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Amber Paulen

Reading Out of Genre

Perdido Street Station by China Miéville

This summer I took China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station for a week on the beach. The book had long sat on my shelf, lent to Simon from a friend. Its black cover with a single wing and bold yellow lettering out of place besides the comparatively gentle titles and covers of paintings or photos of people. The cover suggests Icarus, and I imagined inside was a modern story laid over the myth. And this, even though the blurb on the back page insisted otherwise.

I didn’t come to the book completely unprepared. A few years ago I read Miéville’s Embassytown when it came out. But as I know now that was sci-fi leaning toward literary fiction, while Peridido Street Station is sci-fi leaning toward fantasy. As far as fantasy goes, I’ve read the requisite Lord of the Rings but that’s all. Fantasy is a strange beast to me—and even stranger now that I’ve read something contemporary.

When I started the book—and it’s got a starter: the protagonist is having sex with his girlfriend who’s head is actually a beetle—it felt like I had been tossed into a cold sea. There was a strange sensation of not understanding, of struggling to get a grip on what the writer was talking about, of not having any ballast in the vastness of the story. And it made me realize that I usually come to my reading knowing a lot already, from the big, general swoop of the narrative arch to the guarantee that some flawed character will go through some trial (not to say Peridido Street Station didn’t have both of these but that there was so much going on that they didn’t seem as important).

After I got over the general squalor that the book likes to revel in (Miéville excels at disgusting descriptions) and all the action, I began to enjoy the blankness of letting the book take me where it would. And it did, and I never got completely comfortable with it, always conscious of the sensation of reading something strange. My reading had a kind of double vision—I was reading and reading how I was reading, something that never happens when I read my usual.

It’s a good experiment to try for both writer and reader: find a book that might make you uncomfortable and then read it.


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