The Last Days of New Paris by China Mieville

The Last Days of New Paris
China Mieville
Del Rey, 224 pages
Review by Eris Young

Set against a backdrop of crumbling streets and burned-out buildings, The Last Days of New Paris follows the parallel stories of Thibault, the last surviving member of a rebel army of artists, and Jack, arrogant acolyte of occultist Aleister Crowley. As hostilities inside New Paris reach a stalemate, dark rumours spread of a nazi weapon with the power to turn the tide of the war. In order to stop it, Thibault and his mysterious companion Sam must navigate the streets of a city marred by war and black magic, and haunted by unearthly manifestations of surrealist art—and worse.

China Miéville loves cities—London, San Francisco, and now Paris—and he’s adept at creating characters of them, embedding weirdness into the very bricks and mortar of a place with scientific precision and organic grace.

The last of his books I read was Kraken, which had a magic system as esoteric and visceral as any I’d ever encountered, and fully immersed me from the first page. The key to making a work of fantasy effective is to obscure the ordinary and elucidate the fantastic; Miéville excels at talking about objects and events that defy natural laws, making them almost banal, as if he’s not imagining but describing them as he sees them: this is what gives his work its power.

In The Last Days of New Paris, Miéville again picks apart and re-stitches the fabric of reality, rendering New Paris as a wellspring of the bizarre, as if the pavement and bricks are merely a veneer over the true city. This veil is peeled back as living collages and impossible animals clamber their way through, and the reader is given a glimpse into the blackness beyond. The rich language he uses to describe the impossible and the monstrous makes me appreciate more than ever what little knowledge I can dredge up about the surrealist movement (scraped together from a high school obsession with Max Ernst and a single unit in a third-year art class). The story weaves together a pair of timelines, starting with an impossible state of affairs and showing us how it came to be, the timelines unfolding together with a slow dawning sensation that is eminently satisfying.

But it’s apparent throughout that this book is a novella: the action, the conflicts, the fights that inevitably will punctuate any narrative of war or hostile occupation, are given in perfunctory detail and are often anticlimactic. My primary frustration with the story is that it lacks granularity and, therefore, the emotional impact that a good war story should have. There’s a contradiction between the action and the indestructibility, as it were, of the main characters, who move from conflict to minor conflict, playing one ‘ace card’ after another: the book tries to be both a war narrative and a macabre safari and is neither wholly.

The way Miéville disposes of the female character who became my favourite, for example, is downright glib. It’s as if he had created an interesting, developed female character by accident, and had now only a limited time left in which to get rid of her. In another example, he builds up a powerful sense of unease around a certain foe, ramping up the action, but we realise that things are not what they seem only a second before the characters themselves do, and so there’s none of the tension that makes that kind of revelation so thrilling.

And then, in a page or two, even that long-awaited and heavily foreshadowed climax is over. The baddie is defeated through the power of authorless collective action in a kind of last resort hail mary by the protagonist, who until then has largely stumbled from one fight to the next, winning each time through dei ex machina that have more affinity with luck than Thibault’s curious affinity for the surreal. This ability of Thibault’s to see manifs as they are, and to interact with them, is the most interesting part of his character to my mind and, like Jack Parsons’ magical abilities, is not explored in depth.

Which brings me to the problem of the Afterword. All the above were my impressions before reading the afterword, and in light of it my criticisms are arguably unfair. Miéville takes pains to paint himself as a hapless bystander in a story bigger than himself. He’s been entrusted with the lost gospel of a forgotten surrealist wartime Paris, and it’s his sacred duty to pass it on faithfully.

I want to take the story as it stands, regardless of any context, artificial or otherwise. If the afterword is ‘fact’, and the meat of Last Days—the manifs, the demons, the characters themselves—were given to Miéville by someone else, Miéville himself is absolved from responsibility of any aspect of the story but the cosmetic. My criticism is moot, and we can all go home. If it is all invention, though, then it is Miéville’s responsibility, and I can’t help but see the afterword as a crutch.

It’s been suggested to me that I take the afterword as a narrative tool, and appreciate it for its invention, for the way it frames the story. Whether it’s true or not is immaterial, though: it still seems like a cop-out, an ‘ah-ah, but wait—’ before I can make an objection. For want of a better expression, I feel mansplained-to.

Whatever the criticism, The Last Days of New Paris is a fascinating piece of writing. Miéville has created a work of remarkable invention in a short space of time. It’s the perfect book for someone who already likes Miéville’s work, and it’s perfect for, say, your former flatmate who did their dissertation on surrealist art. But it’s not in-depth enough to really immerse the reader in the way that, say, Kraken does and it reads more like a travel journal or a bestiary à la Serafini than a piece of fiction set in wartime Paris.

First published in Shoreline of Infinity issue 8.