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There's a first time for everything
on 8 May 2010
China Mieville, I've always said, is a genius. I think I need to get that out of the way before I carry on with this review. He is possessed of the most toweringly wicked imagination, fearsome skills of characterisation and plot development and the ability to keep the reader on the edge of their seat, in my case, on occasion, literally. If I were sad enough to sit and write down my top 10 fiction books of all time, 'The City and the City', 'Perdido Street Station' and 'The Scar' would be somewhere amongst them. I've read his book of short stories, 'Looking for Jake', about five times now. And I hate short stories.
However, even genuises have their off-days, and that seems to be what's happened here. I say "seems" because I can only guess at what prompted Mieville to approach this book in the way he did. This is not China Mieville, this is Clive Barker on acid. It's completely mad, perhaps the result of a bet as to how much weirdness Mieville could cram into 400 pages.
The concept is promising, and indeed a short synopsis would sound equally appealing. Mieville's writing style, whilst an acquired taste due to the author's of chain-of-consciousness prose interspersed with quirky colloquialisms, is rich and beautifully delivered. There's humour too, and several laugh-out loud moments, the politically incorrect outbursts of the virtual retro police officers being a case in point. However, a few dozen pages into the novel things start to go bad and the key problem quickly becomes evident. This problem, in summary, is that anything can happen.
Mieville has created a world entirely without rules and without boundaries. This sounds exciting, especially bearing in mind the author's formidable powers of imagination, but what it actually does is rob the plot of all suspense. Virtually every character possesses a range of occult abilities so powerful, wide-reaching and diverse that no situation provides any type of challenge. Magical abilities, individuals and objects are created on demand, sometimes at the rate of several per page, apparently as a cheap method of furthering the plot.
How is item X, huge and heavy, transported from point A to point B? Well, that's tricky, a nice little puzzle for the reader... Actually, no, it's teleportation. Character X died so how come people are receiving messages from him? That's a tough one, let me think... Don't bother, he just returned from the dead. How do these two baddies enter a house without anybody seeing? I wonder, maybe they - Forget all that, it's easy, someone just folded them up into a tiny parcel and posted them through the letter box. Feeling cheated yet? OK, so how will this police officer find the information she needs from the crime scene? I get it, forget the clever stuff, let's go straight to the invisible flying cartoon pig that knows everything (I'm not joking). And so on and so forth. The sheer quantity of bizarre powers and impossible characters being introduced as the story progresses is on occasion so great that the reader finds themselves lost in a miasma of unconstrained weirdness where plot, characterisation and purpose are not so much secondary as completely lost in the confusion.
There were other problems with the book, not least the bizarrely bi-polar character development of our hero, Billy Harrow, yet in comparison to the anything-goes gung-ho plot-busting surrealism they were rendered almost moot.
Less is more, especially where weirdness is concerned, and I hope that Mieville's next novel, which I'm already looking forward to whatever it may be, bears witness to this ideology.
I still think he's a genius.