(Except for Kraken, yo.)
This Census Taker gave me pause at first, though. It just seemed so unpromising once I read the description (after buying it, of course). A boy witnesses something traumatic and grows up with a deranged parent. That's too much like real life for a lot of people in this world. It's hot and yucky out and I'm living with chronic pain and no relief. Why would I want to read this thing?
Because China Mieville, I told myself. It's China. China has only let you down once. And everything else he has done has blown you away with awesome.
Quickly once I'd started reading This.Census Taker, I found myself imagining scenes from The Bed Sitting Room again (I found a few in-your-ribs references to that nutty masterpiece in Railsea) and realized I was pretty much just straight setting this book in that very messed-up world in my head. People are always asking the narrator's father to make keys for them, often keys to "open" impossibly abstract things. Then the boy watches dad go to work making them with various weird-sounding tools, polishing them with strange powders (of which he seems to have inexhaustible supplies) and then presenting them to his customers, who are never seen again. Do these keys actually work? Are they actually keys like we think of keys?*
Have I just seen one too many Yorgos Lathimos films?
Speaking of Lathimos and his artistic ilk, we have am unreliable narrator here, of a kind and quality that would do Gene Wolfe proud. This narrator, who warns us early on that he is writing a triple account of the story he's telling: one merely enumerating, in cipher, one "performing" for public consumption in collaboration with others of his kind, and a third meant to be kept absolutely secret. I have not, as of this reading, found the key (wink) to determine what passages are from what books, but perhaps the shift in narrative person has clues. Sometimes, you see, we get a pseudo-objective third person account of the Boy's childhood; sometimes he switches to first person. Sometimes this switch happens within a paragraph, which should be annoying, but isn't.
And this boy, who of course grows up to be This Census Taker, is a poor eyewitness with poor recall (like all humans, really), so we're never even sure if he is trusting himself, let alone expecting us to. Yowza.
Unfortunately, though, reliably or notThis Boy Who Becomes This Census Taker doesn't have a lot to say, and isn't interested in clarifying anything admit what he does say. There are hints that this is a post-apocalyptic setting, and that there are still some kind of lingering ethnic tensions going on (indeed, these census takers" job is specifically to count and collect narratives on everybody from the country that is the census takers' own point of origin. This is tantalizingly sinister, especially we face the possibility of a U.S. President who insists on creating a registry of Muslims, and not so he can market a halal version of his steak to them iykwim). Our boy has no knowledge of or interest in any of that, though, just wants to keep telling us about this thing that maybe didn't even happen. The effect is kind of like watching a really sophisticated and fascinating film but with a guy sitting in the seat in front of youth constantly getting up to shove his high school yearbook in his face, or something.
Ah, there, I've almost talked myself into hating this book, but I'm still kind of in the admirers' camp. But only kind of. I like the narrative experiment a whole lot; ditto the way this could fit into either a satirical or serious post-apocalyptic framework. But Mieville is capable of so much more, damn it.
Let's see what his next book brings.
*Especially since, pages later, the narrator refers to "keys" in the sense of typewriter or computer keys, as are arranged on a keyboard...