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Defector Reads A Book

We Went Rogue With China Miéville’s ‘This Census-Taker’

Cover image: Penguin Random House

Welcome back to Defector Reads A Book! Our February pick was the China Miéville novella This Census-Taker, which five us wrestled with below. Meet us in the comments whenever you're done reading.

Giri Nathan: This is an odd little book, and an atypical China Miéville book, so I thought we could start by laying out our familiarity with his work and then we can ask These Miéville Sickos to offer context for how this book diverges from the norm. I read The Scar a while back, and The City & The City more recently, and this is unrecognizable in terms of scope, resolution of detail, and, obviously, length. It’s one of those ideal pocket-sized books. I kept it in a few jacket pockets!

Maitreyi Anantharaman: Low familiarity—I’ve only read a non-fiction book of his, October, about the Russian Revolution. But yes, as you said, even October was so sweeping and granular, and this was something completely different.

Kelsey McKinney: As a Miéville virgin before this book, I cannot wait to hear what the sickos have to say. I enjoyed this book, but I love a short, strange book. What surprised me about it is how little emotional depth I felt while reading it, but we can come back to that!

Barry Petchesky: I’m a big-time Miévillehead, I’ve read all his novels and love them all to varying degrees. Which is why I made the mistake of expecting certain things here, and after getting something very different was left relatively cold.

Patrick Redford: If I had set out to actively troll a bunch of Miéville first-timers, I could not have picked a funnier book to start with. I promised you all extravagant worlds, delightful perversions of language, and instead we all got this gnarled, dreary book. This Census Taker was one of the three remaining gaps in my personal Miéville canon, and as Giri and Barry alluded to, it stands apart from the rest of his work, even further than the nonfiction October does from the excesses of, like, Iron Council. I felt lightly protective of my guy through the first third or so of this book, thinking you would all read this, conclude this was what the rest of his oeuvre was like, then think I was some kind of dingo. 

KM: Can one of you please tell me … uh … what a classic Miéville book is like?

PR: Imagine some classic sci-fi trope—aliens, semi-sentient choo-choo train, literally Moby Dick—but the plot plays out as a fight over what language means, usually through the process of various radical political factions trying to do different forms of communism or anarchism to each other, within a lovingly circumscribed urban environment. The plots then reveal themselves to be excuses to draw you into his weird fascinations. He says he set out to write The City & The City, his most widely regarded book, as a straight-up, hard-boiled detective novel for his ailing mother and it kind of ends up being about angels and censorship.

BP: So to me, classic Miéville is about incredible, fully realized worlds. His settings feel lived-in. The scope gradually draws outward to encompass more variegated weirdness than one book should hold. That wasn’t the case here, obviously. Here he’s content to drop little crumbs that hint at a larger world, but to leave it almost totally obscured. I was frustrated!

MA: Can I ask—do you think that’s a function of the narrator here? Does his being a child have some effect on how sharply the world can be drawn? Like he himself only grasps it so much?

GN: Yeah, I think the fact that it’s a child, and a child who just experienced memory-warping trauma, and the somewhat bewildering fact that the narration toggled between concepts/language that would be within a child’s grasp and a more omniscient mode. Plus we get some time-shifting, between present-day and the future imprisonment. So you don’t have the relative clarity of a story about a child constructing sense one page at a time.

KM: I’m going to say something rude now. This book reminded me a lot of the bad novels that were coming out of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop a couple of years ago. I think Miéville is a much more competent and sure-handed writer than those books, but the same problem irked me. I think very talented writers can use misdirection and exclusion to create a kind of confusion in readers that allows them to perceive more of the world that is being built by using their own imagination, but when that fails, you murk up that parts of the story that are strongest. For me, I felt like that narrator being a child meant that the emotions should have also been higher, but instead it was almost clinical. Maybe that’s too harsh. I’m not sure.

BP: It’s funny you say that because in the afterword he says this book was mostly written at a pair of writers’ workshops. Maybe it shows. I think the story reads like a fairytale, for better or worse. Very simple, straightforward plotting. This happens, then this happens, then a handsome prince (this damn census-taker) shows up to rescue the boy from his evil(?) father. I also think you don’t find a lot of emotional depth, as you put it earlier, Kelsey, in fairytales. So between that and the narrator being a child, with a child’s lack of understanding and self-examination, we get a world drawn in only the broadest of strokes.

