review // this census-taker, china miéville

“He said, you’ll write it not because there’s no possibility it’ll be found, but because it costs too much not to write it.”

 

REVIEW / / THIS CENSUS-TAKER, CHINA MIÉVILLE

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Among my many disgraceful bookish habits, I hoard books by authors I’ve never read. Zadie Smith, Marilynne Robinson, Don DeLillo, Jonathan Franzen –lauded and loved cornerstones of contemporary fiction, so I know I should read them. They’re bound to be good. And I know I’ll get to Ursula le Guin’s Hainish Cycle one day, so I should have them all on hand at once for when I’m ready, right? China Miéville is been another of those authors for me – I have had The City & The City and Kraken sitting on my shelves for years, untouched, and so, when I saw Miéville’s Hugo-nominated novella, This Census-Taker in a discount store, I couldn’t help but add it to the pile. But it didn’t stay there for long. In my bid to read as many Hugo nominees as I can before the prize is announced, I tossed the slim, 140 page book into my beach-bag for a midweek getaway.

 

When we arrived at the beach, we had a few, blissful hours of sunshine before the weather turned. Dark skies heavy with rainclouds, a cutting wind that all but swept our feet from under us as we climbed the path to the lighthouse, the grim weather and craggy cliff-sides echoing the bleak, gothic atmosphere of Miéville’s novel. I read it nestled under blankets, in coffee shops, curled on the couch and illuminated by the thin, grey whispers of sunlight that broke through the rain.

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So much of this story is built around its atmosphere, which evokes the bleak, Scottish island of Iain Banks’ The Wasp Factory, a bridge-town that could be lifted from the pages of Calvino’s Invisible Cities, tempred by an undercurrent of Lovecraftian terror not quite visible on the surface but lurking in the shadows of the novel’s dark palette. For a novel so slender, it was paced at a crawl, with each page drenched in mystery and secrets, keeping answers just out of reach. How Miéville managed to construct such an intricate and probing story in so short a space is a mystery in itself. It begins with the Boy, the novel’s protagonist and narrator, who runs down the mountain to the town below with the breathless accusation, “My mother killed my father!”. The rest of the novel leads readers through his unreliable memory as the Boy tries to gain a sense of what he actually saw – was it his father killing his mother, or did he witness something else entirely? He is returned to his father, from whom he tries unsuccessfully to escape, until he is visited by a mysterious Census-Taker, who has come to find the truth in his story. In the Boy’s telling of his story, he shifts between past-present-future and memories, occupying different points of view as he distances or draws himself further from the story. An instruction from the Census-Taker as he teaches the Boy to write his book alludes to this aspect of the story’s construction: “You can tell it any way you want, he said, you can be I or he or she or we or they or you and you won’t be lying, though you might be telling two stories at once.” The reader is alerted to the construction of the story, a story-within-a-story, and its part in a much bigger picture that we don’t see. Miéville gives us exposition only in snatches, making it difficult to pin the story to any particular time or place. The Boy’s orphan friend Drobe gives readers the closest thing to a history of their world, brief and in passing, as he mentions the wars that have left the villages in ruins, the machinery destroyed, and sent the census-takers into the world to take count of foreigners. Focalised on the Boy’s perceptions of his own childhood terror, we are privy only to what he shows us, and larger aspects of the story are wholly ignored, raising more questions than answers. There are secrets hidden in this book – the Boy alludes to them, as his line-manager tells him, “you can still use it to tell secrets and send messages. Even so. You could say them right out, but you can hide them in the words, too; in their letters, in the ordering on the lines, the arrangements and rhythms.”

 

This Census-Taker has so many things I love in a novel: an ambiguous and unreliable narrator, experimental language and structure, a gothic, fairy-tale-like setting, and an eerie, nascent darkness at its core. It begs a second read. Maybe then will some of its secrets be uncovered.

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review // the vegetarian, han kang

After reading just the first fifty pages of The Vegetarian, I’d filled almost two pages with notes about this meaty little book. When I picked it up, I wondered how such a slim volume, only 183 pages, could contain the brevity of a Booker prize winning novel. But, it had me spell bound from the first toe I dipped between its covers. Han Kang gives us her first English translation , translated from the Korean into sparse and ethereal prose by Deborah Smith. Dark, dream-like and evocative, it blends the surrealism and ambiguity of a Murakami novel with the grotesque eroticism of Elfriede Jelinek’s The Piano Teacher.

Yeong-hye’s husband comes home in the dark hours of the morning to find his wife standing, trance-like, in the glow of the open refrigerator. A disturbing, blood-drenched dream drives her to pursue a vegetarian diet in order to assume a more plant-like existence. The resulting narrative follows her Kafkaesque descent through the spectrum of human cruelty and obsession

As I was reading, I was struck firstly by how important point of view was in telling the story. For such a seemingly private story, concerning itself with one woman’s psychological transformation, it is told exclusively from the point of view of others, albeit for a handful of dream-like interruptions in the first section. Given such a limited insight into her innermost experience, we witness her from the point of view of three outsiders: her husband, her brother-in-law, and her sister, each given a separate section of the text. This conscious decision to exclude Yeong-hye’s narration only serves to heighten the mystery and ambiguity surrounding her character, the inexplicable and dreamlike world that she inhabits that others strive to repress, possess, understand.

