and they do bother me, too) I would say that they are a people who are both at the mercy of a colonial power and who have been - for whatever reason - unable to use technology to compensate for biology. The women aren't "empowered" - consider what we get from Bellis's viewpoint, when she's reflecting about how horrible it is that the women are so consumed by hunger/biological processes that only in their rare moments of satiety can they do anything like reflect. And the men are all reflection, unable to act. Maybe there's some comment on gender essentialism there?

But I don't think you can read Railsea, in particular, without realizing that Mieville has a very traditionally marxist belief in people's ability to better their circumstances through reason and solidarity and to fight against injustice. I don't think he's a pessimist or a sadist - he's just someone who has a realistic eye on political struggle as it is lived.

Which ones in particular are you thinking about? If it's Perdido Street Station, yeah, I can pretty much see where you're coming from, and I think that while it's an interesting book it's not the most politically engaging of his.
posted by Frowner at 7:31 PM on July 25, 2017 [4 favorites]

I have a love/something relationship with Mieville. There's so much to like in his books, but he often fails at making them compelling. His language though, his deep and serious love of the words, often brings me into his works where other things don't.

"The Last Days of New Paris" was so much Mieville, but felt like a distillation of his writing, a book written, then rewritten until only the bones were left.

I'm struggling with "This census taker" now, as I've often struggled with his books, but with Mieville, I sometimes think the struggle is much of the point.

I'd like to say I want to re-read his books, but I'm not sure I do. They're on my shelves though in case I change my mind, and I hope that day comes.
posted by Death and Gravity at 8:26 PM on July 25, 2017 [1 favorite]

OMG... Railsea... Where there workers toil endlessly for that fucking train, to go nowhere to no purpose, while the powerful get their own plot?
posted by Slap*Happy at 9:01 PM on July 25, 2017

Another work by Miéville: The Dusty Hat.
posted by Joe in Australia at 9:11 PM on July 25, 2017

Warning: contains both socialism and symbolism.
posted by Joe in Australia at 9:12 PM on July 25, 2017

Do you hate read Melville for fun or do you enjoy aspects of his work? I mean I hate musicals so I don't watch or comment on musicals. It'd be odd if I had an in depth knowledge of major plot points and dance routines of every major musical made in the last 60 years and used this knowledge in an thread on La La Land to dismiss the realism of dancing as a form of meaningful communication. Do you read him because you hope to enjoy his work one day? Or do your read him because he identifies as a socialist but are then frustrated by his messages?
posted by Telf at 11:02 PM on July 25, 2017 [2 favorites]

Did you read Railsea? Where the protagonist is basically the most incompetent person on the ship, from a working class background and pretty much down and out, job-wise, when it all begins? Who discovers, in the end, that the rails are not natural but capitalist?

I mean, yes, any character who is a working class character who becomes the protagonist of a fantasy adventure novel is going to have a different trajectory than most of the other working class characters, because they're the protagonist of a fantasy adventure novel. But Mieville is dealing explicitly with this - his books prioritize work and give a lot of time to precisely how working people are exploited. The Tanner plotline in The Scar for instance...and Kraken protagonist is not working class but definitely lower middle class professional, and the plot really hinges on that fact.

The whole question of "why are main characters special and important" is one that fantasy/SF is ill-suited to answer, because fantasy and science fiction are genres about landscape, didacticism and estrangement. It's not impossible to write such a novel (which would otherwise be a mimetic bourgeois realist novel about a working class protagonist whose life is pretty much in the key of working class experiences) and I hear good things about The Long Way To A Small Angry Planet in this regard. But it's not a Mievillian problem - even Samuel Delany, who is writing explicitly "working class people having working class experiences in my fantasy realm" stories, tends to move his characters up and down the social scale (Prynn and Gorgik in particular) because he wants both to show how social forces work and to show the world he's writing about. Even Hayao Miyazaki, whose films are explicitly about the texture of working experience and the value of labor, struggles with this one.

"Why isn't this novel about a working class person who stays on a regular working class trajectory and does not become special through experience" is a really tough question to answer in a fantasy novel context, because fantasy is structured around adventure.

In a larger sense, I think there's a problem because working class people rarely get the leisure time and practice to write novels - you can think of a number of lower middle class people who get there through struggle, but generally people don't come from generations of farm and factory work to write fiction. But again, this is a problem with literally every fantasy novel I can think of off the top of my head, and not a Mievillian problem.
posted by Frowner at 5:14 AM on July 26, 2017 [2 favorites]

Also, I'm curious - what fantasy/SF novels work for you in re class?

