27 May 2007

Come Un Dun

I read only about 100 pages of China Miéville’s Un Lun Dun before I had to take it back to the library to fulfill someone else’s request. (All the more reason to put off reading new books for a year or three, I say.)

I was most impressed by Miéville’s combination of verbal and visual imagination. Often authors seem to have one or the other. AUTHOR%20Alan Snow, for instance, has striking character images but flat prose. Cliff McNish creates terrific descriptions of moods and relationships, but I’m not always sure what things look like. Miéville, who also illustrated his own novel rather well, takes punnish inspiration from both verbal and visual cues. Inventive details pop out of every page, practically every paragraph.

I have trouble understanding Miéville’s approach to section breaks within a chapter. Most authors use those to elide from one scene to another, signaling the passage of space or time. But Miéville often plops section breaks within scenes, with the action and conversation taking up just an instant after it left off. They seem more like especially emphatic punctuation (“Think about that now!”) than like storytelling conveniences.

Details and blank lines aside, the story in Un Lun Dun is conventional--so far. Two young people, wisecracking Zanna and loyal best friend Deepa, are sucked into a strange world. It’s like London, but--get this!--everything is different.

Well, not everything. It’s not as if in this universe water contracts when frozen, thus becoming denser and ending up on the bottom of the ocean where it's never thawed, giving water-based life no chance to form on the planet. It’s not as if the weak and strong nuclear forces don’t apply, fundamentally changing the nature of matter. No, things in UnLondon are different in a picturesque, occasionally disturbing but usually entertaining way, with dangerous giraffes and affectionate milk cartons and double-decker buses sprouting wings and legs.

The people of that society have all sorts of rules and customs and expectations by which they live. But--wouldn’t you know?--our heroes don’t know what those rules are! Laughs galore ensue. And here’s the kicker: everyone in UnLondon treats Zanna and Deepa as special, as Chosen visitors whose Coming has been Prophesized because it is Very Important to the Future of Both Worlds.

And did I mention the huge, malevolent, disembodied force of evil, here called the Smog? You were already expecting one of those, I bet.

I understand from reviews of Un Lun Dun that Miéville’s book ends up deconstructing those modern fantasy clichés. Which could be a lot of fun, especially with his imagination and his prose, so I look forward to snatching the book away from some other library patron and finishing it. But that shift hasn’t happened yet.


Elizabeth said...

So did you ever finish Un Lun Dun? Because I think it does, indeed, wind up being rather unconventional. I loved this book.

J. L. Bell said...

No, I still have to get back to Un Lun Dun. Thanks for reminding me. I imagine it might be available at the library now.