Have you ever been to a party where you knew, beyond all shadow of a doubt, that everyone was smarter than you? Like maybe you accidentally wandered into some meeting of past Nobel winners, a MENSA cocktail hour where no one could talk about anything but his IQ, a conclave of artists who spoke so completely in their own cant that it sounded to your ear like code?
China Miéville's newest novel, The Last Days Of New Paris, is exactly that, but in book form.
And if there's a way that I can say that and yet mean it as a compliment, that's exactly what I'm doing here. No one likes a smarty-pants, but sometimes that kind of thing — that rubbing up against the very smart and very committed — can be both infuriating and illuminating. It can blow your mind and chap your ass at the same time, but if you're able to cool out your ego, shut up and listen a little, you're almost guaranteed to walk out again smarter.
Will it help you going into Last Days if you've got a master's-level education in art history with a focus on French Surrealism? Maybe. I don't and I loved the vicious, weird little thing anyway. Will you be at an advantage if you know a thing or two about Vichy France? If you understand something of the motivations of American spies behind the lines? If, on your fingers, you can count the names of Nazis and midcentury occultists and know their stats like they came on the back of baseball cards? Yes, absolutely. But that kind of thing is not, you know, required.
Last Days is, in essence, an alternative history novel. In it, the Nazis rolled into Paris in 1941 and brought with them all the pulp novel evils that have been granted them over the years. These are occult Nazis, obsessed with supernatural powers and the harnessing of bloody, sacrificial magic.
But that alone would be too dull for a wild mind like Miéville's. So in 1941, though a series of accidents, poor choices and bad luck, a kind of bomb is detonated at a cafe. It is a bomb that, in its exploding, looses into the world the physical manifestations of Surrealism's greatest hits, and suddenly the streets of the City Of Light are alive with wolf-tables and exquisite corpses, with massive, violent monsters of the deep subconscious. Leonora Carrington's Amateur of Velocipedes is there, Odilon Redon's grinning spider, more. And the book leaps forward (and back, and forward again) between 1941 and a 1950 where the war is still on and Paris is encircled by Nazis with their guns pointed inward now, fighting just to make sure what's in there stays in there. At least until their corps of wizards (Aleister Crowley makes an appearance here, as do Mengele, Robert Alesch, Hitler, natch) can cut some kind of deal in hell to gain power over Paris's manifestations.
Inside this cordon is Thibault, part of a Surrealist militia, dressed in magical lady's pajamas and accompanied by Breton's original Exquisite Corpse and a mysterious woman named Sam who (she claims) has sneaked into Paris with a camera to document all of its wonders. And to do something else as well.
Last Days is Miéville's war story. It is beautiful, stunningly realized, mind-bendingly bizarre. The plot is pure pulp (the Lone Soldier escorting the Woman With Secrets through the battlefield because only the two of them can save the world), but, as is often (perhaps always) the case with Miéville, you come to him for the worlds he builds. For the breathtaking architecture of his imagination and the very, very serious joy that you can feel pulsing up between the lines.
It is a short book. Not counting a fourth-wall-breaking afterword and a long appendix that also functions (loosely) as part of the story, the plot itself wraps up in just over 150 pages. Lately, though, this has become Miéville's thing (see: This Census-Taker, most recently), these short little oddities, these teacups full of strangeness. But its brevity gives it a vitality that would've been lost had he rambled on for 900 pages.
Last Days is a brief vacation in alien latitudes, a midnight layover in an imaginary place. The kind of party where you need to just shut up and listen. But if you can do that — suspend every ounce of disbelief you've got and just appreciate how out of place you are in this remarkable alternate world that Miéville has created — then you're going to walk out again smarter.
And weirder. So, so much weirder than when you went in.
Jason Sheehan is an ex-chef, a former restaurant critic and the current food editor of Philadelphia magazine. But when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about spaceships, aliens, giant robots and ray guns. Tales From the Radiation Age is his latest book.