The Last Days of New Paris
By China Miéville
205 pages, $25
By Ed Taylor
China Miéville has got it going on in terms of authorial persona, with shaved head and elaborate ear ornamentation, leather jacket and hoodie, in profile and full-face author photos like police ID photos – and also in terms of talent, as an avatar of adventurous contemporary fiction. He’s popular among academics for his intelligence and critical acumen in weaving together a variety of threads to produce narrative work sitting at the confluence of theory, speculative imagination and literature. As far as labeling and pigeonholing go, his work is speculative literary fiction, or literary speculative fiction, of a highly burnished and lapidary style, full of dark, rich surprise and energy and sentence-level aesthetic freshness.
“The Last Days of New Paris” is Miéville’s lucky 13th book, and a good one, while raising a question or two after the last page is read. It’s speculative fiction from the alternate pasts school a la steam punk, now almost canonical, and other imagined literary worlds framed by real eras and events, and in this case also the very old-school exploration of a “what if” (an example of what in creativity studies is called convergent creativity): What if the wild, exuberant, multitudinous variations of corporeal creatures that were a key part of international Surrealist art, photography and writing from the first half of the 20th century were given “life” in occupied Paris in World War II, and became part of a fight against the Nazis?
That’s the way a short synopsis of the novel has it – Miéville in the “Afterword” calls it a novella – and that’s pretty much the deal. Set in 1941 and in 1950, the two narrative threads each follow a group of characters and a complex web pitting Surrealist resistance fighters and “manifs,” the manifestations of Surrealist art (also a link to the manifestos so much a part of Surrealist practice) against Free French, Vichy, Germans, the Catholic Church, and, it turns out, the world of black magic and demons.
The elaborate frame and meticulous imagining of setting and plot and action take precedence – this is not a novel of character; it’s all about the battles, truly good and evil and dark versus light in tangled, treacherous ways. And, yes, Adolf Hitler makes an appearance, along with Josef Mengele.
The voice here is powerful, burnished and contemporary in its quasi-avant image-making and syntax. But, oddly, after plunging the reader into a seamless, absorbing, invented world, the author adds a kind of quaint 19th century frame to the whole thing. He offers the idea that the narrative is “true,” and the result of a mysterious encounter in a hotel with a man who has a story to tell and the documents to back it up. If this is some version of post-post-modern meta irony, OK, but it feels pretty unnecessary. The narrative stands on its own, and is in fact arguably more powerful and more interesting without needing this authorial puppet-mastery, if that’s what it is, even if intended as a final Surrealist touch, maybe turning the book into a final “manif” let loose in the world.
Ed Taylor is a freelance Buffalo writer and critic and the author of “Theo.”