IF China Mieville catered parties, he’d be the guy in the kitchen styling exquisite shrimp dumplings from aerosol cheese. Alas, Mieville’s latest novel, “Un Lun Dun,” suggests that imaginative canapes are no substitute for a narrative banquet.
Mieville is an author writing in the New Weird, a fantasy subgenre inspired by H.P. Lovecraft and Mervyn Peake that merges the pulp with the scholarly. He attracted attention with a trio of books set in Bas-Lag, an intricate Dickensian universe of social, economic and barbaric complexities. Mieville then took a break from his world-building duties, reporting in a 2003 interview that he didn’t want Bas-Lag “to get stale as a locale.”
One book of short stories later, Mieville, like many fantasy writers hungering for pay dirt, has turned to the young adult genre. “Un Lun Dun” (also illustrated by the author) is set in a new universe that serves as the flip side to London, under siege by a sentient and quite chatty sulfur dioxide cloud referred to as The Smog.
Nearly every page turns up something inventive: killer giraffes, multistoried chifforobes standing in for buildings, spoken words transmuting into corporeal soldiers, a cuddly milk carton named Curdle and, most impressive, the Black Windows, an inspired hybrid of arachnids and architecture. There’s also a clever concept called moil (short for Mildly Obsolete in London), which explains how UnLondon inherited much of London’s leftover technology.
But every English rose has its thorn. What can one say of a book where the most compelling character is not a human protagonist, but a kvetching book of prophecies? Given the heartbreaking figures that have populated Mieville’s other novels, such as “Perdido Street Station’s” Yagharek (a warrior bird who had his wings cut off as punishment), it’s surprising that “Un Lun Dun’s” main characters are so flat. Zanna and Deeba, the two girls who make their way to Mieville’s Bizarro World, are imbued with the singular purpose of asking questions. Even when trapped within UnLondon, the girls seem to take their displacement in relative stride. And instead of giving us vexed parents, Mieville concocts “the phlegm effect,” a contrived plot device that has all mothers and fathers locked into a rote stupor. At least we know the girls won’t be grounded.
To some degree, “Un Lun Dun” serves as a wry Marxist response to C.S. Lewis’ Christianity-laced Narnia books. (Mieville recently published his PhD thesis on Marxism and international law.) His characters ride a balloon-equipped bus with a driver who doesn’t enforce fares. Others occupy Kafkaesque bureaucracies, whether it’s mystical “Propheseers” toiling in a sequestered office or an opportunistic councilman who insists upon a public meeting so that he can bellow hollow pronouncements instead of taking action. One of the book’s most explicit Christian references is a fisherman who tries to negotiate with The Smog, only to be swallowed up before he can make his case. Augustus Gloop got off easy.
As usual, Mieville lays down some stylish pyrotechnics. Deeba moves through “thick, candy-floss-filigreed darkness.” There are delightfully eccentric phrases, such as “martial-artist dustbins” and a “carnivorous intelligent cloud.” When Deeba returns to UnLondon from our world by climbing a library bookshelf, Mieville captures her journey through a charming interlude. And although it’s interesting to see Mieville confine his storytelling to three-page chapters, this device may explain the book’s belabored plotting.
Perhaps the young adult genre is debilitating for Mieville. His syntax is too often bereft of his trademark cunning linguistics because he doesn’t have the audacity to hurl obscure words at his young readers, although late in the book he can’t resist inventing the delightful word “arachnofenestranaut.” But with Mieville laying off his trusty 10-cent zingers, his sentences are sometimes catastrophic. Adamant grammarians will be troubled by Mieville’s zeal for the misplaced clause. The sentence “Deep in its wavering filaments, predatory shadows moved” isn’t moody. It’s outright clumsy.
Mieville’s impecunious phrasing also extends to some of his imagery. We are told that the carnivorous giraffes “licked their horselike lips and teeth with tongues like cuts of meat.” Presumably, this awkward simile is intended as a nod to parents who take up sploshing on the weekends.
Often, Mieville can’t even make up his mind about details. A bystander is “chubby and muscular.” We are told that smog elements “gnawed and clawed or suckered or whatever at buildings.” When a monster composed entirely of produce assaults the heroes, one character quips, “We’re being menaced by fruit?”
I’m probably being harder on Mieville than I should be. After all, lesser fantasy writers would sign away their souls for a driblet of his imagination. But when a writer this accomplished fails to spread his wings, one must ask why he’s not writing on Philip Pullman’s level.
“Un Lun Dun’s” biggest surprise is how little Mieville takes chances. Mieville can spin just about anything into fantastic silk, but he doesn’t seem to understand that the kids who read YA books are smart and resilient. When an imaginative tale skimps on the human element, it’s a disservice. No matter how tasty the cold cuts. *