This Census-Taker

April 27, 2017 at 5:00 pm (Reads)

censusThis Census-Taker by China Miéville


My experience with Miéville has been a mixed bag. I tried reading Perdido Street Station several years back, and gave up on it about a hundred pages into it. (It’s since been put back on my to-read list.) I started and finished Un Lun Dun a few years ago, and liked it, but that could have been because it was like Clive Barker retelling The Phantom Tollbooth by way of Neil Gaiman, and besides, looking at other Miéville fans’ reviews of that book, it’s pretty much unlike everything else he’s written. Why I decided to tackle This Census-Taker is a good question, one I’m not sure I could answer well.

The story is about (I think) a man who’s writing a book about an earlier time in his life. He’s recalling the time of his youth when his father killed his mother, going back to set the stage for their place in the village where they live, and then showing the events as he recalls them. That’s the sense I get out of the story, but I could be wrong, since it took until past the 100-page mark for me to start getting a feel for what this story was about.

Miéville writes in an obtuse style here, which just annoys me. He shifts from first person to third person within sections, and at one point even started writing in the second person. He’s intentionally vague, uses a lot of symbolic language, and never comes right out and says what it is he’s trying to say. Once the story got underway, he started writing in a more approachable style, and the story was intriguing enough that I couldn’t help but wonder why he chose to write the rest of the story the way he did.

At the risk of sounding anti-intellectual, I don’t understand why writers write in such a way as to create barriers for their readers. I took enough English classes to understand the use of symbolism, allegory, metaphor, and the rest (I majored in the dang subject, for crying out loud), but I’ve read stories that were much easier to understand that had all of those characteristics. What’s the point? Why make readers work for what could otherwise be an entertaining, thoughtful story?

I also play board games, and one of my favorites, Age of Steam, has a reputation for being an unforgiving, antagonizing game. It’s been revised a couple of different times, each time making it a bit more approachable, but neither of those revisions have satisfied players who enjoyed the original. It comes down to the fact that the people who enjoy Age of Steam don’t like it despite it being unforgiving and difficult; they enjoy it because it’s all of those things. Maybe the same could be said of Miéville’s fans. When it comes to fiction, though, for me, the function has to come before the form, and in the case of Miéville, he seems more interested in the form. Here’s hoping that Perdido Street Station will keep my interest when I get around to re-reading it.


  1. bormgans said,

    I guess it’s meant to be approached like abstract art: form instead of representation, mood before plot?

  2. Isaac said,

    Maybe so. I’m not a fan of abstract art, either, though.

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