Francis Spufford’s review of This Census Taker in The Guardian, heads the “stoic bleakness” in the novel with a choice of author photograph designed to bring out the same qualities. The familiar image of China Miéville: tats, muscles, shorn head, undisputed winner of any imaginary fight with pretty well any living male author of his size and weight you could name, is spot on. Having encountered him, on the other side of a book signing table, courteously and briefly explaining the meaning of “perichoresis,” the image remains, translated permanently into a muscular imagination of mindnumbing flexibility that nobody with any sense would think of arguing with.
What struck me about This Census Taker, however, was a glimpse of the naked author. I’m interested in the idea of the naked author; this for me is where something appears in the story that remains unresolved. Why China Miéville and why this novella? Because Miéville’s ability to hew out new genres by virtue of an imagination you could break rocks with proves the unresolved feeling at the core of This Census Taker is nothing to do with an inability to tell the story.
That is in not in any way to suggest the imagination isn’t still on rock-breaking form. It is another extraordinary experience of a world both familiar and then – not. Headlong as the boy running down the hill screaming in the opening paragraph, the tense shifts, POV breaks, swoops, returns, little animals dislodged from their genres scuttle ahead. The ride has started. Now keep your hands inside the car!
” I shouted, ‘My mother killed my father!’ “
This, said at the end of the opening section, is not fixed or certain; it soon becomes apparent that this is the complete opposite to what he thinks has happened, and we have no way of knowing, by the end of the book, whether that has happened or not.
Miéville’s fiction, any reading of his sparse non-fiction political standpoints confirms, has no more authorial authority than a ride operator sending you, strapped into immobility, on your way. Miéville does not establish his authority by being Miéville but by his skill as an author. Which is why I think we see a glimpse of the naked author in a story which leaves uncertainty at its heart. After all, we are not in the hands of the ‘unreliable narrator’ of less ambitious storytellers as the reveal on the boy emerges early. He is unreliable by virtue of being a boy, and the unsettling shifts in his age, while including the adult, never give us the simple resolution of adulthood or a simple rite-of-passage tale. He achieves authority and adulthood but we have no more sense of what the authority is based on than we know what his father’s skilled craftsmanship of keys to unlock impossible secrets, consists of. The craftmanship of Miéville’s world-building in this novel, in primitive retreat from some apocalyptic state to urban fable, the glimpses of the fully-fledged worlds of his other novels, are like one of the keys. We are handed a key crafted with enormous ingenuity, but it doesn’t unlock the story.
The only reason, for me, why a writer of Miéville’s imaginative muscle would not give us the key to this world, is that we are not supposed to have it. This Census Taker is crafted with great skill to leave us, regular readers and committed apprentices of that skill alike, with something beyond solving. The confusion of the boy, left by one parent in a way that throws doubt on the other is left vividly unresolved. He finds stability as a census-taker; but whether or not he is this census taker, the authority of a “census taker” in this post-apocalyptic world is unclear.
Like the hole in the hill that receives the dismembered animal bodies of his father’s unexplained episodes of violence, the mystery of the mother’s disappearance is never fully explained. Like the boy, the story skirts around the contents of the pit, revealing possibilities of the unspeakable without answers. The craftmanship in leaving this uncertainty at the heart of This Census Taker makes this, for me, one of the most vivid examples of the naked author.
The next example appears in Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant.