Like it says on the title page, this novella is mystery fiction. I could not figure out, even though I have read it three or four times already, where it is set or when. On first reading it is short and simple, but somehow seems obscure, and trying to clarify it simply creates more questions. However, I thought it was strangely charming and very, very good. Not his best, since it is on a smaller scale than his previous books, but still, pretty darn amazing. To think that such a short book can bring up so many questions. Miéville is a Poet of Sci-Fi. But unlike all the other novels in which he has created secondary worlds that are completely coherent and minutely detailed, from the through-the-looking-glass London in Un Lun Dun, to New Crobuzon in Perdido Street Station, to Besźel and Ul Qoma in The City & The City, this is an indeterminate, nameless setting.
The same unidentified and unidentifiable settings can be found in Doug Dorst and JJ Abrams’s novel “S”. I commented at the time that “S” was frustratingly vague, but that the lack of the usual details made the reader focus on the underlying message, which was, in contrast, as fiendishly complicated as a murder mystery. This Census-Taker is different though. Instead of a Baroque-style canvas of rich text, complex characters, a convoluted subtext and many different, and weird, settings, this mystery is as plain as an egg. Or so it seems. This is no “moveable feast” set in many worlds. This is a spare diet. But, each word is carefully picked and placed – Miéville’s imprecision has power and purpose. I had the feeling that Miéville had built a pause into the start of each paragraph, in the way that some flowed together, others abruptly shifted tone or voice or setting. Each sentence, like a poem, is arranged to mean one thing, but sometimes imply another thing altogether with the choice of just one word. There are only 30 chapters, and in my e-book version, just 265 pages.
Superficially, it is a simple tale, told from two points of view, a child, and the child as an adult, the adult census-taker to which the title refers. The child witnesses his father kill; first a dog, then his mother (he thinks), then other people. (If there is some kind of sci-fi touch to it, it is the fantastical quality of the keys that the father makes for “the things for which people usually ask – love, money, to open things, to know the future, to fix animals, to fix things, to be stronger, to hurt someone or save someone or save someone, to fly…” (p. 26).)
There are clues to what the place is, and in what age the action occurs, but they are contradictory – the place might be a terraced village in China, or two hilltop villages in Italy or, South Africa, or Middle Ages England somewhere, or nowhere. Or everywhere. Or a fictitious place. It’s just called “the bridgetown” because it is spread over two hills connected by a bridge.
Clues to the location include the cover of a photo of Mt. Huangshan, China. The attic of the house where the boy lives has wallpaper of “tangled flowers and pagodas” (p. 15) The boy watches hill animals around his house, including “dassies” (p. 16) – Dassies is South African English (actually Afrikaans) for the rock badger or Cape Hyrax, found primarily in South Africa. His mother’s skin is “dark gray” and folded. Dark Grey? African? Middle Eastern? On the other hand, his father is a tall, pale man from a town by the sea – somewhere Scandinavian?
In terms of ages, or a specific time, Miéville uses words like “boscage”, which is a fairly obscure word for a bit of forest, and dates from Middle English (1350 to 1400). On p. 25, he refers to an old holy person as having “bony vatic shoulders”. “Vatic” means “able to predict the future” or “prophetic”, and it is also an obscure old word. So also is “pinchbeck”, which he uses to describe the self-exile of ascetics, but which means something counterfeit or spurious, from the noun pinchbeck, which is an alloy used to imitate gold, and this word dates from the mid 18th century. Miéville mentions paper and “tin” money, meaning farthings and halfpennies of 17th century England. On the very next page, though, he refers to “bigger and more intricate things than birds passed over us through that thin air” (planes?) and the sound of an “engine or the percussion of a distant shotgun”. Further on, p. 36, he refers to “plastic wrappers”. And, the adult boy in lives in a city that “switches to neon” in the dark (p.40).
The location and the history remain frustratingly unclear, even when the boy tries to find out where his parents came from.
“Before we were born, rumors of distant insurrection had meant the ordering of destruction, the gleeless dismembering of all such geared constructed figures [engines]. One of a sequence of imbricated [arranged to overlap like roof tiles] catastrophes our town had imported from the little coast city, which had itself succumbed to the anxiety, as we all did with so many, as a contagion from another vast country.” (p.112)
This might well be commentary on the current situation in the Middle East. Or something from Medieval times. Some fans have speculated that the setting is Bas-Lag, one of Miéville’s fictional worlds which contains both magic and steampunk technology. But again, that is just guesswork.
Apart from contradictory clues about location and period, Miéville also points out contradictions in the languages spoken by the villagers and their use of words. The boy’s father is probably illiterate in the language of the bridgetown, so his mother teaches him some reading and writing, but his eventual manager, the foreign census-taker, teaches him the power of words. Miéville uses as an example the term “sun-writing”, another word for a heliograph, an old way of communication, which over time changed to “light-drawing”, a modern photographic technique, over time (p.50). Again, there is this mixture of old and modern terms.
Narrators – boy and man
Even who the narrator is, is not clear, with Miéville switching narrators, from one line to the next. “A boy ran down a hill path screaming. The boy was I. …he stumbled and careered and it seemed many times as if he would fall into the rocks and gorse that surrounded the footpath, but I kept to my feet and ascended into the shadow of my hill.” (pp.10-11, my italics)
At times, the narrative is deeply, compellingly direct and personal. Other times, the narrator speaks as if he is quoting from a handbook on how to organize the world, how to take a census.
American vs. British English
I found the publication’s American English irritating since I know Miéville is British. Apart from the normal differences in spelling with z’s and ou’s, he uses specific terms, such as the word “stories”, American English, rather than “storeys”, British English (p. 14), but on the other hand, he uses the word “Mum” (p. 18), which is far more prevalent in the UK than the USA, where “Mom” would be more common. However, the acknowledgements states that much of the book was written during a fellowship at the MacDowell Colony Peterborough, New Hampshire, and during a residency fellowship of the Lannan Foundation, Marfa, Texas. Both locations are American, which might explain the choice of mostly American English. Or maybe introducing these “slips” is just an other technique to prevent the reader from having stylistic preconceptions when reading it.
Obfuscation in plain language
So Miéville thoroughly messes with the reader’s head in this novella. There is no respite from the obfuscation delivered in such very plain language. It is a contradiction in terms, but it diverts the reader’s attention from the setting to the basic plot: the child’s terrible fear of his father, his attempts to run away from the strange place where he lives, the hole where his father dumped the rubbish and the corpses, and his rescue and subsequent training by a census-taker, of all people. The boy’s fear of his father is very strikingly portrayed – you can almost feel his fear, and this acts as a convincing motivator for his actions.
“…and I was alone with him on the cold hill and I could do nothing. I stayed still as long as I could as if something might happen but it didn’t, and when it didn’t I shuffled as slowly as I could out from the vegetation, I dragged my toes against the ground but it was as if there was nowhere to go but to him. He smiled as I came. He looked as if he might cry. ‘Hello again,’ my father whispered. He kept his hand out until I took it. His skin was tough and warm. I felt sick to touch it. ‘Come on,’ he said. ‘I’ll feed you. Come on.’” (p. 135).
Miéville makes this sound innocuous and threatening at the same time.
An unlikely hero, an unreliable narrator
People who work with numbers and words are unlikely heroes. You don’t often find super-hero accountants, librarians or, for that matter census-takers. But here we have a census-taker hero. I will not spoil the ending by telling what happens when he takes the boy at his word and investigates the hole.
The boy is a good candidate to become a census-taker, someone who records and organizes all they see in the world: “Sometimes she smiled in a cold way at the anxiety her random methods raised in me.” The boy is taken away and taught how to become a census-taker. He is taught that the purpose of doing a census is to “take accounts, keep estimates, realize interests”.
In fact, doing so gives him the power to control his environment and his purpose in life, whether or not he was insane, lost, in trouble or not.
“You can count a city in a room, in your head. You can be taught that, and if you are you might learn that you already knew how to do it, and if you do you’ll have to learn to accommodate a new purpose, to encompass and itemize for a goal, to make it yours. With such intent, everything will be more concrete, the boundaries of the counted city circumscribed more precisely, and you may be more or less lost, or as lost as before. Were you lost? You don’t have to know: you can go along with things.” (p.105)
It might just be possible that the world of the child was his fantasy, and that as an adult he is, in fact, insane: “I am an honored guest here, which is why there are two guards outside my door to take care of me, for when I do my work. That’s what my hosts said, with such courtesy and conviction that I wonder if they’ve come to believe it.” (p. 40). Perhaps rather medical orderlies outside a hospital ward, than bodyguards?
The boy is certainly peculiar, saying strange and unexpected things when he is unnerved: “I’d run to her and tell her urgently that the birds above us should have the heads of dogs.” (p.75) Or “I saw something,’ I said. ‘A tree was walking.” (p.89)
Since he is a strange child who says strange things, the townspeople probably think he is “crying wolf” and do not want to believe him when he says his mother has not gone away, and that his father killed her. Nor do they want to investigate that there are things that his father has beaten to death and thrown into the pit “to feed the darkness”. He thinks that’s what he saw, but he says; “I had never seen my father kill a person, which I’m sure is what I saw, before the time I ran, but I think that was at least the third he had.” (p.91).
But his mother knows, he thinks, and tries to protect him. “The thought of my father in his calm-faced mood raised dread in me again but, again, not only dead: that time came something like a kind of muted happiness of which I’m not ashamed. In that moment, my mother took me.” (p.99) Of course, the boy might have imagined the whole thing. When he questions his father’s love for him, his father responds “Don’t say that,’…He whispered it to me through the window. He put his hands to his cheek and his trembling mouth. ‘Don’t. Don’t.’” (p.171).
The moments when his father shows tenderness and concern are as troubling as the moments when the boy thinks his father is killing someone or something with total calm. And ultimately, if you read the last few lines of the book a couple of times, it seems as though the whole episode in the bridgetown was just something he had drawn on the wall of their house. “…but, too, I think I dreamed of another city than that conical one of the discarded, that I’d visited that place I’d started to draw between the flowers on the wall, the uncertain charcoal city…”.
The purpose of census-taking
I’m inclined to interpret the story as a contrast between the rationality of the census-taker and the mind-clouding fear of the boy. The foreign census-taker comes to talk to him and his father because there are holes in the information he has about these two people. He wants to ask more questions. He wants to know things and complete his information. He counts people and things in sets, and records them, down to the very last family he has to account for. In order to “Reach Our Government’s Ultimate Ends” (p.256). Whether it is a bad or a good thing for a government to know everything and all there is to know about a people is the question. Certainly the boy finds safety in his role as census-taker, but he does seem to be prisoner. Earlier on in the narrative, and I would call this boy/man an unreliable narrator, he says: “Yes, there are papers here from when this story was started, not by me.” Does he mean the papers are not by him, or that he did not start the story? Later the adult census-taker looks at the record of what had happened as if he had not written the record, but inherited it, with parts written in a child’s language, of a child’s observations, but another child, not him. Who knows? Just one more puzzling detail.
The gist of the novella
That I suppose is the gist of the novella: You should not believe everything you read. Words have power and can change themselves, their users or the world. As the Census-Taker explains to the boy who becomes his trainee: ”You never put anything down except to be read. Every word is written to be read and if some go unread that’s only chance, failure, they’re like grubs that die without changing.’” (p. 41).
