I like puzzles and I like puzzles that I can’t solve but which have a nice structure to them. I even like unsolvable puzzles, which I guess are technically not puzzles at all but things that feel like they have solutions. The aesthetic of puzzles is that they should combine both a sense of curiosity about some hidden mechanic but also have some other aesthetic element: elegance, symmetry or visual elegance.
China Miéville’s novella This Census Taker is not a roman à clef although it does feature keys but it has the aesthetics of an unsolvable puzzle. The story points at things as if they are clues but those elements (the deep hole into which things are thrown, the father’s affectless violence, the boy/narrator’s inconsistent recollections) don’t ever come together as a finished puzzle. The novella is like a painting of an unfinished jigsaw puzzle – the edges artfully done but with the looming chasm of the centre incomplete.
It is, the Gene Wolfe novel I’ve been waiting for I guess – the one where Wolfe takes his odd narrators (in this case an agent of a mysterious census who must complete a ‘second book’ distinct from his first book of figures), his obsession with dangerous & inscrutable father figures (in this case the violent, probably murderous key cutter) and settings that have detail but yet remain indistinct like dreams but leads them off in a new direction.
Like Wolfe’s work this novella is disatisfying. It leaves questions unanswered to the extent that critiquing it is difficult. The opening of the story has the protagonist as a child escaping from his hillside home to the town below in horror at having witnessed his mother kill his father. Yet the story changes immediately, somebody, not his mother, killed his father or rather…his father killed his mother. That later the father is still alive and the mother is gone is the only solid confirmation of which event happened but the story is suffused with this air of incipient violence. Is that violence gratutitous? It is never described except in terms of the father’s violence toward animals but the horror of it never goes away. Yet, the story’s avoidance of resolution means we are given no insights into this violence.
The father is, apparently, a killer but why he kills is as mysetrious as his work. He cuts keys, with an electric saw – but in a world that otherwise feels nineteenth century (I note Rocket Stack Rank call the story ‘post-apocalyptic’ ). In a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it paragraph we are told the keys have magical powers, so we at least get some sense of why a key-cutter lives in almost isolation but it isn’t a satisfying explanation.
The prose is excellent and that adds to the sense that Miéville knows what he is doing and that he is fully in control of this story. So I didn’t finish it thinking ‘that was an incoherent mess’ but if you locked me in a room and forced me to right a ‘second book’ about the differences between this story and an incoherent mess, I’d be hard pressed to identify the clear distinction.
I enjoyed it – that’s the best I can say about it. I think it is a very subtle horror story, possibly just the right level of horror for me (I’m not keen on horror) in that it captures the stress and concern of a disturbing dream. I think it is an easy story not to like and I’m not really sure I appreciate or ‘get’ it. I don’t think I’d recommend it to anyone other than as a demonstration of just how well the author can join words together.
If it had less craft it could go below No Award. If I felt I had a better handle on the story, it could go as number 1 on my ballot. As is? I’ve no idea. It was a story. I read it. We should check to see if Gene Wolfe has gone missing and is locked in Miéville’s attic.