Saturday, December 24, 2011

China Mieville and Preserving the Mystery

I have read an entire, 400-page book today: Embassytown by China Miéville. And it has made me think. So, I thought I would record some of my thoughts here, for me and maybe for you too. This novel is his 9th book - 8 previous novels and one short story collection - and it is quite astonishing. And I might even say brilliant. It is a novel about language, about truth and lies, about simile and metaphor, set on another planet about humans and aliens. It is unlike anything I have ever read before, anything. It itself is a metaphor.

What's so amazing is Miéville's language. Look at this, the opening paragraph of the book:
The children of the embassy all saw the boat land. Their teachers and shiftparents had had them painting it for days. One wall of the room had been given over to their ideas. It's been centuries since any voidcraft vented fire, as they imagined this one doing, but it's a tradition to represent them with such trails. When I was young, I painted ships in the same way. 
Anyone understand this? Anyone know exactly where we are, what's going on? How many words we've never seen before? Enough to signal we're in a new territory, literally and linguistically.

Perhaps this is familiar from science fiction novels, I don't know. I'm reading more and more work that is labelled "science fiction" but Miéville prefers to call his writing "new weird" and that sounds about right to me. Anyway, there are those readers who will no doubt be put off by this opening, or if not then by all the continuing novelty that swiftly follows. This is an introduction that is almost an anti-introduction. It almost says: "You will not understand me, but if you persevere it will be worth it". And it is.

Suffice it to say, Embassytown is an immensely complex novel which employs Miéville's new and highly inventive language and concepts to illustrate fundamentals about how we communicate, the need to be able to lie, and about love, friendship, community, safety, war and power. He doesn't provide definitions of his many, many new words, and that's what captivated me - I had to work hard, I couldn't skim anything, just to keep my footing, or at least one foot on the ground! And I loved that.

Now here's an interesting thing: I found the final 100 pages less compelling. Yes,  it was a happy-ish ending, yes it tied up lots of loose ends. But I think it was more than that, I believe it was because I finally understood all the new words, got to grips with the novel concepts, which species was which, who did what. The mystery? Gone.

This made me think, of course, about my own writing. And also about the stories i am reading as part of the sifting I am doing for a short story competition. How often do you read a story that keeps you working hard? How much more compelling is it if the story doesn't give itself away too soon? However, the majority of the stories I've read for competitions not only give it away, they then add far too much information. Background, backstory... descriptions, explanations... All of which, for this reader at least, serve to push me away from the story. I think, Well, why should I keep reading? What's there left to find out? What's the mystery?

I do try and apply this to my own work, although it's harder to know how a reader who is not me will read it, since I am all-knowing (well mostly) about my own story. I tend to err on the side of too mysterious, too cryptic and minimalist, I think. But I think that it's better to err on that side, have your reader a little confused and curious than pile on information and lose their interest completely.

What helps (and here's a clumsy segue into the other thing I wanted to mention!) is having a trusted reader or group of readers read your work, not something I do that often anymore. "Trusted" is not easy to come by, and as Robin Black talks about in her excellent blog post over at Beyond the Margins,  sharing work can lead to horrible experiences. She suggests that reading and commenting on a writing colleague's work should be "a process of honoring the fact that the piece exists at all, as opposed to shredding or praising it." I like this very very much, she gives eminently sensible advice and airs issues that are not often talked about public. Check out the blog post,  On Reading One Another's Work.

I also highly recommend China Miéville's writings. I loved his short story collection, Looking for Jake (published in 2005 and reviewed on The Short Review here), which is weird but very different from Embassytown, and am going to seek out more of his books. I hear him speak recently at the One Culture science and literature festival held in the Royal Society in London and was extremely impressed by the way he talks about writing, about stories, about genre pigeon-holing. You can read a blog report of that event on the Royal Society's blog.

And perhaps, as 2011 draws to a close and 2012 approaches, next year will be a year of opening ourselves up to the mysterious in our writing? Of giving the reader some space to figure things out for him or herself? And of celebrating that in our colleagues' work too, if they share it with us. A giving-in to the not-knowing, perhaps. Because, really, what do we actually know? Happy holidays, everyone.


Benjamin Judge said...

Your post has just sent me off to a popular book-selling website; there goes the Christmas money.

You are so very right about the need for more not knowing (or less knowing) in our writing, and reading, of fiction. Even the seperation of 'science fiction' and 'mainstream' comes from a need to know part of the story before it even begins. To fix things. We should be more open to mystery.

Great post.

Vanessa Gebbie said...

Ah T, this is such a perfect end to the year - and yes yes yes - mystery-embracing is certainly on the cards here, getting further and further away from what I understand myself, as I write. It'll be helluva job when editing, but what the hell - its fun.
I love that first paragraph. It says 'I am confident in what I do. You can be confident of a worthwhile read...'

happy 2012

Tania Hershman said...

Benjamin, I really hope you enjoy it! I was lucky enough to be lent a copy, but there's always libraries? Very interesting point about the often-artificial genre distinctions being about us desperately needing to know something, have some clue, before we even start reading. How about anonymous books a la Jane Austen, perhaps??

V - lovely to hear that, how wonderful for the writer to be compelled herself to write in order to solve the mystery, I love it when that happens. And yes about the first para and confidence- perhaps that confidence comes with having already published many books - I shall be reading everything else he's written, just to find out! Happy Mysterious 2012 to you too!

Steve said...

A timely reminder as I sit down to do some writing this morn, Tania.

(I find a bit of blog-reading procrastination always helps...NOT).

Oh and congrats for the New Scientist story. Made me think about all the stuff I'm supposed to be doing in order to attain X, when in fact I'm really doing them for Y.

chillcat said...

Hi Tania,
Thanks for the link to Robin's blog entry. I loved her stories and she is a very generous writer. I agree that it is so hard to find the right reader for one's work, and to give the right type of response as a reader. No writer deserves to be cut down and injured, and yet we writers have to choose readers who might be insightful and incisive, a tricky dance of respect. I haven't had too many bad experiences, although the wait for a first reader response is one of the longest and most exquisite. Best wishes for 2012!

Tania Hershman said...

Steve, glad to be your procrastination of choice! And thanks for the congrats... not sure I understand the Xs and Ys... :)

Cat, thanks, she is isn't she? best wishes to you too!

Maree Kimberley said...

I'm almost finished reading Kraken, the first of Mieville's books I've read. Like you Tania, I found it challenging in the way he twists language and just makes words up - you can't skim! I'm enjoying Kraken, though with around 100 pages to go I have to admit I'm ready for it to end. But I love the way he can create an alternative world and people it with so many characters, and they're all memorable. I plan to read more of his work this year.


Great post, T. Thanks for the Robin Black link, will check it out asap. Happy new year!

World Famous said...

Congrats.... and Did a great job keep it up..
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