Review: China Miéville’s This Census-Taker

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Review: China Miéville’s This Census-Taker

From what I’ve read of China Miéville, I honestly think he likes to mess with us. He’ll confuse us, disturb us, and generally toy with us, promising things that he has no intention of delivering.

And his writing is so good we’ll just take it and ask for more.

Click the jump for a review of This Census-Taker.

Some spoilers follow. I won’t give away anything huge, but there’s a big revelation that comes in the first few pages that I have to talk about. If you’d rather skip this review and go read the book instead, I promise I won’t be offended.

One thing I love about Miéville (one of many things) is how much he trusts the intelligence of his readers. He doesn’t feel the need to explain what he thinks we can figure out ourselves. At no time in the book does he say “the boy said his mother killed his father, when it was really the other way around, because he’d just witnessed a murder and was traumatized nearly to the point of complete mental shutdown, so the pronouns got reversed.” He never says that. We can infer that, but he trusts us to figure it out on our own.

Likewise he never says “the story is mostly told in first person, but it switches to third person when the boy is upset and wants to distance himself from what’s happening.” We can figure that out, so he saves his words for other things.

He’ll leave out information too, if he doesn’t think he has to give it to us. We have no real idea why the world is the way it is. Something happened, something that left humanity in scraps and pieces in run-down towns that are probably older than you can imagine. Maybe some of the adults have a better idea, but this is a story told by a child, and no one tells him much. We have a child’s understanding of an apocalypse, so we’ll always feel the same level of confusion and helplessness.

Miéville also isn’t afraid to just plain confuse us. I sometimes think he loves fiction so much he wants to explore how far he can push the boundaries of what we will and won’t accept in a story. He tells some chapters from the point of view of an older person, who speaks to us as if we had all the same information he does. We don’t know why this person does what he does, it’s just part of his job.

He talks about how he’s written his first book, and then his third book, and now he’s working on his second book. The order isn’t explained, this is just how it’s done. It’s almost like the numbers aren’t really numbers, they’re names. Because the first book is a book of numbers, the third is a book for the author alone, but the second book is for people to actually read. The names of the book are the rules it follows, the order doesn’t really matter.

The imagery of the books themselves is part of what I loved about this book: everything is described in so lush and detailed a way, you feel like you could pick them up and look at them. The first book has scraps and notes in between the pages, pieces are always being added. The second book is just a box of papers, some from people he’s never met but all adding to a single story.

I’m a sucker for “altered books” and art done in calendars and planners, for journals and moleskins. The books he described fit into that so well it makes me want to start making something like it, some random collection of paper ephemera, sketches, and handwritten notes.

The whole book’s like that: his mother’s random gardens on the hill, or her collection of junk items from the half-ruined city; the keys his father makes out of scrap metal, all different and all able to do different things; the wire sculptures his parents make to scare the birds out of the yard, his father’s being better made than his mothers but neither scaring the birds much.

Any fan of found-art, upcycled art, or outsider art will just drool over all the lovely, bleak artifacts all throughout the book.

I also loved the boy’s bonding with the children of the city. It’s never explained. He was a sheltered child from up on the hill, and his mother (in her distant way) encourages him to play with the vagrant children of the town. When he’s traumatized and terrified, he and two of the other children bond with each other so profoundly, so instantly, it upset me to watch it. No one makes a big deal about it, but there’s no hesitation. It just is.

I’m hoping there’s another book that follows this same story, because we were most definitely left hanging. There were so many questions left unanswered (what the heck happened to the second goat anyway?) that if it was any other author I’d assume we’d have another book to give us more information. But it’s Miéville, so this could very well be the end of the story. Readers might say “oh, come on, you have to tell us the rest of it!” To which Miéville would probably say “Oh, do I? I don’t think that I do.” Any book or short story he writes can leave us in an endlessly tense state, where we never get any more answers and we never find out what happens next.

And we don’t care, and we’ll let him do it to us over and over. Because he’s that good.