Saturday, 11 May 2013

Unbook of the week: Un Lun Dun

I like some of Mieville's books and dislike some. I like The City and the City and Embassytown. I have vague memories of disgust with King Rat (which I assume is the intention), and I put aside Kraken after a hundred pages because it was unbearably boring. I am fine with authors whose books are not always to my liking, and I am always prepared to give them another chance.

I started reading Un Lun Dun because a colleague from the English Department mentioned it over lunch table. Colleagues from the English Department seldom read children's books unless they have children, and this particular colleague was reading Un Lun Dun with his son with great enjoyment. I had to confess that I didn't know Mieville had written children's books, and I went home and bought it. I didn't have any expectations apart from someone I know well had recommended the book, and it was written by an author some of whose books I like. I felt obliged to read to the end to be able to engage in an informed discussion with my colleague; otherwise I would have stopped after fifty pages. The moment I saw the word “Chosen” I felt a strong desire to smash the book against the wall (I was reading on Kindle, so it wouldn't have been a good idea).

Now, of course the Chosen business is turned upside down (warning: spoilers!), and generally the whole book is one big parody. But parody only works as such for somebody who had read five hundred fantasy novels, and I am not sure Mieville has done so. He acknowledges Neil Gaiman and Norton Juster, among others, as his sources of inspiration, to which I can only say: sorry, Mr Mieville, you aren't up to your models (which is often the case). Where Gaiman and Juster are splendid fireworks, Un Lun Dun is a party cracker. There are far too many things recognisable from other fantasy texts, but not used creatively – rather randomly glued together, much like the buildings in Unlondon, made of moil objects (Moderately Obsolete in London). There are some wonderful details, such as the torus-shaped Unsun, or the animated milk carton who develops a devotion for the protagonist. This is typical of the novel: the least important secondary character is much more lovable than the protagonist. She is in fact as flat as a pancake. The text has no room for her to think, feel, be surprised. If she is scared, the text says she is scared. If she thinks, she thinks aloud. When she needs to act, she talks to other characters. All tokens of very old-fashioned children's literature. All directly opposite from the exquisite narration of Mieville's other books, including those I don't like. With all the upside-down, fractured, postmodernesque twists, the plot is painfully predictable. And there is no heart-breaking farewell in the end.

I am certainly a wrong reader for this book, fed up with parallel worlds and chosen children, virtuose wordplay and logical paradoxes. I can imagine that someone less spoiled, child or adult alike, would enjoy the book and appreciate exactly the features I find irritating. So don't let my negative response govern you choice. Read it and see for yourself.

1 comment:

Philip Nel said...

I've clearly fallen behind in keeping up with your blog, but I'm gratified to discover that you, too, were disappointed in Un Lun Dun. I read the first 150 pages, and then gave up on it. It's theoretically interesting, but not very well written. Most people I've talked to have praised the book (for its ideas), but it's one of the few books I have not felt compelled to finish.