Readers, there’s something you should know about me: I love weird books. Which means that China Mieville rocketed to the top of my favorite authors list after reading only one of his books, and he’s now on my list of authors-whose-books-I-buy-without-reading-plot-synopses.
I about died when I saw he was releasing two this year, then I got sad because both of them were very very very short. That being said, The Last Days of New Paris is still a very enjoyable, if quick, read.
The plot sort of defies easy explanation, but here’s a stab. Thibaut is all that’s left of his group, struggling to survive WWII in New Paris where the inventions of surrealists have come to horrible, dangerous life after the “S-bomb” detonated. He meets up with the enigmatic Sam, a woman who claims to be here to document the city’s new denizens and topography, but she’s more than she seems. There are Nazis and the demons they’ve summoned chasing them as they attempt to escape the city, and periodically the story shifts back to before the bomb to explore the circumstances leading up to it.
I love Mieville’s prose, and this book is no exception. The man could describe paint drying and I’d still probably want to read it because I’m sure he’d use such beautiful, clever words. He has such a gift for it, and the subject matter of this novel provides him with plenty of fodder, with wolf-tables and exquisite corpses and more littering the landscape.
And the writing style is a clever conceit – the book is written as a “true account” of sorts, which the author relays from the man who told it to him and then disappeared – the implication being that this is some alternate universe that really existed (this being covered in the afterword). It’s also apparent in the lengthy and at times overbearing notes in the back, which detail in excruciating detail each of the various “manifs” and their provenance. The number of references weighs the book down in places; short of a specialist in that particular style of art, no one will recognize more than a few of the surrealist references offhand, and resorting to the notes constantly breaks the flow of the novel considerably. That’s not to say it’s wholly bad, but I almost wish Mieville had footnoted them instead of putting them at the end – it would have made this display of the book’s detail much less unwieldy.
The demons and the role Hell plays were an interesting stretch and certainly not what I was expecting. However, I felt like these sections of the book were vastly underplayed and could have used more exploration. That actually felt like an issue with much of the book – it was so condensed, so distilled, that there wasn’t time to truly explore some of the fantastical elements in the novel in anything more than a cursory way.
That also applies to more than the fantastical elements too. I mentioned earlier that the story bounces between now New Paris and past Paris, pre S-bomb. Yet the past sections are all too brief, a hurried mad dash to explain the bomb. It leaves no real time for characterization. I wanted to know more about Jack Parsons, the man who created the bomb, and how the bomb worked, yet all of that was glossed over.
There was opportunity too to see more of the outside world looking in. It comes up occasionally in passing, that the rest of the world is terrified that the manifs will escape, that whatever Surrealist disease infects Paris will slip its bounds to encompass the world. Yet this, and many of the wider ramifications of WWII, are largely ignored here in favor of focusing very narrowly on Thibaut and, to some extent, Sam. While I respect the choice, I can’t say I’m not disappointed by the lost opportunity to see more of this alternate universe.
For all that it’s so short and narrow and yes, somewhat pretentious in its detailed references, it’s a good book and a good story. It’s not his best (for me, that’s still a tie between The City & The City and Embassytown, both of which I dearly love), but still good. And now that I’ve finished it, I’ll settle back into waiting for the full-length novel from him I so dearly want.