PR: I almost think we see the strongest representations of childhood in Samma and Drobe, who come off as alternately incredibly canny about the brokenness of the world and how to navigate it (read: bats), and completely powerless to actually affect anything. That they are the only named characters feels important, even if they just kind of end up walking up and down the hill for a while but I guess that’s the whole book. 

KM: That’s fair! But I think darker fairy tales, like Lyudmila Petrushevskaya’s, are able to do both. The darkness just never created a pit of dread for me, which felt like it should have been there. I’m thinking specifically about the Hole, which seemed like it should make my skin crawl. I guess the question I had at the end was what does the book gain from so much exclusion? I dunno. I did actually really like it. I just wanted to feel more. 

MA: Ah, I disagree. It was a very vibe-y book, I thought. Maybe there are limits to atmosphere as a philosophy—and I also wasn’t totally satisfied by it—but Miéville did bring about a mood, at least, and I felt it. It reminded me a little of Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dream, slim and spooky, abstract, unsettling. 

GN: The emotions landed for me. This book felt high-res on the sentence level, even if low-res on the conceptual level, so the sharp descriptions of high-stakes scenes got my heart beating faster. I’m thinking especially of the one where the adults return from the house with his mother’s “note,” and the one where the census-taker begins descending into the hole and they don’t know when daddy’s coming. And while the animal murders begin to blur together they evoked this horrible miasma each time. There are aspects of the book that I struggled with, but overall I was stunned by how much emotion he squeezed out of me with such little exposition. My comp might be Vivek Shanbang’s Ghachar Ghochar, another slim novel of elision and dread.

PR: Ooh Giri, upon reading a “description” of that one’s “plot,” I’m enticed. The sentences as sentences in This Census Taker are certainly more spare than I’m used to, though all the negative space, syntactically and plot-wise, worked for me because the operative emotion is a yearning powerlessness.

BP: Patty, have you seen the theories that this takes place in Bas-Lag?

PR: He definitely saw a cactacae that one time, right? Also, the part where Drobe describes where this census taker comes from and sketches out what can only be New Crobuzon.

GN: That’s the ent-like thing, I assume. I would like to learn more about these vegetal guys.

MA: This is interesting to me—even as a not-Miévillehead. You mentioned earlier, Barry, the crumbs of a world he dropped. It almost felt like he inhabited some other writer writing in a world he created (the magic keys, the census-taking), but some other writer who just wasn’t terribly interested in sketching out the world much further. 

BP: I agree it’s interesting, because the world doesn’t really have all that much to do with the plot, but a lot to do with the mood. In that way it’s very Miéville: a little post-apocalyptic, a little steampunky, a little magicky. Can we talk about the census-taker? And not just any census-taker, but this census-taker?

GN: I should note that I wrote the title wrong every single instance of our DRAB announcement post, despite having a copy of the book in front of me as I wrote, and Barry caught it. It’s really jarring. And it wasn’t resolved for me until we got to the dad’s tirade in the cave at the end, when he rails against “this census-taker.”

MA: [whispering to date while reading This Census-Taker when this census-taker first appears on the page] That’s this census-taker.

BP: Yes, and the code that says THIS CENSUS-TAKER IS ROGUE. That felt like a “key” (ha ha) to … something. Not sure what though!

GN: Once I got to the end, I had to circle back to the codes introduced at the beginning of the book; I thought it was just some funky enjambment on first pass. Then it was nice to see him responding “I KNOW” to his predecessor.

KM: Giri, same! I did not get it on the first pass at all. But I did find it kind of fun, and I loved the concept of the keys and the shrouded lore around them. 

MA: OK, so, what is rogue about this census-taker? 

GN: Maybe he’s taken it upon himself to prosecute an old political or ethnic beef, one kill at a time, years after the fact? Clearly he doesn’t stop at mere “counting.” It reminded me of a one-man Operation “Wrath of God” or something. There are hints about an uprising against machines, and another clash between people, in the city where the dad’s from.

