A confession: I only read The Last Days of New Paris because I found a signed copy in Forbidden Planet. I am easily bought.
Surrealism and war-torn Paris just did not seem like My Thing; and given the fact that, though China Mieville is probably my favourite living author, about half of his books have also been Not My Thing, I would have been quite happy to leave New Paris languishing on the shelf.
But the signature got me. So.
There are two plotlines running through the novella. In an alternative 1950, Paris is a war-torn no-man’s-land under siege by the Nazis. It’s not just a war of guns and bombs, though: Surrealist artworks have come to life on the streets and are fighting on behalf of the French, and in response the Nazis have raised demons to fight them. Reeling from the destruction of some of his comrades, a freedom fighter named Thibaut tries to escape Paris, with the help of an American photographer named Sam.
And in 1941, a young man called Jack Parsons constructs a machine to trap the psychic energies of the Surrealists. What could possibly go wrong?
The novella’s central tensions are fairly obvious here, though they’re dressed up in Mieville’s typical conceptual language (the phrase “objective chance”, for example, is used to describe the Surrealists’ technique of creating art through games like Consequences; it’s a phrase that seems to signify more than it actually does). At heart it’s about the power of art – specifically art generated by the untrammelled subconscious – to resist and destroy the conformist ideologies of fascism; which of course makes it a timely work.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, it plays intertextual games: referring to a number of real Surrealist artworks (most importantly Andre Breton, Jacqueline Lamba and Yves Tanguy’s collage “Exquisite Corpse”), and featuring annotations and an afterword which frame the story as a real, academic text. Still, I’m not convinced that I was wrong in my initial assessment: it’s not that I didn’t enjoy The Last Days of New Paris, it’s just Not My Thing.