“Kafkaesque,” despite being a great word for Scrabble, is not a word I would use to describe very many books. It expresses something ambiguous but unsettling, something dark and perplexing and vaguely ominous. It is also the perfect descriptor for China Miéville’s most recent novella, This Census-Taker.
I don’t want to reveal too much of the plot, because much of the pleasure of the book lies in figuring out exactly what has happened, what is happening, and why. But I can say this: the story begins with a young boy running down a mountain to the city below, screaming, having witnessed something terrible. What follows is a sort of existential horror story, about what happens to the boy and how he copes with the nightmarish situation in which he finds himself.
One of the most interesting aspects of This Census-Taker is its setting. This setting is extremely small in scope, focusing on the unnamed boy’s house on the mountain and the small village below it. But every now and again, Miéville lets slip a tantalizing glimpse of the world outside this village, and the history behind it. Similarly, small details slowly reveal that the world this boy inhabits is very different from our own.
There are two main methods of worldbuilding in fantasy works like this. One method, practiced by authors like J.R.R. Tolkien and George R.R. Martin, is explication. Every location, every character, every word has a lengthy backstory, and readers with enough time and patience can connect it all. The other method, seen in works like this and many of Neil Gaiman’s stories, is implication. The world is not fully fleshed out, but only hinted at through sly suggestions and veiled references. It is up to the reader to fill in the gaps with her own imagination. This power to evoke a lot with a little is one of This Census-Taker’s greatest strengths.
China Miéville is a stylistic chameleon. In his baroque, sprawling New Crobuzon novels he adopts a similarly flowery and excessive writing style; in the noir-ish The City and The City, he takes up a more straightforward and almost hard-boiled prose. In This Census-Taker, he slips into the voice of someone clearly not comfortable with language, both as a traumatized boy and as an adult writing about his youth in a language not his own. The narrator slips between the first and third person at key moments, sometimes even referring to himself as “you.” Names and proper nouns are in scarce supply, and outside of a few friends people are called by their functions—mother, father, the hunter, and of course the census-taker. This ambiguity and even confusion at the level of language contributes to the unsettling and off-kilter tone of the book: nothing feels safe, nothing feels known.
Overall, this was not one of my favorite books by China Miéville. Not much happens—this is a book that focuses in on a single event and its repercussions instead of following a clear narrative—and despite some intriguing hints, the world feels a bit sparse compared to the overflowing Perdido Street Station. However, I do think it is a successful book. From the first page to the last, it gave me a profound sense of unease and discomfort, of entering an unsettling world full of ominous and unknowable authorities. If that isn’t Kafkaesque, I don’t know what is.
.Rating: 3 out of 5 stars