PR: An uprising against the machines …ha ha ha … New Crobuzon has continued to go fash, is how I read it, but I almost wish I didn’t have the baggage here to have immediately grounded the ambiguity. I clocked this census taker in This Census Taker as evil when he spelunked the hole. There’s a weird little adjectival contrast between this census-taking as an act (clinical) and rogueness (wild), that I can’t quite square, but that’s at least consistent.

BP: Yes! I think the town urchins represent that wildness, and a real draw for our narrator. He’s clearly only ever happy when he’s running around with them and fishing for bats and whatnot. It’s a glimpse of a life he can never have. But in the end, he goes willingly with the census-taker; he isn’t abducted.

PR: My favorite two passages in the book, probably also the brightest two, are the description of the bridge itself (“Houses built on bridges are scandals. A bridge wants to not be. If it could choose its shape, a bridge would be no shape.”) and the bat-fishing part that follows it (“At dusk the town bridge wore a beard of poles and frenetic tethered insects.”). It’s like Miéville lets in just enough light to hurt you when he slams the door.

KM: I also starred those two passages, Patrick! The bridge one in particular I was mesmerized by. I could have spent a long time on the bridge with Samma and Drobe very happily. I love how florid the language becomes when he is learning about this life he can’t have, but wishes were his. 

MA: Here was one of my favorites, pretty early. It’s one of the first descriptions of his father: “He made keys. His customers would come up from the town and ask for the things for which people usually ask—love, money, to open things, to know the future, to fix animals, to fix things, to be stronger, to hurt someone or save someone, to fly—and he’d make them a key.” I thought it contained so much of the book’s essence—rattling off these strange circumstances, but very matter-of-factly. The way “to open things” is shoved in there. 

KM: That way “to open things” was very influential on me immediately. I’m not even sure if this is textual, but I became convinced that the father had opened the hole himself, that that’s why only their family drops their garbage while all the other ones burn theirs. 

PR: Glad we also got some of his trademark adversarial diction (pinchbeck, scends, vatic, chevon.) I thought at least two of those were fake; if only I knew the way to open things.

BP: Not to brag but “scend” was in the book I read right before this one (referring to literal ocean waves), and I had to look it up, so I was ready for it here. I’m totally stealing vatic though.

MA: 🤓 Not to brag but “scend” was in the book I read right before this one 

GN: A poet friend gave me “vatic” before but “scobs”? I don’t know “scobs.” Much less “fetish scobs.” I’m done thinking about that. In general the dreamy, prose-poem thing worked for me, especially in descriptions of nature, but I recoiled on one instance when it bled into the dialogue. The census-taker is talking about how his double-barreled gun “spreads possibilities” with its shotgun, and fires down the center with its rifle. “A range and its mean. This is an averaging gun.” OK, shut up man. You’re talking to a child. Quit flexing.

PR: Let my man cook! 

BP: Reminiscent of the Possible Sword in The Scar …

PR: (We can get back on topic but the Possible Sword is maybe my favorite Miéville device ever, fuck a mosquito person, it’s on sight.) What did you all make of the detail about the wallpaper and the messages, is that just setting up the code or something stranger? The strongest case for this as a fairytale is that haunted weird little house.

GN: Yeah, a spooky house up on a hill is real fable stuff. The wallpaper in the attic sounded really pretty to me—flowers and pagodas, wow. It also helps advance the plot: When he goes back after the murder(?) it’s been scrubbed clean, both of hypothetical blood and of his doodles. I kept thinking that’s now how wallpaper works but maybe they have magic cleaning. A key for that.

BP: I hate to keep harping on this, but my favorite thing about earlier Miéville is that he introduces all these weird things and then expands on them to their logical conclusions. Here though, he sprinkles this stuff in and then does nothing with it. You could write a whole book about the magic keys!

KM: I would read the hell out of the magic key book. The drawings on the wall I found very useful for character development for the child. It seems lonely to draw animals between the pagodas and flowers that no one else cares to see or bothers to notice. Meanwhile, all he does is notice the small things his parents do like bury a note in the garden and carry things up to the hole in secret. 

