I’m often drawn to books simply because the premise amuses or intrigues me, only to be disappointed when an author doesn’t have the imagination to pull it off. I never worry about China Miéville’s ability to take a weird idea and run with it to an off-kilter but thoughtful conclusion. It only took a sentence in the reviews to get me to pick up his latest creation, The Last Days of New Paris. Once I learned that this book would feature a Paris at war with the Nazis after a Surrealist bomb had transformed the city, I just had to read it. I was not disappointed.
Our protagonist, Thibaut, has lived in the heart of Paris since the “S-bomb” went off in 1941 and brought manifs (manifestations, though the word means demo in French) from the great works of Surrealist art and poetry to life. When we meet him, it is 1950. Everyday, he encounters creatures made of random animal, human, and inanimate parts. Giant plants rise up out of the Seine to devour planes. Demons haunt the metro. Thibaut is relatively safe, as he has the knack for telling when something is surreal and when it’s just a pile of junk. Nazis, on the other hand, are attacked on sight.
As we follow Thibaut through Paris in the company of an American woman who is cataloging the manifs, flashbacks to 1941 reveal how the S-bomb came to be. The flashbacks are full of actual historical figures (Varian Fry, André Breton, etc.) but center on Jack Parsons. In our reality, Parsons was a rocket scientist and follower of Aleister Crowley. That’s still true in this reality. What’s different this time is that Parsons creates a semi-mystical battery that captures the creativity of the Surrealists. It was never meant to be a weapon, mostly because no one really knew what they had on their hands.
The Last Days of New Paris is the most demented art lesson I’ve ever had. Thibault does his best to describe what he sees (many of the manifs defy physics). It’s more useful when he name drops the greats of Surrealism when he recognizes something like Celebes the Elephant. This book sent me to Google Images and Wikipedia more than once. Weirdly enough, reading about the manifs in action and eavesdropping on Thibault’s brain helped me understand Surrealism in a way my art history professors couldn’t. This school of art is very much about seeing things in a completely different way, with irreverence and a determined effort to embrace the random.
I would lament the fact that The Last Days of New Paris is only a novella, but it’s the perfect length. Any more chapters and there might have been too much weirdness for the plot to support. Any fewer and characters wouldn’t have had a chance to develop. Even though the book races to its action-packed conclusion, I wouldn’t have changed a thing. This book is amazing.