Quick post, just some thoughts…

Iron CouncilWhile there’s a whole lot of focus on China Miéville’s Big Ideas – his seemingly limitless creativity, his rigorous political convictions, his baroque genre smorgasbording – there’s considerably less attention given over to the minutia of his prose, and his identity as a master stylist. It would be a shame if the grand schemes of his stories overshadowed too much the actual words he uses to tell them.

And while most readers acknowledge that he is an incredible stylist, most reviews don’t delve any deeper than vague comments about how cool and adjectival and maximalist his writing is. All of which is true, of course, and all of which I love; but it’d be nice to see some closer sentence-by-sentence readings and appreciations of China Miéville’s texts.

I mean, he doesn’t always hit the mark (describing a forest as a ‘barkscape’ is an attempt at linguistic estrangement that, for me at least, veered dangerously close to twee, much as I love that particular suffix…(though who knows, maybe ‘twee’ was what he was aiming for?)), but when you encounter such gems as this paragraph from Iron Council, then all is forgiven:

Time was stilled. Cutter walked through a ghostworld, the earth’s dream of its own grasslands. There were no nightbirds calling, no glucliches, nothing but the dark vista like a painted background. Cutter was alone on a stage. He thought of dead Ihona. When at last the lights were close he could see a kraal of heavy houses. He walked into the village as brazen as if he were welcome.

Themes here include wilful loneliness and grief; the language becoming suitably poetic in order to handle such things; perhaps an attempt at finding a narrative register appropriate to the lofty (dare I say ‘tragic’) emotions being described. A head count of the rhetorical devices in the above paragraph includes: psychological abstraction (‘Time was stilled’), neologism (‘ghostworld’), description via negatives that reinforce the themes of loss and absence (‘no nightbirds, no glucliches’); there’s simile (‘like a painted background’), as well as metaphor, (‘alone on a stage’), simple direct sentences (‘He thought of dead Ihona’), contrasting imagery (‘dark’ / ‘light’), as well as subjunctive mood (‘as if he were welcome’).

That’s a real magician’s hatful of rhetorical techniques, all of them pushing and tugging and rubbing against one another in a brilliant linguistic maelstrom that echoes the tensions and conflicts roiling up within the protagonist. If you were feeling particularly generous, you might even claim that the theatre-centric imagery is an attempt to recall the literary space most familiarly given-over to addressing tragedy, despair and loss. Just please stop short of saying ‘Shakespearean’.

So, the TL:DR version of this is: don’t lose sight of the details in looking at the bigger picture. It’s something I know I do all too often, and I’ll endeavour to give more space over to close reading in future posts.

New reviews coming soon. Honest.


5 responses to “Quick post, just some thoughts…

  1. I recently considered rereading a Bas Lag novel, leaning towards Perdido or The Scar. But I’m also tempted to revisit Iron Council. I read it less than two years ago, much later than the other two, and didn’t like it for some reason. I was very close to falling in love with it after the first 100-200 pages but then something didn’t work for me. So I’m curious to see how I’ll digest it now; even if I don’t like it again, at least I can formulate a more solid critical opinion… Anyway, I’m looking forward to a proper review of the book. 🙂

    As for Mieville’ stylistic feats – I coundn’t agree more. He packs so much in his paragraphs, sentences and words that it sometimes spins my head to try to unpack them more thoroughly. I loved the lyrical tone of Embassytown and the way he handles sci-fi, turning it into a heady mix of strangeness and melancholia. And very much like Railsea and its inventiveness, so much of it linguistic, as always. Good thing I still haven’t read The City and the City and Kraken, as I haven’t heard of a new Mieville project and I figure it might take a while to see anything new…

    • I really like Iron Council, I think mostly because it chimed with me, politically. But I definitely “get” why a lot of people weren’t taken by it.
      I think, stylistically, too, it’s the best of the Bas Lag novels – it’s much more pervasively, er,, weird and estranging than the others, I think.

      The City and The City is a great book, but perhaps not as exuberantly noir-ish in its style as you might expect, given the setting and the genre to which it pertains. ‘Kraken’, by comparison, is just absolutely bonkers and OTT, both in terms of the book’s events (and characters…) *and* in terms of it’s style, as well.

      It’s been a while since a new Mieville novel was announce, hasn’t it (well, by his standards at least…), but there’s a rumour that his next novel is going to be a weird-fiction version of a period regency romance. Sounds intriguing to me…

      Many thanks for stopping by the blog, and for commenting,
      Much appreciated,

  2. Wow, what a review!

    I read Iron Council a couple of years ago now, on the heels of The City and The City, and while I loved it, I knew it would probably struggle with some of his more casual readers. My brother, in fact, loved Perdido, but I told him to try The Scar before he wades into these depths. China’s a great writer, but Iron Council is for hardcore fans only, I think.

    I think I mentioned Pynchon in response to one of your blog posts as the only challenger to McCarthy’s throne. That’s probably true, but I think Mieville–and particularly Iron Council–can serve as a primer for how brilliant people write fiction.

    Anyway, I really enjoyed the review, and I’m moving on to read more, so you’ll probably see more from me as the night(s) goes on.

    • Many thanks.

      If you like China Mieville’s stuff, then you might enjoy another blog I wrote with a friend of mine a coupla years ago.
      We called it ‘Could They Beat Up China Mieville’, basically we wrote flash-fiction death matches in which we pitted CM against various foes. ‘Twas quite popular for a while..

      Here’s a link..
      Just click on the ‘tally’ page for a list of all the..er.. fights..


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s