Miéville Does Minimalism

China Mieville’s novels are genre fiction at their best. They can be largely grouped into two broad categories: Twisted takes on British and European urban life (The City & The City, King Rat, Kraken) and kaleidoscopic, imaginative, and often Marxist fantasy and sci-fi adventures (The Bas-Lag trilogy, Embassytown). This changes rather drastically with This Census-Taker, Mieville's latest [this review was written before the release of The Last Days of New Paris], which combines trace elements of magical realism and fantasy with the minimalism of authors like Hemingway and Cormac McCarthy. This odd mashup works to produce a narrative that is engrossing, thought-provoking, and perhaps excessively ambiguous.

From a house in a city where he is implied to be held prisoner, a man writes. He is a very specific kind of writer, the details of which are never particularly clear. His job description combines storyteller, agent, bureaucrat and census-taker in one. His adult life is shrouded in mystery. The bulk of the story is relating of a certain stretch of his childhood.

There’s a remote town, and on a hillside comes screaming down the man, as a child, to tell the villagers that his mother has killed his father. Of course, it isn't quite that simple, and to give away too much about the child’s family would be criminal. But the story involves that child contending with an increasingly hateful and violent parent and occasionally exploring the town down the hill. Finally, a census-taker, the boy's future boss, arrives to question his household and fundamentally changes his world.

Thematically, the novella is difficult to parse: The world building is purposefully unclear, and the portion of the world in which the novel takes place is a sparse, desperate place. Below, I discuss three distinct facets of the novel: its ambiguous storytelling and world building techniques; the geopolitical implications of the book's world; and the thematic role of hatred. Overall, I examine the novel's primary theme – the tension between city and country – best explained by Marxist theorist Immanuel Wallerstein.

Through the Fog

The events crucial to a complete understanding of the plot have already happened; the novel takes media res to an extreme. There has been some sort of conflict in the coastal city (one war, a town kid tells the child, happened externally, and another inside). The child's father is a refugee from that conflict, which has necessitated (for reasons unknown) government officials to count the entire nation. The father makes magical keys that can do just about anything, but it's just his day job. And of course no one has names, except for a couple of tangential characters.

The ambiguity is stylish, no doubt. There is a pleasure in seeing only a little of what is behind the curtain, especially from Mieville, whose Bas-Lag novels depicted a fascinating world with far less subtlety. I'm reminded of other hazily-told stories like Debussy's Pelleas and Melisande, or, more recently, video games like Dark Souls and Transistor. But those narratives have very specific reasons for focusing on certain details and obscuring others. Mieville fails to paint a clear picture as to why certain information is left out. NPR's Jason Sheehan found this similarly frustrating:

There has been a war. The boy knows only that people talk about it sometimes and that it happened somewhere else, nothing more. His mother tries to tell him about the town where she grew up and, maddeningly, the boy doesn't really care, so ignores her and her voice fades into the background. The magic that his father works in his downstairs workshop? Never discussed. Never explained. It's just his father's job. [1]

Some details are revealed towards the end, when the titular census-taker appears in the boy's story. He is equal parts adventurer, bureaucrat, and enforcer. He may or may not be rogue. His gun is complicated and amazing. When the boy is grown, the census-taker will be his “line manager”.

There are also some fundamentally odd things about the town, as though Mieville were indicating that his background in New Weird hasn't entirely disappeared: Much of the town is built on a bridge with many ruined houses. Many people live in dilapidated old buildings, cinemas and factories. The market sells giraffe meat. Addicts suck fluid from the legs of gigantic beetles. Half the streetlights work, and gangs of children fish bats out of the air with bamboo poles for food. A more accomplished literary critic might have an opinion as to whether or not this oddball settlement is post-apocalyptic, surrealist, or magical realist. Whatever genre one might identify with this place, it is perched in a precarious but successful niche: A setting grounded enough in reality to feel believable, but one strange enough to warrant the discomfort that pervades just about all elements of This Census-Taker.

Wallerstein and the World On The Periphery

Immanuel Wallerstein is the father of world-systems theory, a branch of international relations theory that concerns the study of the world as a single unit. In Wallerstein's analysis, the modern world-system is capitalist, growing out of Western imperialism and carving the world into centers of concentrated wealth (“cores”) and metaphorical “peripheries”, impoverished and servile to the cores. Wallerstein says that these two terms do not refer to countries. We use it that way as shorthand, to say things quickly, but it’s not exact. Core–periphery is a relationship of production: there are core-like processes and peripheral processes, and they both exist in all countries. But in the United States there are, of course, more core-like processes and in Paraguay most of the processes are peripheral. [2]

Furthermore, within individual countries there are core-periphery relationships: Cities sometimes serve as local cores, where powerful elites, frequently connected to international capital, reside. It is this second category, the intrastate power dynamic, that is most obvious in the world of This Census-Taker.

An interesting detail, and one I believe is crucial to understand what Mieville is getting at with this latest novel, is the relationship between the tributary town and its coastal city. There are no policemen in the local town, nor much of anything resembling a government, but lawmen from the city pass through periodically to keep the peace. In Wallerstein's terms, the town is peripheral to the “core” of the coastal city. In a further act of removal, the child and his family live on some hills outside of town, alone. They are peripheral to the periphery.

Here and there are references to coercion of one sort or another: the boy's mother says she was “in an office. I don't know why they took me. They were training me; I was doing papers for them. I could still do it if you paid me” (pg. 54). There's an implication of the mother being forced to work for the city, though they did probably pay her. The census-taker, though his actions seem to be beneficial to the child, does give him an ominous warning: “There's – an agent – of something – who's been trailing me a long time... Trying to catch me up, saying things. It can trick you. Issuing good forgeries, using the right language. I have to keep ahead of it...” (pg. 196). Some sort of statecraft is afoot, and it is difficult to say whether it is factionalism within the coastal city, or interstate competition, or some other phenomenon. But it remains a mystery to the child, who has lived his whole life thus far on the periphery, just as the machinations of centralized states are often bewildering to their subjugated inhabitants.

