Book review

With these two novellas, China Miéville shows again why he is like no other writer

Argubaly, no well-known contemporary author has reinvented genre literature the way Miéville keeps doing.

If a popular survey of fantastic literature is made a hundred years from now, chances are that a few names from the twentieth century will have easily survived the long haul. Franz Kafka and Jorge Luis Borges, almost certainly, for their unsettlingly matter-of-fact ruminations on the nature of power, time, and space.

JRR Tolkien, for his largesse of vision, and for singlehandedly having created an industry that shows no signs of letting up (for better or for worse).

Mervyn Peake would make the list because of the sheer originality of his Gormenghast books, as pleasant an anti-thesis to Tolkien as is possible, as would M John Harrison, for his Viriconium novels, which kept getting progressively weirder and more aware of themselves as fantasy fiction.

I would personally include some early Gene Wolfe, all of JG Ballard and Ursula Le Guin, while John Crowley (for Little, Big and his Ægypt cycle) and Alasdair Gray (for Lanark) would round that list off nicely.

But what about China Miéville?

He’d surely be an uneasy fit, largely because he’s always been so restless and dissatisfied with an easy, one-to-one relationship with his influences. His tastes are incestuous and provocative, giving the lie to the low-culture-high-culture dichotomy plaguing the arts. He’s as much at ease with his Kafka as he is with his Swanwick; he’ll pull a Borges on you at the same time that he’s imaginatively tapping in on the entire Dungeons and Dragons mythos.

Having said that, I suspect that Miéville’s early works, namely Perdido Street Station, The Scar and The Iron Council, will not stand the test of time. These are, of course, excellent examples of an uninhibited, voracious intellect, devouring every idea it has ever come across and then proceeding to add a dash of political conflict into the mix for good measure.

But insect-headed women, pirate-ship nations, bureaucrats from Hell and probability swords notwithstanding, these novels of Miéville’s were, in hindsight, exuberant but messy; sprawling and confident, yes, but confused as to how to make a cogent statement, when the author was clearly having so much fun coming up with cool monsters.

Miéville has tempered his imagination considerably since then. His more recent fare sees him streamlining his prose, making it simultaneously more accessible and cryptic, while reining in the imaginary process to focus on fewer things to a much more powerful effect. The City and the City asked intriguing questions about the way we mentally process borders: politically, spatially, and ideologically. Embassytown was a fascinating update on the grand old tradition of Language-SF, a science fictional take on Swift’s Houyhnhnms (go see The Arrival when you can if you want a particularly good example of this kind of thing, and then read the Ted Chiang novella it’s based on).

But what about his two latest novellas, This Census-Taker and The Last Days of New Paris? Let’s take a closer look.

This Census-Taker

You can finish this book in one sitting, but I would advise you not to. Miéville’s language is extremely precise and measured here, needing very careful reading to parse. The story: a boy witnesses the apparent murder of one of his parents by the other. The rest of the novella sees him trying to make sense of exactly what happened.

The murder itself gives Miéville an excuse to inform his reader of the boy’s world, but he doesn’t quite do it like you’d expect him to. It’s all kept deliberately hazy, because it’s clear that the boy is taking for granted certain details about the setting the reader is never completely made privy to.

It’s clear that the whole thing takes place in a different world than ours, with its sly intimations of advanced machinery, possibly remnants of a war, and certain magical “keys” made by the boy’s father which grant wishes. There’s also a generally gloomy atmosphere pervading everything, and affecting everyone’s motivations. In between are some seductive passages that lure you in with unseemly beauty: children of the city, legs dangling on the edge of a bridge, use bamboo poles to fish for bats roosting underneath. How’s that for a beguiling image? And why does the boy’s father keep visiting a cave to dump bodies of animals he’s killed with his own hands?

This short read is full of such dark, hallucinatory imagery which draws the reader in, but ultimately leaves him hanging. Do not look for resolutions, dear reader, but immerse yourself in its suggestions, and its tantalising hints. Give it a rest for a while and then let it work its magic on you. Before long, connections emerge, and everything starts making very disturbing sense.

The Last Days of New Paris

The Last Days of New Paris is an alternative history novella with a twist: in Nazi occupied Paris, during World War II, after the explosion of the miraculous S-bomb, famous surrealist paintings and artworks start coming to life. Paris itself has become a war zone, a space with its own set of rules that needs intimate knowledge of if you wish to survive within it (I kept being reminded, in a good way, of Ballard’s Empire of the Sun, and the Strugatskys’ Roadside Picnic).

Thibaut, the protagonist of our tale, is a member of the French resistance. He exists in an uneasy relationship with the new status quo, having made his peace with the (un)reality, but still struggling to survive within such a new world order. And as for the paintings themselves, Miéville provides the interested reader with page upon page of delightful descriptions of anomalous, awakened beings. Truly, he is in his element here, and there is a certain pleasure in seeing an author as enthusiastic as Miéville reveling in the details of each artwork, be it Breton, Lamba and Tanguy’s The Exquisite Corpse, or Leonora Carrington’s unsettling I am an Amateur of Velocipedes, a bicycle-woman-centaur-being.

The reader who is knowledgeable about the movement stands to gain most from Miéville’s novella, but there is certainly an entirely different kind of pleasure to be had in jumping into the fray with no knowledge of what these paintings are. Thibaut teams up with a woman called Sam and traverses the city, trying to decisively end the war with a little help from their surrealistic friends.

Running in parallel with Thibaut’s storyline is a narrative that charts the creation of the S-bomb, and this in turn introduces the reader to a literal who’s who of intellectuals, artists and visionaries who made Surrealism what it was. Again, Miéville resorts to a lot of namedropping (dangerously bordering on showiness), but his infectious enthusiasm makes you actually want to look these luminaries up on Wikipedia. You might be surprised at what you unearth, and how much you took a movement such as Surrealism for granted.

China Miéville, in short, is (surprise, surprise) clearly doing new things with genre, all over again. His emphasis is still very much on description, and a certain lyricism when engaging with non-human spaces, objects and creatures. I kept wishing though that his characters would give me more of a reason to keep reading his books.

Miéville’s protagonists seem to sacrifice their verisimilitude and credibility in favour of his rich surroundings, environments and cities, and his heady descriptions of spaces and objects. Because of this, and the criminally short nature of the stories, I wouldn’t call these two novellas resounding successes, but part of me is actually glad they’re the unkempt beasts that they are: frayed, fragile but surprisingly potent when you least expect them to be. Miéville does not rest easy on his laurels, and any connoisseur of fantastic literature would find his latest works a sumptuous delight.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.