He said, You’ll write it not because there’s no possibility it’ll be found but because it costs too much to not write it.
Far up the hills, in a remote house far from the nearest bridge-town, a boy lives with his parents: his stoic mother tends their garden while his father forges keys, magical talismans that open no lock but which fulfill whatever one wish their requester needed them to fulfill. Things fall apart once he witnesses a terrible tragedy—a flash of one parent killing the other, a glimpse muddled by trauma and fear. He tries to flee, but fails; the orphans of the bridge-town attempt to spirit him away but to no avail. Alone with his lonely and somewhat deranged parent, he lives without hope of escape. Until, that is, a stranger comes knocking on his door—a bespectacled man with a gun, keeping records and asking questions, moving ever onward to maintain some strange census.
This Census-Taker reads very much like a fairy-tale in its portrayal of a lonely lost boy, a fairy-tale told with Gothic and magical realism elements. We’re never quite introduced to the world, which adds to the novella’s surreal qualities—it’s implied that some great war was fought decades ago, and that these hill people did not win. But, like most of the story, this is never made explicit; I’d say a large part of its atmosphere is from the mysteriousness, everything left up to your speculation, perhaps a reflection of the narrator’s childlike innocence and lack of knowledge about the world. That lack of clarity can be frustrating… especially when Mieville begins with the immediacy and shock of what the boy’s seen, leaving it an open mystery to jump back and forth between it and various flashbacks illustrating the boy’s memories of family life. This isn’t a straightforward story, so don’t expect the author to give you much to cling to. But there’s power and beauty here, in Mieville’s gorgeous prose, in the oppressive menacing suspense (that Gothic element again), in its evocative weirdness. This Census-Taker may be obtuse, but it’s stunning.
Houses built on bridges are scandals. A bridge wants to not be. If it could choose its shape, a bridge would be no shape, an unspace to link One-place-town to Another-place-town over a river or a road or a tangle of railway tracks or a quarry, or to attach an island to another island or to the continent from which it strains. The dream of a bridge is of a woman standing at one side of a gorge and stepping out as if her job is to die, but when her foot falls it meets the ground right on the other side. A bridge is just better than no bridge but its horizon is gaplessness, and the fact of itself should still shame it. But someone had built on this bridge, drawn attention to its matter and failure. An arrogance that thrilled me.
This Census-Taker is Mieville’s strangest and most subtle story to date, layered with secrets and a pervading air of mystery. It lacks any kind of an explanation or closure, and while many things are implied they aren’t made clear. Some readers will dislike the novella for being so vague, refusing to offer clarity in many necessary places; others will find it very literary, possibly a challenge to overcome or a mystery to ponder, refreshed that it doesn’t spoon-feed the reader but allows their imagination to run wild and draw their own conclusions. For sure, I would not recommend this for a first-time Mieville reader; I don’t think its confusing, veiled nature is reflective of Mieville’s other books, making it less fit as an introduction than The City & The City, or Embassytown, or The Scar. Fans are already split on the novella, and I can see why: This Census-Taker is an ambitious work of breathtaking beauty, a powerful and moving story, but the demands it makes of its readers will annoy or confuse many. A good read for fans of George Saunders, Kelly Link, or Gene Wolfe, but it’s not for everyone.
China Mieville has already established himself as one of the most vibrant voices in the genre, and he’s showing no sign of slowing down. I’m eager to read his other novella from this year, The Last Days of New Paris, to see if it follows in the footsteps in his last two publications—the collection Three Moments of an Explosion and This Census-Taker. Both these show Mieville maturing as an author, taking risks, leaving his Bas-Lag comfort zone, and daring to attempt things that most commercial writers do not. I’d like to see if the trend continues.
Title: This Census-Taker
Author: China Miéville
First Published: January 2016
What I Read: Subterranean Press signed ltd ed (#284/750), 2016
Price I Paid: $45
MSRP: $15 pb / $24.99 hc / $12.99 ebook
ISBN / ASIN: 110196734X / 1101967323 / B00X2FDZX4