In preparation for a recent holiday, I downloaded China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station onto my Kindle. I had it as my fantasy hit, along with one dark Australian crime drama, one Women’s Prize winner, and one literary collection of short stories. Had the whole gamut of genre tastes covered. This book however, is not recommended for holiday reading and I would hesitate to recommend it at all. It is gripping, imaginative, thrilling but it is also emotionally abusive of its reader, exhausting, and gross.
Miéville’s world is fantasy, sci-fi and steampunk combined. Lovers Lin and Isaac, artist and scientist, are of different species and together behind closed doors only. Separately they receive exciting new commissions for their work, Lin for a sculpture the likes of which has not been attempted before; Isaac for the physiognomy of flight to lift up a creature whose wings have been clipped. But within this dirty heaving city something else is waking up that will rule nightmares over them all.
As I write this review, I wonder if I have bitten off more than I can chew. A quick Google of the book title shows me there is a lot of fandom for Miéville and this book: reader-drawn maps of the city; mock-ups of the rail network based on descriptions in the narrative; sketches of characters with varying degrees of quality. (Side note: why are we obsessed with drawing sexy lady-bug Lin over and over again, but no one is attempting the bewitching, dream-casting, imaginative slake moths who are arguably more important?) Because I am not, most definitely, as passionate about this book as those guys. Several times I almost quit, but only picked it up again because of its excellent plot.
Here’s the thing: Miéville absolutely abuses the emotion of disgust in his readers. Perdido Street Station is imaginative and gripping and creative and has incredible complexity and depth but time and time again I felt so done with his unnecessary detail on darkness and revulsion, grossness and violence; revelling in the repulsive and foul over and over. I get it, it’s a horrible world and a tough life but Miéville chose again and again to go back there, to detail. Sometimes it was a simple language choice – repetitively choosing an adjective that best evoked disgust in a reader when something else could have done – but sometimes it was a pig-in-mud revelling in some vicious viscous detail, spending lines and lines on description of viscerally revolting moments. There was no variety; it was unrelenting.
It was so bad that on multiple occasions I deliberately put the book away for a break. This was not disgust for some purpose, but for its own sake. Exhausting. But the reason I kept going was because of the storyline. While Miéville’s obsession with revulsion was unimaginative, the plot was wonderful and I genuinely did not know how it was going to end. It was suspenseful and thrilling. When I finished the book I felt relieved of the burden: I was held, but I did not enjoy it.
So I finished a book that I was prepared to quit, that was written as if the author wanted you to struggle. To not just describe foulness in your text but to deliberately repetitively evoke it in your readers is an interesting choice, and obviously it matters not to a lot of fans. It’s a thrilling story and Miéville is a smart man, but I don’t think I can recommend this book.