This Census-Taker by China Miéville
|Book Name:||This Census-Taker|
|Publisher(s):||Del Rey (US) and Picador (UK)|
|Formatt:||Ebook, Hardback, Paperback|
|Genre(s):||Fantasy / New Weird|
|Release Date:||Jan 12, 2016 (US) and Feb 25, 2016 (UK)|
Before you start reading China Miéville’s new novella, This Census-Taker, you should ask yourself how you feel about movies such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner, The Thing, Total Recall, The Shining, Shane, American Psycho, or Inception. In other words, how do you feel about ambiguity in your story? How do you feel about a movie that raises more questions than answers? Are you willing to walk away without everything being tied up? Or does it frustrate you, not knowing definitively what actually happened? The reason I bring this up is that This Census-Taker is ambiguous throughout, and question after question is raised, while only a handful are ever fully resolved.
Now that isn’t to say that This Census-Taker is a bad book. In fact, this ambiguity makes the story far more disturbing and unsettling. Those unresolved questions rattled around in my head long after I finished the story, forcing me to reexamine minute details and question the reliability of the narrator. Considering this novella clocks in at only around 200 pages, it’s an impressive feat. This story punches above its weight, creating more of an impact on me than many door-stoppers.
This Census-Taker takes place in a world built up and down the sides of two mountains, a lone bridge crossing the gap between then. Atop one mountain is a remote house whose closest neighbors are witches and hermits hidden away. In that house lives a mother, father, and a young boy. One day, that boy runs into two, screaming about a murder he witnessed. Or at least he thinks he has. His uncertainty about the crime and the disappearance of key evidence (if there ever was any) let the officials quickly close this case after minimal investigation, leaving the boy alone with his mysterious and frightening father. The boy tries to escape this predicament, but fails, repeatedly. When a census-taker arrives, the boy must decide if he is an ally or yet another danger who is not what he seems.
This Census-Taker is a more restrained Miéville story: his usual flair for oddity and baroque language turned down a few notches. His world building and word choice is not as ornate, detailed, or out-there as fans of his previous novels might expect. That’s not to say that I didn’t want to look up the odd word or that this is a boring, dull world. Quite the contrary. There are hints of a war against intelligent machines. There are magical keys that maybe unlock the answers to difficult problems instead of doors. Orphans fish for bats flying out from under a bridge. But that’s just it—Miéville only offers hints and little drips of detail because the narrator is only a boy operating in a complex, mysterious world of adults. It also doesn’t help that he is also largely naïve and not curious about that world. There’s enough there for readers to draw conclusions, but your conclusions might be different from mine.
You see, while some things may be simpler than a typical Miéville novel, that doesn’t mean it’s a straightforward story. The novella is being written decades later by the man the boy has become. And this is a story of memory: how it changes due to fear, trauma, and the passage of time. Reality within This Census-Taker is a slippery thing. And for an added degree of difficulty, right from the first line, Miéville warps perspective: “A boy ran down a hill path screaming. The boy was I.” The novella blends third-person perspective told in the past tense, first-person perspective told in the present, and even some second-person perspective. This allows Miéville to examine what people tend to remember years later, what they don’t, why, and how our focus and understanding of the world changes with age. Then again, sometimes that understanding can remain shallow and unchanging, no matter how mature we may become.
At times it reads like a fairy tale, with monsters lurking in the shadows and children finding ways to survive violent adults. But the story has a sinister edge that creates an unsettling and weird tone. Nevertheless, ultimately it is a fascinating story that is part recollection, part apology, part confession, part cry for help. It pushed me away at the same time it drew me closer. It’s confusing, beautiful, provocative, frustrating, and rewarding. This is a quick read, but it’s not a fluff piece. The questions raised by the story stuck with me long after I closed the book, and my suspicions and theories changed the more I thought about it. I have a feeling I’m going to be re-reading and re-re-reading this one, liking it more and more each time.