The Short Version: It’s 1950 and the war still rages in Paris – but it’s no longer just Nazis and Resistance fighters. A Surrealist bomb has remade Paris and peopled the streets with Surrealist art made manifest. In this impossible city, a young Surrealist fighter named Thibaut meets an American photographer named Sam who believes that these are the last days of New Paris – for something else stalks these streets as well…
The Review: Anyone who has ever gazed upon a Surrealist painting or artwork has, to some extent, wondered what those objects might look like in reality, how the impossible oddity of those creations might mesh with the stricter laws of our universe. It is not surprising, then, that a purveyor of the Weird would produce a novel – or novella, as he’s careful to point out – attempting to do just that, for Weird Fiction is in its own way an extension or outgrowth or at the very least owes a debt to Surrealism.
China Miéville, however, is not just an author of Weird Fiction – he’s a renowned Marxist, a brilliant thinker, and one of the most rigorous authors I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. When he has an idea, even in the compressed form of a novella (or, honestly, in his short stories as well), that idea feels fully considered, from every angle. There is depth and completeness to his fictions in a way that one seldom encounters elsewhere. It’s what made his sprawling early work so incredibly vivid and what has made his more intellectually adventurous later work so tremendously rewarding.
For example, it’s probably worth having a computer nearby as you read this latest delight, to search for the artworks being referenced sometimes two or three to a page. (There’s a “Notes” section at the back of the book that I’d also recommend sticking your finger in as well, for easy access.) Your enjoyment of the book won’t be diminished if you can’t immediately call to mind Magritte’s The Empire of Light or Redon’s The Smiling Spider – but seeing them certainly helped me visualize the strangeness of New Paris.
And strange it is. Miéville doesn’t waste any time, opening the book with a sequence where a woman riding “The Amateur of Velocipedes” assaults a group of Nazi officers – and it takes a minute to get your bearings. We’re obviously inhabiting a different universe from our own, on several levels (the fact that the book takes place largely in 1950 fascinated me for reasons I can’t quite articulate), but before we can understand what has happened in the present, we’re thrown back into the past. In between scenes of New Paris in the present-tense, Thibaut recounts his initial experiences after the S-bomb went off as well as his time with the Main à plume forces in New Paris, and slowly the timeline begins to make a bit of sense.
Miéville also makes the interesting decision to cut away from Thibaut’s story (I’ll explain why it is particularly interesting in a moment) to 1941 in Marseille. An American disciple of Aleister Crowley named Jake Parsons (side note: what a great World War II brash American character name) ingratiates himself with the Surrealists who are in semi-hiding there, attempting to get to Prague – there are intimations of a power there, or access to it anyway, not unlike that which powered the famous golem. He’s unsuccessful but as he works with these famous figures, he realizes that there’s a power too to be found in their work. But the origins of the S-bomb are refreshingly accidental; this was not a malicious weapon, something designed by the Allies or the Axis. In fact, it seems rather fitting with the idea of Surrealism that the bomb should be almost an accident in every way.
Miéville has fun exploring the ramifications of a more structured Surrealism, including the idea that shooting with randomness in New Paris is a better way to actually hit your target whereas when you take deadly aim, you’re almost bound to miss – and he is also having a lot of fun poking at the occultism that floated around the periphery of the Second World War. But instead of writing the sprawling epic of shadowy powers in the background (echoes of that line from Hellboy about the Occult Wars ending in ’58 with Hitler’s death), he explores one very particular route. Magic seems to exist in this alternate world, but it’s unclear just what that means beyond a few particulars… and the presence of Hell.
This is not the first time he’s dabbled with the idea of emissaries and alliances and portals between one world and a demonic otherworld – one of the best and most frightening scenes in Perdido Street Station features a brief appearance by the “ambassador to Hell” – but this allows it to be true without necessarily exploring the background. The S-bomb was not the only thing, perhaps not even the first thing, to tear a hole in the fabric of our universe and demons are also running the streets of New Paris. If they are a little less vividly rendered than the manifs, that may be because there is no foundation for them. You can’t google a multi-legged demon bull thing because nobody ever thought to paint that – and Miéville’s descriptions are kept taut and largely utilitarian.
Something about that, and about a few other related notes, nagged at me for the longest time as I read this slim volume. Thibaut’s jumpy timeline, the voice that felt not quite like the Miéville we know but instead someone sketching around a similar tone, the descriptions that don’t quite come to life all the time, the tonally different (almost speculative, I’d describe it) 1941 chapters… I just couldn’t figure out what or why these things were as they were, until I got to the Afterword. (***A light SPOILER follows here, although I don’t know that it’ll actually spoil anything about your reading experience to know it.***)
You see, Miéville is reusing a narrative trick that he’s used at least once before (in the short story “Reports of Certain Events in London”): the idea that this is not his story but rather one that has somehow come to him. In 2012, Miéville was contacted by a former acquaintance who sets up a meeting (under vagueness and secrecy) with a man he (and we) comes to believe is Thibaut. He is somehow in our world as opposed to his own and he recounts for Miéville the story – the story we ostensibly just read. Miéville, of course, has a little license to do with it as he will and the notes in the back that I’d been flipping to this whole time (again, not sure if one is meant to do that or not but it certainly helped me) are from Miéville himself, a distinction I think I realized subconsciously before consciously. The oddity of the story is placed into a very particular context after reading this afterword and I am, again, astounded by Miéville’s ability to commit to and fully inhabit a concept to such a chameleonic degree.
Rating: 5 out of 5. A Surrealist bomb radically altering Paris is exactly as much fun as it seems like it would be, especially in the hands of a master like China Miéville. He brings his trademark intelligence and thoroughness to the novel in ways that only become clear when you get to the very end, making what came before even better than you’d thought. Any murkiness or confusion is purposeful and any strangeness is part of the experience. It’s hard not to want Miéville to write his thousand-page adventure of the occult during World War II – but he’s also more than happy to let you imagine the rest. He’s delivered Surrealism in a way that’ll make readers, art-lovers, historians, philosophers, and even the Surrealists themselves happy.