Friday, July 10, 2015

Three Moments of an Explosion: Stories - China Miéville

Three Moments of an Explosion: Stories is the rather unwieldy title for a new collection of short fiction by China Miéville. Much like the collection it fronts, it’s baroque, intriguing and baffling in equal measure – and like the stories in that collection, shows off Miéville’s flair for evocative prose.

The first thing to note is the staggering scope of Miéville’s imagination. There’s a lot of stories in this collection, and each of them has something unique to say. The tales leap across time and space, between modes of expression and paths of thought, challenging the preconceptions of the reader. There’s an early piece in which mysterious icebergs take up residence over London. Another where model patients begin expressing symptoms of a disease before it surfaces. Another where preserved remains of non-human figures are found in the ash-strewn ruins of a Pompeii analog. Another…well, you get the picture. Each scenario is something unique.

It helps, of course, that the prose in which each story bathes is, to extend the metaphor, liquidly smooth. Miéville has always had an eye for a well-turned phrase, and his language here is superb. The dialogue flits between the elaborate declamation and the sparse everyday speech easily, and each step on the scale between the two is also well represented. The descriptive passages, speaking broadly, have a languid, almost poetic quality to them. In part this is affected by the context of the story they’re portraying, but the words have a fluid feeling to them –portraying meaning, but always capable of change. Reading through the collection, the rhythm of the prose can leave the narrative feeling dreamlike, a subtle separation from reality. The language is very easy to read, but is unashamed in demanding attention from the reader, whilst acting to lull and shock them in equal measure.

Miéville is also known for his mastery of the strange, the unexpected, the prosaically obscene and the obscenely prosaic – and the collection doesn’t disappoint. I won’t approach spoiler territory here, but each of the stories in this collection has a twist to it – the thing that makes the text veer from the expected, and enter the universe of the weird.  There are times when this works well, when the reader is drawn  with their interlocutor into an elaborate confusion, or a sparse, conflicted new reality, their expectations challenged or downright destroyed. On the other hand, there are moments when this feels a little awkward, where the conceit that defines the weird doesn’t quite work as it might. This is limited by the format, however – the reader gets the context to fill their shorter narrative, with more focus and less breadth than might be expected in a more long-form text.

Perhaps my one complaint as a reader was the endings – at least some of them. There’s a certain abruptness to some of the closing paragraphs, which leave the reader teetering on the edge of realisation and revelation, unfulfilled. I suspect this is intentional in some cases, leaving the reader to draw their own conclusions. Still, the text as a whole seems averse to closure, leaving questions in its wake rather than a feeling of completion. Stories end where they will, and perhaps not where one might expect. The feeling, as with the prose, is almost dreamlike – but in this case, a dream from which one involuntarily is forced to wake.  It’s an interesting stylistic choice, but I can’t deny a feeling of emptiness, a need for closure which may be intentionally evoked.

In the end, the stories that Miéville provides in this collection are an excellent read. Each is expertly crafted within its own context. The prose is a pleasure to go through, and the concepts are wonderfully imaginative. They’re both fascinating and deeply, deeply weird – and the former may be a function of the latter. The abrupt endings aside – or perhaps because of them – this is clever, compulsive reading. I suspect you have to be in the right mood, a sort of sanguine acceptance of the strange, to fully appreciate it – but this is an excellent collection, which will reward any reader who follows the strange paths it offers up to them.

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