CHINA MIÉVILLE IS AN AUTHOR who never disappoints, and he is also one who strives never to produce the same kind of book twice. Reviewers and critics have struggled in vain to label the genre of his works — fantasy, science fiction, horror; the weird, new or old; the surreal — and with each new work he compels us to rethink the scope and shape of his literary interventions. His new novella This Census-Taker is a book unlike any of his previous publications, except perhaps some of the short stories collected in either Looking for Jake (2005) or Three Moments of an Explosion (2015). The story is set in a strange world that is at once absolutely quotidian, filled with the minutiae of a rural life of precarious subsistence, and simultaneously unnatural and haunted, shaped by the presence of inexplicable mysterious powers and ominous rumors about foreigners. The protagonist’s home on a mountaintop suggests a connection to the gothic and the sublime; there are wonders here, to be sure, but they are dangerous.
Perhaps it is best to think about Miéville less as a writer who practices a particular generic mode than as one who dismantles and remakes the possibilities of each as he grapples with generic conventions. This Census-Taker is a book about what writing can accomplish, about what is enabled or erased by filtering the complexity of the world into representational forms. It is also a novel about trauma, and to some degree it is traumatizing to read — in a productive, provocative way. The book haunts the reader; what actually happened seems always just out of reach, glimpsed in shadow as it rounds a corner ahead of our vision. The narrative is punctuated by moments of extreme and visceral violence, but these seem free-floating and detached from any larger framework that might anchor them to meanings, justifications, or rationalizations.
Most reviews of This Census-Taker focus on the central mystery at its core: the profound violence witnessed by its young male protagonist, which leaves him with only a single parent, and his later encounter with a rogue census-taker who comes to their door, eventually departing with the boy (who embarks on a similar career). I want to focus, in contrast, on the book’s fascination with writing and census-taking. The boy is instructed by the census-taker to keep three kinds of books, and only the first of these resembles a census: it is a book of numbers, “lists and calculations,” and its audience is everyone. The third kind of book is a notebook that the boy keeps for himself alone, a book written in code so that no one else can understand it. My interest (and I’d wager Miéville’s as well) is in the second kind of book, the one written for readers, although the boy is warned, “[Y]ou can’t know when they’ll come, if they do.” This second book is a box of papers — something less ordered and less finished than a work of fiction. Like fiction, however, it captures the author’s experience and transforms it into something meaningful. This second kind of book is thus a performance, and although it is not written in code like the third kind of book, “you can still use it to tell secrets and send messages. Even so.”
So what “message” is This Census-Taker sending us? Why this title and the focus on keeping accounts, taking account of things? What exactly does the novel perform, and what secrets does it gesture toward?
The book’s very careful use of pronouns gives us a hint, I think. Notice that the pronoun choice in the title asks us to focus on “this” rather than “the” census-taker, a linguistic precision which prompts us to ask which census-taker it references: the one who arrives to take the boy away from his mountain home, the boy himself in his later career, or even the reader, someone for whom the commonplace activity of census-taking has become a cultural norm. The story’s sentences continuously slip between third- and first-person narrations, capturing a tension between the narrator’s intimate experience of the events in question and his complex (and traumatic) emotional distancing from these same events. This can be seen throughout the novella, beginning with the opening scene of the boy running down the hill: “[I]t seemed many times as if he would fall into the rocks and gorse that surrounded the footpath, but I kept my feet and descended into the shadow of my hill.”
The novella also dips into second-person narration at times, particularly during a chapter that describes how to be a census-taker:
Take accounts, keep estimates, realize interests.
You can count a city in a room, in your head. You can be taught that, and if you are you might learn that you already knew how to do it, and if you do you’ll have to learn to accommodate a new purpose, to encompass and itemize for a goal, to make it yours. With such intent, everything will be more concrete, the boundaries of the counted city circumscribed more precisely, and you may be more or less lost, or as lost as before. Were you lost? You don’t have to know: you can go along with things.
Census-taking, recall, was created in order to keep accounts for taxation, and while it is a counting of the population, it is also an accounting of property, of value, of worth. The novella thus asks us to compare the trauma of the boy’s mysterious and gothic family situation to other kinds of horror and violence that do not so readily appear as such in representational discourse. The census-taker tells the boy, “[S]ometimes there are tasks arising — any jobs that the numbers tell me need doing. It’s my job to do them”; the precise nature of these tasks is not described, but they are evocatively linked to issues of war and diaspora, taking stock and quelling trouble. Such passages — and indeed the title itself — sit uncomfortably next to other passages that better capture what we often expect from Miéville’s writing: beautiful prose that evokes stark and vivid imagery, lush descriptions that immerse us in this other world, strange affects that blur between fantasy and reality. This is a deeply personal book that enthralls the reader in the tale of a young boy’s struggle to negotiate the violence that disrupted his childhood, but it insists that such violence has a social context. It came from somewhere, and although the traveling census-taker seems to rescue the boy from an untenable situation, he simultaneously trains him into a diminished experience of the world, the world as it can be captured in the first book, the ledger.
The boy’s second book begins with what he calls a “catechism” which reads:
The Hope Is So:
Count Entire Nation. Subsume Under Sets. –
Take Accounts, Keep Estimates. Realize
Reach Our Government’s Ultimate Ends.
“The Hope” is crossed out, we are told, and replaced by “This Hate,” which is also crossed out. The boy tells us his “second book” is a response to this catechism, and the key to its meaning — and I use this word “key” advisedly, as you will see when you read the novella — is this slippage between hate and hope as one strives to account for our present moment, to be accountable for the world we make via the tasks we take on.
Although not as straightforwardly political as some of Miéville’s other works, this catechism puts This Census-Taker in dialogue with his creative presence in Salvage, a new magazine of political commentary (http://salvage.zone). In their inaugural issue, the editors of Salvage call for a politics of the left adequate to contemporary crisis and ruin; they decry a political stance of amelioration or naïve hope, and they offer a defense of the possibilities opened up by bleakness and hate. The Salvage editors ask us to hate without abandoning hope: their project “brings together the work of those who share a heartbroken, furious love of the world, and our rigorous principle: Hope is precious; it must be rationed” (see http://salvage.zone/about/).
This Census-Taker asks us to transcend hope and hate, to open our eyes to the strange new world lying dormant within the ruins of the world we see around us, and to see what might emerge from beyond the realm of what can be counted.