This Census Taker by China Miéville
Del Rey, 2016; 224 pp
Reviewed by Timothy O'Donnell
There is a passage near the end of China Miéville’s latest, This Census Taker wherein the narrator describes the illusory nature of closing one’s eyes against brightness, of the phantom edges of sight where what we see and what is real are not always the same. It is in this description that Miéville solidifies what This Census Taker is truly about: the frailty of memory in the wake of tragedy.
The novella opens with the narrator witnessing his mother murdered at his father’s hand, after which he runs screaming from his secluded home in the rocky hills to the bridge-town below, a rust-caked city where Dickensian orphans fish the sky for bats and abandoned homes and factories speak to an industrial past long faded by war. The narrator is certain of what he has seen, but his father tells the local police that the boy’s mother simply ran away following an argument. After careful inspection of his home, the spattered blood of the narrator’s recollection is nowhere to be found. He is unwillingly returned to the custody of his father, and his father’s supposed innocence is called into question by the narrator’s memories of violence. In one of the novella’s most haunting moments, the narrator recalls secretly watching his father strangle a feral dog for no reason other than to toss its body into a bottomless pit that the narrator believes is the resting place of his mother. Afraid for his own life, the narrator tries to run away, but his attempts are Sisyphean; no sooner does he escape then he is apprehended in one way or another and returned home. One day, the titular census-taker arrives wishing to talk to the narrator and his father. Not unlike the reader, the census-taker seeks clarity, but Miéville is stingy until the end, and those seeking resolution may come out of this scant novella with more questions than answers.
This Census Taker draws from the absurd bureaucracies of Kafka, the labyrinthian histories of Borges, and the magic realism of Miéville’s contemporaries—most notably George Saunders and Karen Russell to whom the novel’s back blurbs have him compared—with a dash of steampunk thrown in for good measure. Having already tackled Lovecraftian urban fantasy, New Weird police procedural, and Carroll-esque London fantasy, Miéville is, as always, the accomplished juggler, cascading genres with a dexterity so often missing in genre fiction. And yet, This Census Taker feels like a misstep in an otherwise stellar oeuvre. His purposeful vagueness frustrates more than entertains, especially in his world-building. While previous work has Miéville delighting in the details of his deftly imagined worlds, This Census Taker obscures too often, trudging through the first two-thirds of the novella before the proverbial gun from the first act finally goes off. Not unlike the fractured memory of its narrator, This Census Taker feels awkwardly pieced together, skirting around the boundaries of an interesting story without ever grounding itself. The characters feel underdeveloped, and the emotional investment is so thin that even when a resolution is achieved, it doesn’t feel earned. Luckily, Miéville is the caliber of writer who, even when he falters, he impresses, and while those new to his work should start with seminal novels like The City & The City or Kraken, This Census Taker is still a gorgeous, if flawed, fable.