Hatred and Statistics

In the same way that this grand city-country tension is writ large via ambiguous storytelling, it is also writ small, in the anger and fear of the people. Hatred clearly is an important element in This Census-Taker. For instance, observe Mieville's epigraph, taken from fantasy author Jane Gaskell:

Like all these long low squat houses, it had been built not for but against. They were built against the forest, against the sea, against the elements, against the world. They had roof-beams and doors and hatred – as though in this part of the world an architect always included hatred among his tools, and said to his apprentice: 'Mind you've brought along enough hatred today.'”

Furthermore, the protagonist as a grown man in mysterious captivity frequently recites his “catechism”, or statement of the goals of the census-taker, contains as a first line This Hate, though it is crossed out. And finally there is the hatred of the father: Towards the animals he kills, towards unhappy clients who find the keys he made for them don't work the way they wished, towards the townspeople and officials who imply he may not be the best father. Additionally, there is the specter of his life in the coastal city, leaving him fearful and distant.

I posit that the hatred referenced in the epigraph and in the novel itself is a representation of the core-periphery dichotomy mentioned above. In other words, the mutual distrust and antipathy of city-folk towards rural dwellers and vice versa underwrites the urban-rural divide. The city, as the center of new ideas, whether they be authoritarian or progressive, frightens the rural citizen. In fact, an intriguing passage of the “catechism” is revealed towards the end of the book: The tallymen are to keep accounts of the entire nation in order to “Reach Our Government's Ultimate Ends” (pg. 204). This rather sinister-sounding pronouncement is the embodiment of the hatred and fear of rural people against the city: They fear that their traditionalist lives may be interrupted by some ideologue with a gun, like the titular census-taker. The father, in this way, is the ultimate rural citizen: Having fled the city for the country, he resides even away from the small town nearby, sequestering himself with his spouse and child. It is in this fearful rage that the father issues the titular line:

Know what I hear about this census-taker? This man you've let come? Know what I hear?...In town they told me there's a man who's come asking questions...They were recalled! Why's this one still counting? This man thinks he knows what I've done? When? Always? (pg. 185)

It's a great passage, one that thrills and also depicts the rage of a rural resident who fears an overbearing, far-off government, judging him and his actions. And the city fears the countryside, too: Farmers and the like are frequently touted as uneducated and xenophobic, more prone to man's baser instincts.

Statistics, too, produce antipathy throughout the novel. In contrast to the father's hot declaration that the state does not truly know him is the census-taker's assertion that the census and objective statistics provide society with a boon: “Sometimes there are tasks arising – any job that the numbers tell me need doing. It's my job to do them. We had trouble where I come from. Fighting. What we realized is that the more you know about your people, the better. That's why I go counting” (pg. 192). Is there the postmodernist's rejection of objectivity in this? Probably not, as Mieville doesn't seem to overtly reject the census-taker's idea. But there is no assertion that statistics are somehow good, and if there were, that seems a rather boring theme. So what was Mieville up to here?

One thematic element seems clear to me: a refutation of official Leninism's disdain for the peasantry in favor of the urban workers. Marx and Lenin both had their suspicions about rural laborers, Marx ultimately approving of the expropriation of their land by the bourgeoisie and Lenin directly persecuting Russian rural dissidents. Even in the economics of Preobrazhensky, a clear element of “primitive socialist accumulation” is the sidelining of the peasantry. Mieville, a Marxist (Iron Council in particular serves as a long-form debate on leftist revolutionary strategy), here seems to show some sympathy for the country people like the child and his family. The distant centers of power in This Census-Taker are too vaguely constructed to be objectively better or worse than the simple townsfolk. In this regard, Mieville's ambiguity serves his themes wonderfully and proves a humanistic point.

Avoiding Easy Dichotomies, But to What End?

One of Mieville's strengths has been to create fictional worlds that are neither utopian nor dystopian. In Bas-Lag's New Crobuzon, for instance, we see a city deeply troubled by racism, capitalism, and other social iniquities. But New Crobuzon is also fantastically, beautifully diverse, filled with dozens of sentient species and their clashing cultures. It's got its share of miracles as well of horrors. In this way, Mieville escapes the frequently dichotomous nature of speculative fiction, which usually tell of either utopian environments like the space socialism of Star Trek or blunt dystopias like 1984. These are easy ways out, of course, and represent storytelling trends that have been around for more than a century. Recall Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward, which is essentially an extended monologue on the utopian socialism Bellamy recommends for America and the world. And, as much as I love Orwell, his targets in 1984 and Animal Farm are pretty obvious.

This Census-Taker acts as a negation of this trope in speculative fiction. By creating a world so sparse, so “foggy”, it is difficult to say what Mieville hoped to accomplish. The fact that the novel is set “offstage”, away from the fictional world's core, means that Mieville invites us to explore this fascinating periphery with him. Unfortunately, by exploring it, we don't find much. There is much more to gain here based on what the world of This Census-Taker is not, on the things the novel leaves unsaid.

Works Cited:

  1. Review on National Public Radio: http://www.npr.org/2016/01/06/461419132/this-census-taker-is-a-quiet-book-with-a-murderous-heart
  2. Interview with Wallerstein: http://iwallerstein.com/wp-content/uploads/docs/THYTLK13.PDF

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Adam Levin is a St. Louis-based writer and occasional activist for left-wing causes. He has a Bachelor's in International Relations-Political Science from the College of Wooster. He is also an accomplished trombonist.