As some of you might remember from two of my previous blogs, I love China Miéville. The stunning first two books in his Bas-Lag series, 2000's Perdido Street Station and 2002's The Scar, were pivotal in getting me full-bore back into fantasy and science fiction–genres I'd wandered from since my adolescence, back when I lived and breathed the stuff. Today, though, is sadly the day I feel forced to announce that China and I have broken up.
I've been trying for two months now to plow through the third Bas-Lag novel, Iron Council. It was rough from the get-go; this time out, Miéville tries (quite awkwardly) to transplant clipped, dry, Zane Grey-ish prose into his usually verdant word-garden. Of course, the book has a bit of an Old West motif to it, despite being set in a fictional and fantastic world full of steampunk cyborgs and women with bugs for heads. But his effort to reconcile monster-stocked science-fantasy with revolutionary leftist politics–and particularly the struggles of workers during the Industrial Age–totally flops. Don't get me wrong; Miéville is a committed socialist and a brilliant guy, having written an acclaimed non-fiction book on international law in addition to all that creepy stuff. But Iron Council starts out rickety and just keeps disintegrating.
Simply put, the book feels exhausted with itself, and the characters struggle painfully to be heard and felt amid a barrage of stiff dialogue and tedious plotting. "Books of ideas" like Iron Council often suffer these faults, but here Miéville's ideas don't even shine through. To make things even worse, I'm also currently reading Freedom & Necessity by Steven Brust and Emma Bull–a novel that, funnily enough, appears on a list of essential socialist fantasy and science fiction texts that Miéville put together a few years ago. Freedom, too, deals with proletarian revolution. But unlike Iron Council, it takes place in Great Britain and counts no less than Friedrich Engels himself as a character. Oh, and it's actually fun to read.
Freedom & Necessity recalls Tim Powers' The Anubis Gates in its intrigue-drenched depiction of 19th-century England, but it also has a lot of the breathtaking scope, complexity, and lust for the esoteric that made Umberto Eco's The Name Of The Rose and Foucault's Pendulum so great. It's also an epistolary novel, consisting entirely of letters and journal entries penned by the characters (in fact, it was even written the same way, as a bout of correspondence between Brust and Bull). Despite such a convoluted narrative conceit–one that kept me away from the book for months–Freedom is far more engaging than Iron Council, even though both books probe many of the same themes and ideas. But Iron Council pisses me off for another, more fundamental reason: It's the first book in a long time I don't think I'll finish.
Some people can't walk past a buffet table. Me, I can't put down a book. It's always been that way, and as soon as my young mind grasped the fact that I wasn't good at playing sports, building anything, or, uh, dealing with other human beings, books became my world. (Yeah, we're talking the age of 7 here, pretty pathetic.) Of course, like everyone, I've picked up books, flipped through them, skimmed the first chapter, and put them back on the shelf, never to return. But once I'm committed to a book, I slog through it–for better or for worse, in sickness and in health, come rain or sleet or dark of night.
The first book I remember quitting shouldn't come as a big surprise: Finnegans Wake. Unlike most people who tackle James Joyce for the first time, I had absolutely no idea what I was getting myself into: I was a high-school sophomore, and had always heard James Joyce spoken of in reverential tones. So I went to the school library, checked it out, and dove in. Wow. Even for someone who loves oddness and absurdity as much as I did (and do), I just couldn't keep up. I had no frame of reference for it, and no idea what the hell was going on, or even how to read the damn thing. I will admit, however, that there was something secretive and almost sinister about that book, a fog of forbidden thrill I'd later get from reading Aleister Crowley and William Burroughs. Even though I couldn't figure out Finnegans Wake to save my life, I steeped myself in its sheer weirdness and mystery. That is, for about 50 pages–then, with eyestrain and a headache, I gave up. I just couldn't crack the code. For a lifelong bookworm like myself, it was humiliating, an admission of total failure. (Is this what placekickers feel like when they miss field goals?) At the same time, I was angry: at myself for being stupid, at James Joyce for being a jerk, and at all the lying assholes I'd ever heard praise him.
Of course, Dubliners and Portrait Of The Artist eventually turned me around in regard to Joyce, but not before I'd suffer another breakup. Around 18 or 19, I got into all those new-agey quantum physics primers that were once so embarrassingly hip, like Fritjof Capra's The Tao Of Physics and Gary Zukav's The Dancing Wu Li Masters. (Yes, I also once thought Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance was really deep.) These books led me in a roundabout way to Douglas Hofstadter–whose absolutely brain-erasing Gödel, Escher, Bach fucked me up but good.
The thing about GEB is, I believed at the time that I had a pretty keen mind. I loved math and science, but Hofstadter gleefully took off into the ontological cosmos while I stood there with my limp intellect dangling in my hand. (Of course, the biggest slap in the face is the encomium that comes on all books like GEB: "It's rigorous enough for the expert yet lucid enough for the layman." Yeah, right.) When it came to the twilight realm of advanced meta-mindfuckery and multidimensional fugue-logic (or whatever the hell it is Hofstadter's talking about), I found out I was about as sharp as a doorknob.
During the next decade, I think I managed to finish almost every book I started. The secret of my success: I read dumb books. Okay, so that's not entirely true–I tackled lots of classic writers like Dostoevsky and Céline during those years, although I will confess to quitting halfway through two notoriously unfinished novels, Dead Souls and The Man Without Qualities. If Gogol and Musil couldn't bother to finish writing them, why should I bother to finish reading them? (Okay, so they did have a pretty good excuse.) Still, I devoured way too many quick, easy music books in my 20s. To me, they're literary comfort food. A history of ABBA is like a nice bowl of ice cream, and a Dylan biography is a warm pot pie on a cold day. One of the writers I came to love the most is Peter Guralnick, known for his excellent, substantial, soulful volumes on country, blues, R&B;, and Elvis. Imagine my frustration when, a little over halfway through his 2005 Sam Cooke biography Dream Boogie, I threw the book down in confusion and disgust.
Apparently, some Cooke fans and kin have a lot of issues with Guralnick's depiction of the singer as a philandering, opportunistic, hypocritical, and even kind of shallow showman. Guralnick actually paints a much fuller and more sympathetic portrait than that–but then again, I really had no problem with the way Cooke was represented in the book. I was turned off by the writing itself. Not to make any horrible assumptions about the aging Mr. Guralnick, but Dream Boogie is bloated, erratic, cluttered, and hazy, and feels like it could've used a sharper editor and a few thousand extra strokes of the delete key. Maybe my expectations were just too high. Screw that–Guralnick built me up and then let me down. I felt sorry for myself for wasting two weeks of my life on Dream Boogie, but even more than that I felt sorry for Sam Cooke, a true legend who might never get the definitive biography he deserves.
And now here I sit with my copy of Iron Council, dog-eared and rejected, on my desk in front of me. The worst thing is, I only have about 100 pages to go, but I just can't bring myself to pick it back up now that I've tossed it aside. Every book has a momentum to keep up, a spell to maintain, and Miéville blew it. I'd never walk out of a theater in the middle of a film–I almost have a couple times, most recently during Spider-Man 3, lord, what a mess–but reading has always felt more personal to me than movie-watching. Books aren't a communal medium, either on the creation side or the consumption side of the equation. It's one mind straight to another, no middleman, and that requires a level of trust–let's be cheesy and call it intimacy–that makes it that much tougher when a writer pulls the rug out from under you. Sometimes the best you can hope for is an amicable split and custody of the back catalogue.