A Student’s Guide to the Prose of China Mieville

If you’re going to read China Mielville’s newish novel Embassytown you might want a few tips to help you through it. I’ll choose one paragraph at random and then go through how to negotiate it.

A complex, many-chambered place the angles of which astonished me. Everyone who had ever talked about my poise would have laughed to see me literally stagger backwards in that room. Walls and ceilings moved with a ratcheting machine life like the offspring of chains and crabs. A kind staff member steered Scile and me. Our party walked without Ariekne chaperone. I wanted to touch the walls. I could hear my heart. I heard Hosts. Suddenly we were among them. More than I’d ever seen.

Ok forget the fact that the first sentence isn’t a sentence. Well, don’t exactly forget it, because it’s indicative of Mieville’s notebook style, just try to ignore it a bit maybe. I’m not exactly sure whether it’s a go at a ‘modern’ prose style, denuded of bourgeois fripperies of phrasing – it’s minimalism! – or whether such telegraphese is expressive of thoughts coming directly from the mind of the narrator, without any intermediary articulation. Up close and personal in an alien mind. Choose one, move on. You can say ‘hazy stab at a bit of both’ if you want.

Because there’s no description we just have to say ASTONISHED AT ANGLES and nod. After all, gothic ribbed vaulting is pretty impressive. That has angles.

There’s an odd subset of people/alien things you’re asked to imagine now. Here goes. Ready? “Everyone who had ever talked about my poise would have laughed”. Why are we being asked to imagine them? Not sure really. Wait, the narrator is female. Is this weird ‘teen girl’ style meant to be shorthand for ‘female’? Maybe gloss over this bit.

btw why is poise italicised? Hmm. Maybe it’s the equivalent of a recent French loan word in their alien tongue. I will say it PWAHZ.

I can’t quite do “to see me literally stagger backwards in that room”. I mean I know ‘literally’ is always easy pickings, but what’s it doing there? I think it’s quietly suggesting that “to see me stagger backwards” might be ambiguous, potentially metaphorical. Also somehow it manages to imply ever so slightly that it’s “backwards” that is open to ambiguity and that without “literally”, “stagger backwards” might be potentially be misunderstood as “stagger forwards”. Just silently take it out. It’ll be ok. Maybe it’ll be taken out for the paperback. Plain sailing now.

Or at least it would were it not for… well, never mind Embassytown, we’ve just hit PREPOSITION CITY. So the narrator and her group are walking into the room. Staggers back. Only preposition that really makes sense here is “out”. Well it doesn’t really make sense, but that’s the motion. But no, she staggers backwards in. No wait she staggers backwards “in that room” (which one? oh, that one). OMG THE ANGLEZ.

Ok! Description time! Welcome relief! “Walls and ceilings moved with a ratcheting mechanical life”. Shit! Sounds pretty cool! I wonder what that’s like! “like the offspring of chains and crabs”. Oh. Like that. Sounds painful. Cool man, cool. Chains and crabs, mechanical and organic, not sure whether this is metaphor or not but whatevs – got it.

“A kind Staff member steered Scile and me.” lol where. are they a golf buggy.

“I wanted to touch the walls. I could hear my heart.” I could feel my bum.

“I heard Hosts. Suddenly we were among them.” Suddenly the author couldn’t be arsed. (Reminds me of the time I tried cycling home after a lock-in and plenty of whisky and ‘suddenly’ a parked car came out of nowhere).

“More than I’d ever seen.” Notice the way he balances the paragraph with non sentences at either end, lending formal symmetry to the whole.

The cumulative effect the short sentences have of building up the excitement and tension is well worth studying:

“I wanted to touch the walls. I could hear my heart. I heard Hosts. Suddenly we were among them. More than I’d ever seen. Phone dentists. Do laundry. Bills.”

OK, I didn’t choose the paragraph at random.

And I do feel bad. Mieville does stuff I feel I should be interested in – genre experimentation and constructing places that are attempts to reach outside realist description, building stuff out of a non-rectilinear imaginative Lego. But unfortunately it’s shit.


4 Responses to A Student’s Guide to the Prose of China Mieville

  1. […] prose style of this book is a lot easier to take in audio format, but yeah, this guy’s right about the ludicrous effect of some of Mieville’s paragraphs. Like this:LikeBe the first to like this […]

  2. nielskibs says:

    “like, sort of, um, like, potentially, you know politically is how i see the world, you know, like, sort of, maybe, um, in a sociological way you know?”. That’s a fair imitation of both how the man speaks and the originality of his spoken thought. Not surprised to find his prose is equally stilted and inane.

    Just watched this cockface on youtube for far too many minutes just because some tool I know told me i should. Asshole. I’ll never have those minutes back, but i guess we all have regrets…

    Glad this page came up when googling “China Mieville idiot”, though.

  3. tomwootton says:

    Ah, c’mon. I don’t think he’s an idiot. He’s clearly smart, I quite like his blog – http://chinamieville.net/ – which casually pulls together a lot of material, which seems to provide, fairly successfully I’d say, a cynical, politically aware and fantastical commentary on Western culture. I think it’s successful partly because it’s fairly fragmented.

    So, no, I don’t think he’s an idiot, and I don’t know whether he’s an asshole, I just think he’s a really bad writer. And I can’t really understand why – I quite like writers with a strong vein of bad in them. It’s often not necessarily badness, but a lack of concern with, say, character or plot. But no, there’s something about the whole way he goes about constructing and delivering his material that is just so jejune, lenten, undernourished conceptually and stylistically half-assed. I’m absolutely certain that he must dictate his novels; there are some sentences in Embassytown that no one of any literacy, would ever write.

    I feel bad about saying this, because it’s moderately difficult to complete a novel, let alone get successfully published. + Ursula K le Guin likes his stuff! Clearly he’s doing a lot of stuff right, but I just don’t see it, hear it, get it in any way. In fact, I think it’s crap. His novels are probably better than my rather snidey blogpost about his novel, all the same, but fuck it. No one’s going to read this unless they search for China Mielville idiot, so I think I’m fairly safe.

  4. Anonymous says:

    I didn’t search for “China Miéville idiot”, but I ended up here anyway…

    I really, really like his writing, and I find the paragraph you quoted beautiful. It gives me a lot of pictures, and it reads so beautifully in my mind. I do not have any trouble seeing images from his descriptions.

    I don’t think you can analyze that sort of thing from the point of view you choose here, it reads a bit like poetry to me. More about giving images than describing something concrete. I don’t really concentrate on the descriptions while reading this, I just let the words flow and pick up the images they give me.

    But then I do not have English as my first language, because I’m from Sweden, and because of that my lack of feel for the language may lead to me being more willing to accept Miéville’s style.

    I’m reading Embassytown right now, by the way. I have previously read King Rat, Perdido Street Station and The Scar, of which the two last immediately became some of my favourite novels.

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