The boy learns to keep three books of statistics. The first is just the numbers, for everyone to read though most would not know how. The second book is the public record. The 3rd is a secret version, for his eyes only, about his life. The 2nd book is meant to be read by all:
“It’s the book for telling: no code for that one. But… you can still use if to tell secrets and send messages. Even so, You could say them right out, but you can hide them in the words too, in their letters, in the ordering on lines, the arrangements and the rhythms. He said, The second book’s performance.” (p.43).
Link that with the comment: “In Keying, No Obstacle Withstands” and you could interpret it that the keys made by the boy’s father (to life, the universe and everything) were powerful unlockers of the secrets of the world, just as language is, and as documenting the world is. The power to observe, document, question and communicate, and in doing so, unlock the secrets of the world, comes through as a very strong motivator throughout the book. “Watergate” reporter, the great Carl Bernstein, said recently in his commentary about Wikileaks and social media;
“I think that today, too many people are not interested in the best attainable version of the truth. They’re really interested in information that will buttress what they already believe. Ammunition for their political beliefs that they already hold.”
This is what the boy census-taker has to learn not to be.
Supporting this theory is the epigraph quote from Jane Gaskell, Some Summer Lands. One must never ignore epigraphs. They are there for a reason. Jane Gaskell wrote weird fiction and, in 1970, received the Somerset Maugham Award for her novel A Sweet Sweet Summer, jointly with Piers Paul Read who received it for Monk Dawson.
“Like all these long low squat houses, it had been built not for but against. They were built against the forest, against the sea, against the elements, against the world. They had roof-beams and doors and hatred – as though in this part of the world an architect always included hatred among his tools, and said to his apprentice: ‘Mind you’ve bought along enough hatred today.’”
The book has a sub-theme of hatred which runs end to end – the boy for his father, his mother for his father, his father for his clients and for the foreign census-taker, the townspeople for his parents and for the wild beggar children. What the census does is to neutralize hatred-filled situations in the town, and in the country, and even in the neighbouring countries, by being a record of the situation stated as neutral, objective numbers and facts. By simply interrogating and documenting the world, the foreign census-taker allays the boy’s fear, and is himself immune to the town’s hatred and quite powerful. Of all the characters, he is the calm, considered, fearless one.
Theme of the novella
Miéville has stated on more than one occasion, in various ways, that he is “not a leftist trying to smuggle in my evil message by the nefarious means of fantasy novels. I’m a science fiction and fantasy geek. I love this stuff. And when I write my novels, I’m not writing them to make political points.” So there. But there is a theme in this book: the importance of ferreting out the truth, of questioning established authority, of avoiding emotionalism. Well, I’m guessing.
Probably he meant no such thing and this is just not the standard novella. Compare it to that characteristics of a novella, and it only partially matches:
- Fewer conflicts than in a novel (there are a lot in here);
- More complicated conflicts than a short story (true, very complicated);
- More time to develop conflicts than in short stories (not much longer, some conflicts are unresolved);
- Not divided into chapters (this one is);
- Intended to be read at a single sitting (yes, I did, but had to repeat it a couple of time);
- Maintaining “a single effect” (yes, definitely);
- Novellas usually lack subplots and the multiple points of view (not this one);
- Not concerned with the larger social sphere, but remains personal (again, not this one – it smacks of social commentary);
The only features that make this one a novella is that is says so on the title page, that it is shorter than his usual novels and that his writing style is, as I said, simple. Short sentences. Short words, plainly put, almost old-fashionedly formal. But again, not always.
It is a fascinating hybrid in form, nonetheless. I am wondering exactly what Miéville intended with this novel. Probably you, dear reader, should go onto the “interweb” and find out if he said something – or ask the man directly. And do not believe all you read on social media sites. I am basing my opinion purely on what I thought about it when I read it directly with my own two eyes and made sense of it all by myself and read no other reviews. Like a good census-taker. And I thought it was intriguing and very, very good. Not his best, but still, it packs a pretty punch in a small package. To think that such a short book can bring up so many questions. He is definitely a Poet of Sci-Fi.