Book Review: London’s Overthrow, China Miéville (Westbourne Press)
Moving from China Miéville’s novel Scar to his non-fictional London’s Overthrow involves a change of scale not unlike something you find in Gulliver’s Travels. In his novel, the second of the New Crobuzon trilogy though not set in that metropolis but in the superbly realized Armada, Miéville’s prodigious imagination runs riot. The science-fictional citizens of Armada, an urban-like but maritime pirate city made up of countless ships physically and politically joined together, are not the twee middle-class elves and hobbits of Lord of the Rings and nor do daft dragons feature as the baddies although there are plenty of grotesque creatures that belong to some nightmarish version of the wilder fringes of Greek mythology.
There is almost too much to contend with and you are at first overwhelmed with a surfeit of fantasy (consider skipping the first five pages and the various interludes, returning to them when you get your reading breath back) until places, people and plot begin to take fixed shape. There is an awful lot happening and the neologisms and conceptual inventions flow so thick and fast that you yearn for a glossary and a map at the back of the book. The plot builds to a metaphysical climax when Armada reaches the Scar, the ontological void that Miéville calls the wound in reality, a place where Žižek’s Real speculatively materialises itself, a realm where contingency is an absolute. There are many scars in Scar, physical and psychological, but this is the ultimate incision.
London’s Overthrow, by way of vivid contrast, is a lean and hungry examination of London at the fag end of 2011: the Olympics are looming, summer riots just over, finance capital still in crisis, clergy dithering when Occupy remind them of Christ’s driving out of the money-lenders from the temple, two million public-sector workers on strike and with their big march through the city surveillance helicopters in the sky ‘dangle like ugly Christmas baubles’. Contributing to all this, London’s Overthrow is a little verbal incendiary (less than a hundred small pages) with samizdat-style colour photographs, mostly blurry and washed out, that capture the soul and the substance of a fairly unique city.
Can a diatribe spat out from the non-fictional New Crubuzon have to anything to say about one of its smaller ex-colonial metropolises across a short stretch of sea? Not immediately so. The suffocating complacency of Dublin would seem to have precious little in common with London’s social strife and its simmering discontent until Miéville remarks how, in the face of glaring inequalities, capitalism defends itself by the engendering of ‘outrage-fatigue’. The two cities share a weariness that can sap resistance, especially in Ireland where we know that the divine Father is not just a Catholic but an apolitical economist who – let’s be grown-up about this – cannot deliver miracles or, God forbid, drive out the money-lenders. Such a force-feeding of a relentless diet of monetary curbs by a media that can only conceive of the notion of politicising economics by way of laughable, navel-gazing party politics starves the mind as well as the body. There is a similarity too between the coalition governments of the two states when the junior party of each falls back on the old trope of hard choices that regretfully have to be made; Miéville labels it ‘betrayal as machismo’. And Ireland, though rarely copying progressive features of British life like a National Health Service, the right of women to control their own bodies or independent investigations into complaints against police, is not reluctant to imitate its neighbour by introducing electronic tagging and – corresponding to the British media’s delight in spreading the term ‘feral youth’ — drip-feeding shock stories about drug gangs to make us feel that safety consists of shutting the door and trusting to an uncorrupted Garda. Miéville highlights the collusion between concerns for safety and anxiety over property:
Buildings of London are jagged for protection, their defences as various as any animal adaptations. Archaeologies of wire. It’s the relict ancestor of razorwire that proliferates, brambles made of rust, on backstreet lock-ups. Walltops from Greenwich to Wembley, Ealing to Walthamstow are dorsal ridges of shards in old cement – bottleglass, crockery, bust-up mirror. Seven years misfortunes weaponised against intrusion. They sprout like werewolf hair. As if, in defence of property, the city sloughs off brick and is a beast beneath. A rare apocalypse, among London’s many.
Constitutionally averse to matter-of-fact language, metaphors become Miéville. Always susceptible to the lure of the figurative, he constantly weaves one verbal picture into another, creating sometimes dazzling configurations of the literal and the poetic. Not surprisingly, he positions his own novels within the field of weird fiction – for weird/fantasy/sci-fi writing can be viewed as metaphor, (a term that comes from the Greek to ‘carry across’) writ large as a genre in itself. Appearance is a deception, reality is strange, and the ‘objective’ quivers with past, present and future forms that only a particular kind of imaginative language can capture. It is on display in this passage about walls deterring the uninvited by their vicious adornments: broken glass and crockery shares a genetic history with razorwire and brambles, morphing into the back of an animal before particularised in the werewolf that presages what London may become when the centre can no longer hold.
What this passage also reveals is Miéville’s ambivalent attitude towards London, a state of equivocation that he shares with Bellis Coldwine, the anti-heroine of Scar, who has no illusions about her home city of New Crubuzon – brute authority, government repression, grotesque surgery on criminals and dissidents – and has to flee from it but only temporarily. She desperately needs to return there, sick for the only place that is home for her, and Miéville too cannot divorce his soul from London and its extraordinary mix of people:
London’s accreted from immigrant generations – Jewish, Caribbean, Bengali, Pakistani, Indian, Chinese, Irish, Polish, Roma and endlessly on…in clothes and music, in London’s rapid slang, in the withering of hate-filled chants on the football terraces, in attitudes transformed from three, two decades ago, in all the mixed friendships and love affairs, down to its deeps and to Londoners’ joy and fortune.
There is that dark moment in The Good Shepherd when Joe Pesci, the Mafia boss, lists how Italians, Irish, Jews and blacks all have their own ways of self-belonging and asks Matt Damon what he has: ‘The United States of America’, the CIA man replies, ‘The rest of you are just visiting.’ For Miéville it is the visitors who make London what it is, not the WASP-class of English in neighbourhoods like Kensington, and it is the visitors who will help overthrow the rotten parts that keep their discreet distance in all-white suburbs like Hornchurch and the posh enclaves close to the centre.