The text speaks to me both of the restrictions of living as a woman in a patriarchal society, and also to a larger extent perhaps simply of living as a human in a society dominated by conservative social protocols. We first encounter intolerance in Yeong-hye’s husband, who regards her subversion of the societal norm to eat meat with disgust and embarrassment. Both he and her family use her non-conformity as justification for violence towards her, which leads to her psychological breakdown. No longer the dutiful wife he married, her husband abandons her. Her brother-in-law becomes obsessed with her, fixating on a petal-like birthmark on her buttocks that becomes the muse for his erotic art films. The floral paintings he covers her body with become a talisman for her, guarding herself against the violence of her nightmares and fulfilling her fantasies of transformation. In Yeong-hye’s pursuit for a plant-like existence, and in her brother-in-law’s films, they both seek to be searching for something wilder, something free.

“Covered with flowers and leaves and twisting green stems, those bodies were so altered it was as though they no longer belonged to human beings. The writhing movements of those bodies made it seem as though they were trying to shuck off the human.”

Her sister, In-Hye, perseveres alone in her care for Yeong-Hye, and is haunted by her mental and physical deterioration as she strives to transcend her human body and its physical needs to become a tree. However, she begins to understand the significance of her sister’s rebellion, as draws further away from the limitations of society:

“She’d been unable to forgive her for soaring alone over a boundary she herself could never bring herself to cross, unable to forgive that magnificent irresponsibility that had enabled Yeong-hye to shuck off social constraints and leave her behind, still a prisoner.”

The Vegetarian was inspired in part by Han Kang’s memories of the Gwanju uprising when she moved to Seoul as a child, where hundreds of pro-democracy protesters were attacked and killed by government soldiers. Contrasting imagery of the constraints of civilisation against the dark purity of nature, the text weaves an allegory of Korea’s political climate. It explores the contradiction inherent in human nature, with its capacity both for violence and innocence. In-hye’s long, rainy bus-rides through the Ch’ukseong mountains give us a glimpse of the “undulating forests which blanket the continents like a heartless sea”, the dark, primeval forests battened against humanity, suggesting something wild and untouchable. Yeong-hye’s transformation reverts her to a primal state of being, connecting her to this sacred wilderness and incorruptible by human callousness.

In The Vegetarian, Han Kang creates a lyrical fable about one woman’s abandonment of self as she seeks to transcend her being to become a tree. It throws into question the nature of our identities and what it means to be human, and binds it all together with swirling, hypnotic prose. It leaves me so much to think about – even now, a day after finishing the book, I’m not sure I’ve digested everything it has to offer.

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house of leaves / / the first 120 pages

house of leaves coverI’m finding myself struggling through Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves. I’m not sure why. It’s utterly beautiful, intriguing; a dark, labyrinthine story within a story within a story. And yet still I find myself struggling, barely getting through more than a couple of pages at a time. The structure of the book is a challenge, sending me up and down, forwards and backwards through a maze of footnotes, endnotes, translations, appendices and exhibits… most of which turn out to lead nowhere at all, like wrong turns in a maze. It moves between segments of critical analysis, and stream-of-consciousness interior monologue as it alternates narration. One quote in particular resonated with my slow progress:

        “Si on lit trop vite oú trop doucement, on n’entend.”

(If one reads too quickly or too slowly, one understands nothing.)

So, time to pick up the pace. This is a book that deserves study, journaling. Every time I open it, I find something new – a beautiful turn of phrase, an unfamiliar word, a literary allusion to be explored, or a clue to the book’s interwoven layers of mystery. I’ve only made it through 120 odd pages, but already I have so many thoughts on the text as it draws me deeper and deeper into it.

The story itself embodies a trope common to many horror films: husband and wife with a strained marriage and two young children move into a new house in the suburbs that hides a sinister secret. However, it is made unique by the framing of the text. House of Leaves is three stories in one. The main body of the text concerns a fictional film, The Navidson Record, produced by photojournalist Will Navidson and his wife, Karen Green, to document their experiences in their new house. The documentary is described through the lens of a critical analysis by the academic, Zampanó, which is in turn found in the deceased author’s house by waylaid tattooist Johnny Truant, who provides his own parallel narration in the footnotes as he pieces together Zampanó’s text. (It’s hard to make this sound less convoluted.) A story within a story within a story.the house on ash tree lane

As the characters begin to explore their unusual house, the horror creeps up on the reader slowly, quietly, both momentarily redirected and foreshadowed by Zampanó’s segues. In one of my favourite chapters so far, Zampanó discusses acoustic theory alongside the myth of Echo and Narcissus.

“Myth makes Echo the subject of longing and desire. Physics makes Echo the subject of distance and design. Where emotion and reason are concerned both claims are accurate.

And where there is no Echo there is no description of space or love.

There is only silence.”

This evokes both the distance and silence in Navidson’s relationship with his wife, and the limitless, silent space that the house occupies: a space outside of regular space and time, impenetrable by light and sound. The house presents a domestic horror, one that threatens mundane and ordinarily comforting institutions like “family” and “home” as it throws its walls between them.

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The structure of the text is disruptive, sending the reader through a web of footnotes that break up paragraphs, interrupt sentences with Johnny Truant’s narration of the strange happenings in his own life as he uncovers the mysteries of Zampanó’s manifesto, text that reads upside down, back to front, diagonally, occupies only the edges of the pages, or paragraphs that become smaller and smaller and smaller from page to page to mimic the psychological experience of the characters. This structure throws the reader into the strange dimensions of the house, into the confusion of the book’s subjects as they try to piece together this spatial enigma.

This is a story about so many things. It is a metaphysical horror, a rumination on existential philosophy, classic literature and Greek mythology. It is a story about a family, a marriage, a love. A house that is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside, and a journey into unknown places. Most of all, this is a novel about space, both interior and exterior, both physical and spiritual, occupying the dark, secret ambages that within the walls of our selves.

“This desire for exteriority is no doubt further amplified by the utter blackness found within.”

I’ll update as I work my way further through the text. If anyone else has read this incredible book, I would love to hear your thoughts. And if you haven’t, read it!

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