Have you read Delany's short story, "The Star Pit"? That's one that springs immediately to mind for being about a working class person who is no more special than any other person is special, stays basically working class, does not have atypical experiences and interacts primarily with working class people, but is still in a really interesting science fiction setting. It's a very affecting and strong story, probably one of the best SF short stories out there IMO.
posted by Frowner at 6:30 AM on July 26, 2017 [1 favorite]

And if I may make one more comment and then stop for a bit: I was just thinking today about how, in The Scar, the rule of the pirate city is that if you defeat your enemies - the navy, other pirates, whatever - you don't kill your prisoners, you bring them into the city as citizens, taking the risk that they will be, like Bellis, kind of disloyal. There's a key point in the book where the rulers of the city try to get the citizenry to turn on a group of prisoners in order to forward their own agenda, and that is part of what sparks the insurrection. People just won't do it, because the rule is always that the press-ganged are citizens, even if they were your enemies before.

It's one of the ways that Armada, the pirate city, is utopian. Armada is flawed and unequal, but it has these utopian elements, some of which Bellis comments on - the fact that there's no homeless people, for instance, and the unusual social arrangements in the Brucolac's riding. Armada isn't in a revolutionary situation because there's no structure to bring a revolution about - that's why the insurrection doesn't transform the city. (I always figure that The Scar is a little bit Mieville's response to insurrectionist anarchism.) But it is a city where working class people have a lot of power, mostly expressed through a strongly articulated tradition.

But anyway - I was thinking about this because I was reading a very depressing article about how US-born white people in Detroit resent it when refugees get Obamacare, and I was thinking what a strong and utopian model Mieville is advancing. It's one that really attracts me as a Minnesotan - we as a state have had several waves of refugee immigration, first Hmong people and then Somali people. We've also had smaller influxes of Vietnamese and North African people in general, and in the past fifteen years or so more Mexican and Mexican-American people, plus some displaced people from New Orleans, Detroit, etc. To me the strongest propaganda line on this is "we are ALL Minnesotans now". If you come here, if you live here, you're a Minnesotan. Minnesota is a Muslim state, Minnesota is a Hmong state, Minnesota is Vietnamese and Black and Ethiopian and Mexican. If you threaten Muslim people, you're threatening Minnesotans, and fuck you. If you hate immigrants, you're hating our people, and also fuck you. These are our people first and foremost, and if you attack them, you're attacking me, and again, fuck you.

That's the utopian moment that I see in Mieville.
posted by Frowner at 7:18 AM on July 26, 2017 [3 favorites]

Do you hate read Melville for fun or do you enjoy aspects of his work?

I love his unbridled imagination and glorious turns of phrase. There was a suspicion he was having a laugh at the left, but no hate-on until I was gifted a copy of his latest. Weaponized surrealism against an imaginary repressive Vichy Republique, where the surreal is real simply to hurt and disadvantage political opponents. As a no-kidding art student, it's repugnant to its core - it's the ultimate critique of the far right against transformative art as an agent of positive cultural change. Merely weapons the powerless use against the strong. It's unforgivable. Maybe the book improves, but I chucked it at the wall around a quarter way in. I last did that to Heinlein's "The Cat Who Could Walk Through Walls", almost 30 years ago, when it was agreed by the cast ensemble that it was just and moral that only those who could afford healthcare should get it, just as my asthma inhaler was running out and I had the choice of food or breath.

I did a review of CM's stuff, and revanchist sneering peeked out from almost every paragraph now that I knew how to look for it.
posted by Slap*Happy at 7:50 PM on July 26, 2017 [1 favorite]

Also, if you want to see how surrealism interfaces with representational art in a truly transformative and uplifting way, find a local production of "Stieglitz Loves O'Keef."

Stieglitz - it's easy to play down his role in art, as his stuff was kind of mediocre. But he was the only one doing it seriously. The first photographer deliberately doing art. He was in love with one of the finest artists this Nation has ever produced. It was not an untroubled or unproblematic partnership. Yet. He supported her work, her most amazing surrealist works, with enthusiasm and delight. He then took a picture that was mostly out of focus of a street lamp in the snow, because he thought it was a memory worthy of being captured. From this union came Ansel, came Wesson, came Warhol.

Yeah. Much better stuff, this play, when examining early 20th CE art from a fictional standpoint.
posted by Slap*Happy at 8:17 PM on July 26, 2017

Thanks for responding. I don't agree with your observations of "revanchist sneering", but I appreciate you explaining your feelings. Appreciate it.
posted by Telf at 8:26 PM on July 26, 2017 [2 favorites]

Slap*Happy I must disagree with the statement that Stieglitz was 'the first' photographer doing art. One of the first undoubtedly but I would like to remind you about Pierre Dubreuil and possibly Eugene Atget
posted by adamvasco at 5:37 AM on July 27, 2017

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