Quietly but noticeably to the so-inclined, elements of the visual arts have formed parts of China Mieville’s fiction. Monsters and monster stories forming the lion’s share, hiding in the interstices are uncanny things like the flexible streets of “Reports of Certain Events in London” and the Borges’ influenced imagos of “The Tain”, the intangible crosshatching of The City & the City and the floating icebergs of “Polynia”. Sometimes an accent and sometimes a set piece, surrealism has been a key artistic informer to Mieville’s fiction to date. But nothing has to appeared yet like 2016’s The Last Days of New Paris. Lion’s share and interstitial resident, Mieville fully immerses himself, and thus the reader, in the artistic form.
Outlay to 20 th century French surrealism in an alternate history WWII setting, The Last Days of New Paris portrays a 1950s scene wherein a group of bohemiam artists in Paris have accidentally set off an S-blast—a shockwave of surrealist force—that has brought to life imaginings hitherto limited to paint and canvas. Reactions to the explosion differing, some, like the character Thibault, try desperately to escape the queer, ethereal, and sometimes horrific manifestations now appearing on the streets. The Nazis, who still occupy France, have walled off Paris in an attempt to contain the blast, all the while trying to harness the power of some of the more demon-like manifestations. And still some people try to capture the chaos. The American photographer Sam is as much fascinated by the manifestations themselves as she is in documenting them. Coming into to contact with Thibault, the pair end up doing their best to spoil Hitler’s plans for S-blasted Paris.
Homage, exploration, sandbox, lecture—however you want to describe The Last Days of New Paris, one thing is certain: the novella is steeped in French surrealism. From the names of artists to elements of their work, Paris is well and truly turned upside down. There are some who have complained that Last Days reads as “an elaborate thought experiment, rather than a compelling fiction”. And indeed the same could be said of such works as Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, J.G. Ballard’s The Unlimited DreamCompany or The Atrocity Exhibition, or much much of Borges’ work. Thus, the reader needs to understand the following before jumping into the novella: this is not the Mieville most would expect. A love affair that has probably been bubbling in his brain for some time, it’s a book for readers who enjoy the intellectual rather than entertainment side of the author’s fiction, particularly as it relates to art and surrealism. There is an element of didacticism, and the storyline lacks the readily accessible entertainment many Mieville readers are looking for, but for the participant, interested reader, it is a real treat.
One point in Glinter’s review that I would disagree with is Mieville’s ability to make Last Days feel surreal. Glinter arguing that it failed, for me, the impression was opposite. Images and elements of surrealist art springing to life and appearing on the streets of Paris, regardless real-world history or not, it’s difficult for the novella not to feel surreal, or at least strange or uncanny, given Mieville’s descriptions of said elements. The fact the author also adds a bit of franticism to pace and mood (the prose is excellent) likewise confirms the narrative’s distance from a standard fictional reality. Glinter seemingly hung up on the analogous nature of some of the things which move from art to the real world, had Mieville added his own surreal imagining perhaps it would have been perceived as a greater success? As it stands for me, regardless the progenitor of imagery and idea, the story feels Mieville’s own—Mieville’s surreal own—even as many of the elements are taken directly from French surrealism.
I had long thought that Mieville was wasting his talents, at least partially so. Perdido Street Station, Railsea, Kraken—these are all enjoyable novels in their own right, but are not as ambitious as they might have been. The Mieville I saw in interviews was not the same on the page. With the long delay following the publishing of Embassytown in 2012, however, it seems Mieville is now interested in applying himself with more rigor. Three Moments of an Explosion is a significantly better collection than the hodge-podge of Looking at Jake and Other Stories. More experimental, more subtle, and more refined, it is a distinguished set of stories. And This Census-Taker, the other 2016 Mieville release, is the most sophisticated, ethereally real piece of fiction Mieville has achieved in long-form. While I daresay Last Days of New Paris is indeed more sandbox than political, the perception is relative. It’s “cactus men”, “giant squids”, and “inchmen” are rendered in artistic rather than cartoonish monster hues, making the story a more sophisticated read.
Thus, mainstream readers expecting more Perdido or Kraken are sure to bounce off The Last Days of New Paris. For the more discerning reader, Mieville has provided a feast of prose and imagery, motion and obscurity—fulfilling his latent potential in the process. Mieville being Mieville, I suspect he will dip into ripping good monster stories again in the future, but for the time being, we should recognize the achievement of Last Days of New Paris.