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Saturday, December 1, 2012

Perdido Street Station: Race/Race

Despite having declared Mr. Miéville my literary boyfriend some time ago, I have to come out and admit I've only read one (1) book by him. I've read his foray into YA, Un Lun Dun, which thumbs the touchstones of his writing: urban spaces, a bunch of weird ass shit, and literary genres ground through the pulper of his baroque writing. But, being YA, the profanity and sheer globbing fuckallery of his writing was dampened a bit. No so, here. And dag, yo, that's some stuff.

Man, I don't even know what to say here now. I guess I could get into the plot, but you can go consider the mechanics of who did what where in other places. Despite this being a tumbling, active book, I'm not sure that will give you anything. Something about this book kept reminding me of Light by M. John Harrison, and has strangely convinced me to go back and give that book another star. I didn't get what Harrison was doing there, how he sliced open the childhood teddy bear and sewed it back together inside out and upside down. I looked at that ravaged bit of stuffing with the black zig-zags of thread, and thought, what the fuck are you doing? That is wrong, and possibly gross. 

There's a lot in New Crubuzon that is wrong and possible gross, and I feel like I'm too close to the end the my read to articulate the totality of what exact teddy bear Miéville vivisected. Here's one little stuffed arm I can grope toward: race. We use the term race in daily life to mean different kinds of people, different ethnicities, different colors, what have you. (I've found I've lost all the nomenclature for talking about race, so sorry. Like profanity, I can't describe it succinctly, but I know it when I see it, and so do you. And like profanity, we're going to define it differently. This parenthetical comment is getting out of hand.) Fantasy uses the term to mean different species, although this term is a little off because fantasy doesn't pretend toward scientific rigor, and the term "species" implies that a bit. Although Prof Tolkien has warned us against allegory, I think we can safely say that often, and maybe even always, the fantastic races are symbolic chits of our racial discomfort. No, an orc isn't exactly, allegorically a Black Man, or an Arab, or whatever racial boogey we've got, but an orc is a biologically determined creature who holds inherent moral worth, or worthlessness, as you will. Race is deterministic, so is race. 

Perdido Street Station opens to a pair of lovers working through their morning languor. It's a sweet, slow-moving, romantic coupling and decoupling, two beings who love each other sweet-talking though their morning, but the sweet-talk is familiar and clouded with the near-conflicts and innuendo of couples who have been together a long time. Of course, one of the pair has a beetle for a head, and the other is a walrusy, wheezing human scientist. They are different races, and their love is shot through with their sense of perversion and transgression. The beetle-headed artist, having shucked her kepri community, can more or less openly admit the two are lovers; the human scientist has a lot more to lose, as humans are less understanding of bug-fuckery. Their love is tense, an open secret, complicated because of the paradox of that term. 

Let's now think about a similar scene with Aragon and Arwen. First off, I'm pretty sure there was no pre-marriage post-coitus for those two. Second, the elves were, yes, totally skeeved that Arwen wanted to marry a human, but the embodied disgust is so coded, so reified. Instead of "Omaigawd, I can't believe you're banging that mortal meat-sack", it's "Marrying him will take away your immortality." And ultimately, thirdly, there is no disgust at the bodies themselves. Aragon is rough and unattractive, but he is understood to be imbued with the power of his rule, his sentience. Arwen and he meld their minds, the Platonic forms of themselves, their love arches over the dirty business of knocking boots, carefully ignoring the cat-ears of Arwen's that fire the lusts of so many readers. I am not bagging on this; it is nice work if you can get it. 

Hmm, I want to say I'm not after Tolkien here at all, but I can't help falling back on his stuff because it's so much more memorable than a lot of the fantastic twaddle that gets written in his loooong shadow. And this book isn't high fantasy either, it's...well, who the fuck knows what it is. Like New Crubuzon, it's a patchwork of stuff, steam-punk arms, magical boxes, science-y glass tubes, natural philosophy with wings pinned to cotton, the horror of the flying death, in their non-discreet neighborhoods, throwing grappling hooks over one another, building up and digging down, heaping trash from one genre to another, running shit and blood and cables through the whole mess, throwing a switch and cackling, EEETS ALIIIVE. Still though, I think there's something in the story of the lovers that is about the difference between miscegenation and bestiality in the slash between the terms race/race, and how both of those terms are pretty gross. 

I'm kind of flailing here with the stitching and the stuffing, but I was honestly, genuinely, purposely affected by the strange, quiet love story between the human and the kepri. I love the ways the various races were cataloged as having this set of characteristics or that, but almost no one hewed to those characteristics, a constant sly denial of race/race; one that doesn't pretend there isn't a perverse glimmer in bug-fucking, or banging the mortal meat sack; one that isn't about love as a moral force, tied to our moral bodies, but a social one, a plank thrown between neighborhoods where we construct our racial identities and have them constructed for us. Occasionally people walk that creaking tightrope from one side to the other, their arms outstretched, and it is a dangerous, scary, heart-pounding thrill. 

There's more in this book, a lot more stuffing and wires that I'm sure my brain will sift through in the coming months, and I really like that about it, how it's this this baffling, active monster slaying quest on one hand, and then this lazy walk through a bazaar on another. (I see I have failed to mention completely that the main plot is about hunting down and killing some badass killer moths who are much scarier than the term "killer moth" might imply. So. Now I have mentioned it.) I guess I also feel like I should mention that Miéville's writing style is likely a love-it or hate-it proposition. He does not use 5 words when 50 will do, and 5 of them will be made up, and another 5 will be thesaurus words, and another 5 will be profanity. I like all of these things, but you may not. So, yeah, that's what I've got for now.

2 comments:

  1. Well said, CC. I particularly enjoyed the vacuum cleaner, fed a stack of punch cards, emerging into consciousness.

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    1. Thanks, man. You totally missed out when he was in town, because he's so ridiculously dreamy.

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