The poets and artists and philosophers, resistance activists, secret scouts and troublemakers, had become, as they must, soldiers.
The devils of Paris would not shut up. They declaimed as they came, in a hundred languages, they hissed and howled descriptions of their hadal cities, and beat their claws on the sigils they wore, of the houses of the pit, and they shouted rather too often to those they hunted and killed that it was from Hell that they came, and so that everyone should be terrified.
In this short novel, Miéville alternates between 1941 Marseille and 1950 Paris in an alternate timeline. The earlier date sees American Thelemite Jack Parsons visiting France during the war, and the later one involves a thaumaturgical Surrealist resistance fighting against a goetically-augmented continuing Nazi occupation. The title of the book is taken from a book within the book: The Last Days of New Paris is a book being written (and photographed) within the story, to document the exotic and presumably evanescent 1950 Parisian environment. [ . . . (hover over to read this spoiler) . . . ]
Given its subject matter, I expected to either love or hate this book, and I was surprised to find myself lukewarm. I liked Miéville’s appreciation for Surrealist politics, the way that he brought Surrealist artworks into the story, and the metafictional/documentary twists. I didn’t find the narrative voice as engaging as the one in The City & the City, and Parsons wasn’t presented very believably. It definitely had its virtues, and short as it is, it’s still worth reading by anyone who finds the premise intriguing.
The cities of Besźel and Ul Qoma occupy non-congruent, partially overlapping physical space within the same geographic area, but their governments, cultures, and societies have been distinct for many centuries leading up to the early 21st-century setting of this novel. When “in” one city, there is a complete taboo on interacting with or even perceiving the residents and objects of the other. The ability to “unsee” the “alter” is cultivated in natives from childhood, and carefully trained in immigrants. Failure to maintain the distinction is the infraction of “breach,” which is punitively corrected by a mysterious agency called Breach. This unusual premise forms the setting for a noir-styled police procedural story in the voice of Inspector Tyador Borlú, a Besź detective investigating a murder that seems to have crossed the boundary between the cities.
Besides the psychological and cultural conundrums involved in the story, there is a focus on archaeology, both in the conventional paleological sense and in the theoretical Foucauldian one. The history that led to the intertwined situation of the cities is obscure, and the cleaving of one to the other or the cleavage of one from the other is an open question, as is the relationship of each to the “precursors” revealed in archaelogical investigation.
As the tale progresses, characters are given to suspect wheels within wheels made possible by the confinement of perception that the cities require of their denizens. Borlú is in a particular quandary as he seeks to solve the evident crime, but to remain himself free of breach. The pace of the novel is very fast, with three major divisions each characterized by Borlú’s orientation to the peculiar geography of the cities, and each with a different investigative partner for him.
The Ballantine Books edition I read included a Random House “Reader’s Guide” appended to the text, made up of an interview with the author and a set of topics and questions for reading group discussions. The interview was sound enough, but the discussion questions seemed to replicate the concerns of the interview a little closely for my taste. Miéville denies any intention to have written a reducible allegory in this book, but he does allow for its varying figurative significance, with metaphors which touch on politics, philosophy, and psychology.
My copy of the book was a used one, in which the previous reader had done a little highlighting and marginal annotation. As I tried to have an unmediated encounter with the novel, I was at first making an attempt to “unsee” these marks. Later, I discovered that they supplied a recursive adornment to the story, as one of Borlú’s key investigative leads took him to marginalia inscribed by the murder victim. This circumstance gave my reading an eeriness and a strange feeling of over-determination.
I gather that a BBC television miniseries was adapted from this novel, and I can’t for the life of me imagine how they pulled it off. I guess I’ll just have to see at some point.
I found this book by chance at the public library, being interested in a few of the included authors. It’s one of those monster theme collections, gathering thirty-six stories in which “the Devil” features as a principal character, from the nineteenth century to the twenty-first. (Longfellow’s translation of the thirty-sixth canto of Dante’s Inferno is the oldest item, and concludes the book.) Six stories I had read prior to their appearance here. “Thank you, Satan!” quoth the editor, introducing his first effort at anthology. Despite the title, most of these stories don’t portray the Devil as sympathetic.
Charles Stross’s story “Snowball’s Chance” was a major attraction, and did not disappoint, other than its clumsy misquotation of the Law of Thelema. I suppose any 21st-century Big Book of Beelzebub is likely to include some content touching on the Great Beast who heralded the New Aeon. Nick Mamatas’s fictional protagonist in “Summon, Bind, Banish” may be a full (i.e. Ninth Degree) initiate of O.T.O., but Mamatas himself obviously isn’t. His pretended exposure of the Order’s sovereign secret is overshadowed by the way that he vilifies Crowley with an impressionistic biography of mostly-true episodes.
Elizabeth M. Glover’s “MetaPhysics” was cornball, but some of these pieces were genuinely funny. In particular I was delighted with the one-act comedy “Faustfeathers” by John Kessel, which casts Groucho Marx as the paradigmatic sorcerer. Jeffrey Ford’s “On the Road to New Egypt” was a key inducement to my reading the book, and turned out to be hilarious.
Some of the creepiest stories were the most questionably related to the book’s espoused theme, and these were often among the ones I had already read, such as China Miéville’s “Details,” “The Professor’s Teddy Bear” by Theodore Sturgeon, and “The God of Dark Laughter” by Michael Chabon. Probably the most horrific story in the book that was new to me on this reading was “The Goat Cutter” by Jay Lake. The most surreal story was either “Lull” by Kelly Link or “The Heidelberg Cylinder” by Jonathan Carroll, and both of these get high marks from me.
Older selections included Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” (still excellent), Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Bottle Imp” (how had I missed this one before?), and Mark Twain’s “Sold to the Devil” (justly neglected by a mass readership). “Big names” likely to appeal to genre fans include Stephen King (“The Man in the Black Suit”) and Neil Gaiman (“The Price” and “We Can Get Them for You Wholesale”).
The book is a fairly mixed bag on the whole, as one might expect with such a large number of stories and such a narrow criterion for inclusion. Still, it was definitely worth the bother. [via]