Sorry for the delay, y’all. Hope everyone who gets it off is enjoying Columbus Day. The usual rules apply, of course. Spoilers through Part V of Perdido Street Station, but not beyond, appear below and in comments. Part I of this series is here, Part II is here, Part III is here, and Part IV is here. Part VI will appear on Friday.
I don’t know how many of you have read Posession, but for those of you who haven’t, I highly recommend it. I re-read it in between sections of Perdido Street Station, and was reminded of how much I love one of the most self-consciously literary lines in the book: “Since Blackadder and Lenora and Cropper had come, [the main characters' journey] had changed from Quest, a good romantic form, into Chase and Race, two other equally valid ones.” To me, this is the section where Perdido Street Station embraces its transformation into a particularly black fairy tale. And while there’s a lot going on, the grimness of the backstories here worked for me, for once.
Last week, we discussed the marvelous ending to William Goldman’s The Princess Bride, in which he predicts the decay and disappointment of the expectations the fairy tale has set up for us so far. If that bracing brush with reality is meant as a tonic, Mieville’s description of the origins of the central love story in Perdido Street Station is meant to keep the frame of the fairy tale while shattering the intentions behind it. Lin and Isaac may have come to truly love each other, but their coming-together, their love story, has its origins in drunkenness and transgression. It is not pure, even though it proves to be durable:
In the middle of showing off, laboriously signing a dirty joke one night, Isaac, very drunk, had clumsily pawed her, and they had pulled each other to bed. The event had been clumsy and difficult. They could not kiss as a first step: Lin’s mouthparts would tear Isaac’s jaw from his face. For just a moment after coming, Isaac had been overcome with revulsion, and had almost vomited at the sight of those bristling headlegs and waving antennae. Lin had been nervous of his body, and had stiffened suddenly and unpredictably. When he had woken he had felt fearful and horrified, but at the fact of having transgressed rather than at the transgression itself. And over a shy breakfast, Isacc had realized that this was what he had wanted. Casual cross-sex was not uncommon, of course, but Isaac was not an inebriated young man frequenting a xenian brothel on a dare. He was falling, he realized, in love.
Lin and Isaac are where the story begins, of course, lovers are always the central characters in fairy tales even if they don’t begin that way. But adventure stories require, by necessity, an amusingly motley band of companions, and Mieville gives us two in this section: the band of handlingers who fight the slakemoths, and the crew that assembles around Isaac to meet with the Construct Council. The handlingers are a bit Dickensian, the waistcoat on the dog is a particularly nice touch:
The congregation was a variegated group. There were six humans apart from him, one khepri and one vodyanoi. There was a large, well-fed pedigree dog. The humans and xenians looked well-to-do or nearly so, except for one Remade street-sweeper and a ragged little child. There was an old woman dressed in tattered finery and a comely young debutante. A muscular, bearded man and a thin, bespectacled clerk. All the figures, human and otherwise, were unnaturally still and calm. All wore at least one item of voluminous or concealing clothing. The vodyanoi loincloth was twice the size of most, and even the dog sported an absurd little waistcoat.
Isaac’s gang is a bit more rough-hewn, but as I suspect we’ll discover, a bit more effective. ”We are not going to get into this on our own. We are one fat scientists, a crook and a journalist,” Isaac declares when the Construct Council is annoyed that he brought people with him. “We need some fucking professional backup. These are people who kill exotic animals for a damn living.” They’re not quite as well-drawn as Inigo, Fezzik and Vizzini, but that’s okay. Not everyone can be.
The two interesting deviations from fairy tale convention in this section come from two questions: what’s the nature of magic? And how do we determine who the monsters are? Magic may not be the appropriate name for where the Weaver takes Isaac, Yag, Lemuel and Derkhan during their escape, but the elemental structure of the universe Yag sees when he opens his eyes is somewhat beyond science:
I saw a vastness that dwarfed any desert sky. A yawning gap of Leviathan proportions. I whined and heard others whine around me. Spread across the emptiness, streaming away from us with cavernous perspective in all directions and dimensions, encompassing lifetimes and hugeness with each intricate knot of metaphysical substance, was a web. Its substance was known to me. The crawling infinity of colours, the chaos of textures that went into each strand of that eternally complex tapestry…each one resonated under the step of the dancing mad god, vibrating and sending little echoes of bravery, or hunger, or architecture, or argument, or cabbage or murder or concrete across the aether. The weft of starlings’ motivations connected to the thick, sticky strand of a young thief’s laugh. The fibres stretched taut and glued themselves solidly to a third line, its silk made from the angles of seven flying buttresses to a cathedral roof. The plait disappeared into the enormity of possible spaces.
