Friday, December 2, 2016

The Last Days of New Paris

The Last Days of New ParisThe Last Days of New Paris by China Miéville
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

China Miéville has an imagination that runs in overdrive, seemingly fueled by LSD or other mind-altering drugs, because his books contain some of the weirdest and most bizarre (in a good sense) ideas and plots in any fiction I’ve read. (And since I’ve been reading for over 55 years, that’s a lot of fiction!) This latest novella is a perfect example of his glorious weirdness. The fundamental plot line - that a “surrealist bomb” exploded in WWII Paris, unleashing living manifestations of surrealist art - is amazingly original and bizarre. I mean, who thinks of stuff like this?

The book opens in 1950, in “New Paris” where we are introduces to Thibault, a French freedom fighter. But what he is fighting is not just Nazis, but “manifs” - pieces of surrealist art come to life - and also demons from hell. The reader is not explicitly told these things, we simply discover them through Thibault’s experiences and memories. In this version of Paris, WWII never ended, and Paris is quarantined from the rest of the world, to keep the manifs from spreading. It is a gritty, dangerous place, and we feel Thibault’s sense of desperation and despair.

Alternate chapters flash back to 1942, where we learn about the “S-bomb” that resulted in the creation of the manifs and the opening of hell, which unleashed the demons. We get a veritable who’s who of surrealist artists and philosophers, as we see the events unfolding. (For art aficionados, there is a handy appendix that references the actual works of art that are manifesting.)

The afterword of the narrative purports to be the tale of how Miéville came to write this book - from a retelling by Thibault himself. I’m not sure that this added anything to the story for me, but it’s mildly intriguing, nonetheless.

The real brilliance of the book is the world of New Paris. The reader is immersed in its danger and its weirdness, as we follow Thibault throughout his day. Miéville makes the bizarre - living works of art - fit into the world in a cohesive whole. A weird whole, but a whole, nonetheless. You get the feeling that this could really happen, it seems so real.

Miéville is a great storyteller, and while this book doesn’t have quite the narrative depth of some of his longer works, the characters are fully realized, and the world-building is masterful. For anyone who enjoys a bit of weirdness in their fiction, this book is for you!

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