Date finished: February 18th 2016
Every author has a strength. Whether it be setting or characters, or dialogue, or plot, or one of any number of other things, every author will demonstrate an innate ability to weave language in such a way that one can pick out their trademark at a distance. They may be a fantastic author in many other ways, but this one trait will stand out against all other qualities as one that they have a unique affinity for.
China Miéville’s strength is concepts. The man is a conceptual genius, marrying together elements from an enormous swathe of topics and influences in order to forge new worlds and ideas that are simultaneously so alien yet so familiar as to be haunting. The duel-city dynamic from The City and the City, the rail-dominated world and its implications in Railsea, more or less everything about Perdido Street Station… It’s the way he tells them too, plunging the reader into a nigh-incomprehensible world and allowing context to grow the reader’s understanding, rather than spoiling everything with neat explanation.
So when Miéville comes out with a new work, it’s unsurprising that a cult fan-base await eagerly to snap it up. This Census-Taker is a novella, shy of 150 pages, that, despite it’s meagre size, feels very full. It is somewhat unlike his previous work: less conceptual, much more sparing in prose and smaller in scope. The plot focuses on a young boy living in the upper hills of a mountain-side city. His father is a key-maker and his mother tends the garden. His father is a strange man, prone to random rages in which he savagely kills things. The boy thinks he witnesses his mother’s death at his father’s hand and flees traumatised, but it’s his word against his fathers as a note seemingly explains his mother’s disappearance. Trapped and terrified of his father, the boy lives out his days in hope of escape, until eventually a mysterious census-taker arrives – but what does this stranger want with their family?
That’s more or less it for the main plot. I’ve come to associate the term “novella” with “inconclusive” and it’s fair to say that Miéville knows more than he’s letting on. The world feels like a tantalising glimpse of a post-apocalyptic society, and there are hints of a strange world beyond the narrator’s bounds: keys that control the weather, strange animals calling in the night, distant cities plagued by war. Within this hinted setting the disturbing events unravel. Something about the structure, the switching of narrative perspective, the odd word-choices, the vagaries of characters identities is unsettling in a way that defies explanation. It seems that this, more than any real “message” is the point of This Census-Taker, and if this is the aim, it certainly achieves it.
It’s hard to say whether this is a good thing or not. Certainly, Miéville remains unparalleled in his skill and finesse as an author, crafting strange and beautiful tales to intrigue, but This Census-Taker is so ambiguous it’s hard to judge how one feels about it. What Miéville does with the novella he does undeniably well – it’s just hard to come to a definite idea of what it is he’s actually doing.
Nevertheless, Miéville’s narrator, a ten year old boy, is an effective portrayal of the helplessness and insularity of childhood, a sympathetic character who’s eccentricities ring true, and the world as seen through this viewpoint is relatable and compelling. There’s no faulting the way the tale is taught. This Census-Taker‘s failings are more defined through what it isn’t rather than what it is.
This Census-Taker is a strange book: an ethereal story read through a microscope so that its minutiae are viewed explicitly but its wider breadth remains a mystery; an oddity without explanation or meaning but with subtleties that seem hidden just beyond view. One could theorise for weeks on it’s implications, potential sub-narratives teased at, and hidden meanings, but these would be unfounded hypotheses, so impenetrably dense is the novella. For lovers of Miéville and lovers of strange and experimental literature, this will surely prove an interesting and challenging read, but if you want a book that you can be certain of you’re better off picking up some of Miéville’s older works.