This is something that’s fascinatingly inaccessible to either the audience or to the authorities of New Crobuzon. It shows us, however, the meaning of some of the chaos we’ve witnessed along the way. And with it, the Weaver brings an inexplicable power and tragedy to the conflict. Just because she’s helping Isaac, Derkhan, Yag and Lemuel doesn’t mean they understand her, especially when she inflicts violence upon them.
“Derkhan shook slightly as she watched him. ‘This Weaver saw fit to heal your earl, along with Lemuel’s. Not mine….Why didn’t it heal me…?’ ‘Derkhan,’ Isaac said gently. ‘I could never know.’”
The Weaver, to me, also inflects the power of being chosen, a key part of all fairy stories, with a pathos and confusion that’s relatively rare. As it turns out, Isaac, Yag, Derkhan and Lemuel aren’t chosen because they’re skilled, or virtuous, or smart, or instruments of justice. It just turns out that the Weaver, for some inexplicable reason (and it’s possible that the Weaver doesn’t quite know why) likes the way they impact the universe. There is no validation in their chosenness, just luck, and chance, something that’s made clear in the Weaver’s letter to the editor in a New Crobuzon paper (which really may be my favorite joke in the book so far):
Sirs and Madam— Please accept my compliments on your exquisite tapestry skills. For the furtherment of your craftwork I have taken it upon myself to extricate you from an unfortunate situation. My efforts are urgently required elsewhere and I am unable to accompany you. Doubtless we will meet again before much time has elapsed. In the meantime please note that he of your number whose unfortunate animal husbandry has led to the city’s present unfortunate predicament may find himself the victim of unwanted attentions from his escaped charge. I urge you to continue your fabric work, of which I find myself a devotee. Most faithfully yours, W.
And some higher cause like love, or justice, or virtue is difficult to discern in a city and in a time when it’s difficult to determine who the monsters are. There are the slake-moths, of course, but I increasingly feel like they’re sort of irrelevant, a device that brings together all the characters and gives them a threat that motivates interesting alliances and juxtapositions. But there are monsters who are worse, because there’s a knowingness, a calculation to the evil they’re inflicting on others. Among them is Mr. Motley, who has decided that Isaac is trying to corner a drug market from him, and leaves a dead man in Lin’s apartment, her wings stuffed in his mouth, bearing messages of terrible intent and torture. It’s not just Motley’s violent impulses, or his power (“‘Mr. Motley is the kingpin, Isaac,’ he said simply. ‘He is the man. He runs the eastern city. He runs it. He’s the outlaw boss.’”) that make him a monster. It’s his wrongness, his misinterpretation of the situation, his stupidity, almost, that make him as terrible as he is. Slakemoths may come and go, but a city that has built part of its structures on men like Motley has put itself in terrible danger.
And there are lesser monsters, too. Vampir get drained by slakemoths, giving further weight and heft to the fear the city feels. And it turns out that Isaac’s latest ally is a mechanical giant who speaks through a corpse and shows a somewhat disturbing interest in Isaac’s crisis engine. The Construct Council may have helped Isaac and company off a slakemoth, but that doesn’t make him comfortable company. Unlike A Song of Ice and Fire where there are knights, no matter how corrupt and dishonorable some of them may prove to be, in Perdido Street Station, we have only our morally compromised fat scientist who is involved only because he is the instrument of much of the city’s woe, a target, and has an interest in his lover’s well-being, a crook who is a simple mercenary, and an emotionally wounded journalist. None of them are pure. But the city’s fate rests on them, without concern for honor or for glory.