I don’t have as much time for reading as I’d like these days, which means I’m developing a hard-hearted attitude to books: if they don’t grip me I drop them. This is a severe departure in attitude from my halcyon days (when I was younger and had less commitments) where I would always struggle through to the end of a novel. It also means I’m innately suspicious of bigger books. If they just cut out the lard, I think, they’d slim down quickly. Some novels on the shelves could do with a editing regime from a personal trainer.
So, when I picked up Un Lun Dun by China Miéville I thought it seemed a bit chunky for a young adult book. I was delighted to be proved utterly wrong. Un Lun Dun is a muscular novel that does not pig out on unnecessary linguistic snacks. The story is relatively simple: a London teenager, Deeba, and a variety of companions, must negotiate the hazards and wonders of the strange mirror version of the city, UnLondon, in order to save it from an evil force.
Miéville, however, is an inherently subversive writer, and using the simple quest trope he manages to upend the typical conventions of unquestioned prophecies, chosen ones, fist-shaking villains, and endless video-game tasks. The novel plays with words and meanings with a feral child-like glee, and following in the tradition of Lewis Carroll believes in the power of nonsense as an antidote to too much sense. The UnLondon of Miéville’s imagination is suffused with a wild and weird sensibility, bizarre creatures, and a fascination with the detritus of our civilisation.
Miéville ponders upon the question of where does the trash of our world go, and conjures up an alternate world where everything has some odd existence. It’s the purest notion of an animistic universe, and will no doubt enchant children whose view of the world remains open to possibility. It might also give children (and adults) pause for thought in a world where everything is disposable. Be careful, the novel posits, of what you discard, because it may return to haunt – or choke – you. Of course, it could be an entirely playful companion too.
What makes the book satisfying is that it fires on so many engines: not only is it Deeba’s scary adventure through adversity, but it’s also a bildungroman, a clever dissection of the limiting effects of storytelling formula, a clarion call for a playful and irreverent attitude towards language, and a laser-sharp examination of the lazy acceptance of social conventions that is aided by passive storytelling.
Un Lun Dun wants to engage with the reader, but it does so in a mischievous fashion. It doesn’t raise these issues using brute force and preachiness, but teases the imagination awake with serious silliness. Plus, Miéville’s own illustrations pepper the pages so there is little dilution of the author’s internal vision of his universe.
This is a thoroughly enjoyable and entertaining novel. Read it.