GN: By the end it’s clear that he’s back to a life of lonely scribbling, that the “guards” for an “honoured guest” are likelier guards in a prison. What do we make of his toil with his three books? The first seems to be the ledger (or census itself), the second is a “performance” for others, and third is for him to “write secrets.”

MA: Are we reading the boy’s second book? I think at one point he says we are, right? Though I also wondered whether the books had any relationship to the different perspectives used: all the shifts raise questions about the intended audience, the fidelity of the narrative. 

GN: When the narration flips from first to second person, mid-chapter, without warning, I also thought of those three books. No matter how hard I stared at those scenes, though, I couldn’t make sense of the choice to flip. Are we reading a book cobbled together from the narrator’s second and third books?

KM: Oh! I read the books as metaphorical. That the shifts in perspective are the “books” and that the guidelines are how we should interpret that section. I’m not sure why I did that, though. Overall, the shifting perspective bothered me a lot less than I expected because the POV was consistent even though the hes and yous and I’s changed. 

BP: To me, the perspective shifts were the author making the point that who we were in the past doesn’t feel at all like the same person. I do think we’re supposed to question everything in here, right from the start, when he somehow confuses his father murdering his mother for his mother murdering his father. He’s the ultimate unreliable narrator. Hey, I could be totally off base here, but what are the chances the boy’s predecessor as census apprentice, whose code was in the book, was his mother—that she was tasked with disposing of his father, but fell in love with him? In which case she is the one who was rogue. We already know from her supposed  “I’m leaving” note that he wouldn’t recognize her handwriting.

GN: As I understood it—it was very fuzzy—there was a census-taker who was acting up, and he had a female subordinate who figured out he’d gone off the rails, and she ran away, and that’s the hideout that Drobe takes them to, where they find her papers (including a sealed order she intercepted). It could definitely be that it was the mom and she had a stash in town. We also know the mom can read and write. I wonder why Drobe would keep the boy in the dark, though.

PR: Both are plausible, though I prefer that theory. Maybe Drobe actually did reveal way more than the narrator lets on, maybe all that buried garbage was really so many notes. After all, he is somewhat straightforward about the fact that he’s lying to you. Mr. this census taker, I gave you all the clues. Unlike Kelsey, I’m a sucker for all that ambiguity for its own sake, IWW nonsense. 

KM: Oh I absolutely thought it was the mom. That’s why I thought she was burying the note he couldn’t read! And that’s why she’s so shady about how she ended up with him even though he’s bad! But that ambiguity I liked, that we could decide for ourselves how tidy we wanted it to be. 

GN: When I was circling back to the first prison chapter, I also stuck on this “tiny poll of the absent.” These people are described elliptically: “four behind me (I wrote ‘saw the sea; cut metal; stole a flouted order; twisted hooks on twine’), one perhaps also behind me, perhaps ahead—my predecessor.” The only clear reference here is the dad, who cut metal. Was the mom burying the stolen flouted order? Or was that the stolen flouted order in the hideout? Did mom see the sea? (Would she register on this census, anyway?) And both mom and dad twisted hooks on twine to make scarecrows. If these descriptors are meant to identify five separate people, perhaps it's a case against mom as predecessor.

PR: To me, “saw the sea” is most eyebrow-raising. Why is that a distinguishing characteristic? The topographic contrast between the book’s actual vertiginous, pinched setting and the expansive flatness of the sea feels like the way in, but to what, I don’t know.

GN: We’ll conclude with the most pressing question of This Census-Taker: Who took goat? Justice for goat.

KM: The goat is the one empty ending that I have been trapped in a loop on. Did it run away? Did This Census Taker take it? Did the goat move to the bridge? 

MA: This goat went rogue?

BP: That goat got averaged straight to hell. (Also, I would like to congratulate us for somehow going this whole DRAB without using the word “Kafkaesque.” An upset!)

PR: If you read Last Days Of New Paris, it is clear that the goat in this book is written as a archetypal manif—[Answer amended by editors, Patrick has been taken to this this census taker prison].

KM: Patrick? Patrick!? That’s so weird. There’s only a cut collar here.

DRAB will be in the comments for the next couple of days to hear your thoughts and chat with you. If you missed out on this book, don’t worry! We’ll announce our next pick soon.

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