Perdido Street Station Book Club Part II: The Streets of New Crobuzon

For those of you just joining us, the first entry and discussion in this series appear here. Max Gladstone, who had a provocative comment about craft and the knowledge authors provide their readers, has continued that thought here. The rules are the same: spoilers below the jump, but please don’t try to spoil beyond Part II for those who haven’t gotten that far yet. I finished the book this weekend because I got curious and anxious and raced through it, but I’ll be abiding by those same rules in my writing.

In college, I majored in something slightly ridiculous called the Special Program in the Humanities. I mention this because I think it explains a great deal of the way I approach art and criticism. Essentially, it meant majoring in great books, but in practice, it meant mashing up philosophy, art, literature, history, and religion. I took classes on the philosophy of architecture (Karsten Harries, if you’re out there somewhere, you were a huge influence), the art, literature, film and music of the Spanish Civil War, Christian mysticism, medieval Spain, the aesthetics of resistance, writing classes. I wrote my senior thesis on the aesthetics of the Devil in Athanasius’s Life of St. Anthony and Milton’s Paradise Lost with particular attention to the political strategies of both men in the Arian heresy and the English Civil War and Restoration. All of which is to say I am in love with art that brews a powerful liquor of religion, politics, art, anger and joy.

And so in some ways, this section felt written especially for me. In its narration of New Crobuzon’s religions and a few particular subcultures, Part II is both an artistic statement and an argument for why we should care about why the city survives, much less thrives.

For me, much of that argument comes in the form of Mieville’s rather charming explication of New Crobuzon’s religions. It’s fascinating, as Chris pointed out in a comment on the first post, that Mieville is a Trotskyite and a historical materialist, but that his main character, Isaac, the man who believes that “flight was a secular, profane thing: simply a passage from one part of New Crobuzon to another. He was cheered by this. He was a scientist, not a mystic,” that flight “was not an escape to a better place” (that language could easily be metaphysical or literal) is beguiled by the idea of at least one religion:

Palgolak was a god of knowledge. He was depicted either as a fat, squat human reading in a bath, or a svelte vodyanoi doing the same, or mystically, both at once. His congregation were human and vodyanoi in roughly equal proportions. He was an amiable, pleasant deity, a sage whose existence was entirely devoted to the collection, categorization, and dissemination of information. Isaac worshipped no gods…Even he, though, had a soft spot for Palgolak. He rather hoped the fat bastard did exist, in some form or other. Isaac liked the idea of an inter-aspectual entity so enamored with knowledge that it just roamed from realm to realm in a bath, murmuring with interest at everything it came across.

I also think the fundamental mysticism of the city, however unmystical both Isaac and Mieville are, is fascinating. The very first sentence of this section, “New Crobuzon was a city unconvinced by gravity,” suggests simultaneously its irrationality and its potential. Mieville tells us that “the architect had been incarcerated, quite mad, seven years after Perdido Street was completed. He was a heretic, it was said, intent on building his own god.” But is he mad for believing there’s something otherworldly about his creation? Or are the city authorities?

These glimpses are only part of what we get in this chapter: the world’s expanding socially, too. Most importantly for me, at least, we get to meet Derkhan Blueday, a radical journalist and art critic who is friends with both Isaac and his khepri artist lover Lin. I don’t actually think that Mieville’s description of a bohemian artist community and radical movement are particularly insightful or creative, or that his decision to situate his characters among them is a novel choice. If you’re going to give your readers educated outcasts as your main characters, or educated outcasts to hang out with and rebel via, artists and journalists are relatively logical choices in any large urban society setting. And it’s not that exceptional to have them do something sort of ironically, like go to a carnival and visit a freakshow (these folks are protohipsters, just enhanced with magic).

But the reason Derkhan works for me and appeals to me is that I think she’s an effective surrogate for Mieville’s artistic project, and in a way, a more articulate speaker for the things he’s attempting than the book itself always is. This passage, in which Derkhan and Isaac discover that the garuda they thought they were going to find in the freakshow is actually a man magically and scientifically crafted into an eagle, feathers inserted under his skin and rotting wings inextricably fused to his back through a process called Remaking, which is a major element of the novel, stood out to me in particular:

“I’m an art critic, Isaac,” Derkhan said eventually. “Remaking’s art, you know. Sick art. The imagination it takes. I’ve seen Remade crawling under the weight of huge spiral iron shells they retreat into at night. Snail-women. I’ve seen them with big squid tentacles where their arms were, standing in river mud, plunging their suckers underwater to pull out fish. And as for the ones made for the gladiatorial shows…! Not that they admit what that’s what they’re for. Remaking’s creativity gone bad. Gone rotten. Gone rancid. I remember you once asked me if it was hard to balance writing about art and writing for RR.” She turned to look at him as they paced through the fair. “It’s the same thing, Isaac. Art’s something you choose to make…it’s a bringing together of…everything around you into something that makes you more human, more khepri, whatever. More of a person. Even with Remaking a germ of that survives. That’s why the same people who despise the Remade are in awe of Jack Half-a-Prayer, whether or not he exists. I don’t want to live in a city where Remaking is the highest art.”

I think what I struggle with in Perdido Street Station so far is the question of whether or not I want the city to live in its current form, or even in a slightly improved one. Mieville does so much to establish its inherent filth and cruelty that it’s hard to wonder if perhaps the city should just be scorched clean, if Isaac and Lin and Derkhan should just go chase after the Cymek Library and leave everything else to burn. Part of what I think is fascinating about Mieville’s radicals is that the source of New Crobuzon’s immense sins, be they ghettoization of minorities, horrific crime rates, Remaking, political repression, is that we have very little idea of the source of those ills or the political alternatives to them. Politics are names and jumbles. Remaking is used for punishment, and for crime, but it couldn’t be carried out without the people who invented it in the first place. Are there simply institutions or individuals that are rotting, or like the fake garuda’s wings, is the spread of putrefaction and death to the rest of the body inevitable? Is justice possible? Should the city live? Mieville leaves me entirely uncertain.
I’ve accepted that this book is just part of a larger project, and that I’m not going to come to know New Crobuzon as well as I got to know the whole of Westeros in George R.R. Martin’s novels.  But I do wonder if, stylistically, Mieville could have given us more by giving us less. If he stepped back from the emphatic but not informative torrent of description that characterizes so much of the book and given us leaner first-person narratives from a greater number of perspectives, we might have moved around more of the city more quickly and to greater effect. And I might have known less about how Mieville wants me to feel about the city, and more about how I do feel about it.