This Census Taker is a short novel by China Miéville. It’s almost a novella. The story could be psychological horror, but it’s stranger than that. I just finished rereading some Gene Wolfe, so I may be forgiven for interpreting This Census Taker as “China Miéville does Gene Wolfe.” Even the front flap describes the book as a “poignant and riveting exploration of memory and identity.” Buckle up, people, and keep your head and arms inside the vehicle at all times. This is Miéville exploring Wolfe country, and you never know what might bite.
The book opens with a little boy fleeing down a mountain to the village below. From the opening pages, the tone of the narrative is (intentionally) confused; the story opens about the boy, but we discover that the person telling us the story is the boy, now an adult. He does not tell the story of that day from his own recollection, however; he tells us how he remembers a girl in the village describing it to him.
The boy has witnessed a terrifying event, so horrifying that he can’t remember the details accurately, at first. It’s clear that something happened but there is very little physical proof.
The story then pulls back a bit and shares the boy’s day to day life with us. The boy’s mother maintains a garden; his father is a key-maker in a place where keys open much more than doors, cabinets or padlocks. Sometimes the mother takes the boy with her on errands to the village, where he meets the orphaned children who live on a bridge. The family lives in an odd, ramshackle house at the top of the mountain, and a cave with a deep pit in its center plays a large role in the story.
Just as we’re settling in with the boy, Miéville jerks the rug out from under us, giving us a section from the point of view of the narrator as an adult, alone in a room, working on an assignment. The “assignment” seems to be the story of This Census Taker. The narrator tells us about his work, counting people, and about the three books he and all of his colleagues must carry. The section is interesting, but a little strange, and gets stranger still when we figure out that part of this section is being written in code. For someone. For us.
Soon, however, we’re back to the boy, following his isolated life, his attempts to run away, which are thwarted continually. As, one at a time, Miéville sweeps back the veils, we see more of this world. We walk in the village with its banyan trees and ruined cinema, we climb the mountain; we grasp what our seven-year-old protagonist can’t quite. We see a country struggling in the aftermath of a war, perhaps a global one. We get a glimmering of how the magic functions. Most importantly, we start to see the story of the boy’s parents in a way that makes a disturbing sense.
The boy’s isolation is compellingly creepy; Miéville nails the psychological terror aspect convincingly. He uses a simple, almost sparse style to replicate the sense of an innocent child’s awareness. The bridge orphans provide emotional support, and try to help the boy escape, but they fail. I’ve said it reminds me of Wolfe, but in tone it also reminds me of Shirley Jackson’s horror classic We Have Always Lived in the Castle.
At the same time, This Census Taker seems to be about stories: how we tell stories without remembering (or knowing) their origins or their meaning; how stories carry codes. The use of code early in the book and again at the end seems almost like a visual pun; see how literature codes things? See how we take in those coded messages without even realizing it? There is also a message in the nature of the three books each “tally man” or census taker carries; those books morph and change. In this particular story, that change is not coincidental.
For all the intrigue about the story of this census taker, the cave and the pit were the most frightening elements in this book. I’m not completely sure Miéville plays fairly with the reader here, frankly, but regardless, the pit is mysterious, terrifying and alluring.
This is not my favorite China Miéville book, and it will require re-reading, but I admire it. I’m left at end of This Census Taker with a serious question: Which census taker? Which?
When the story begins, our narrator who was once a kid living in a town that consisted of a bridge between two hills comes screaming downhill that his father has killed his mother. When the townsfolk go to find her, however, no body is found. The boy’s father claims that the boy’s mother left town, but the boy knows his father killed his mother and threw her down the creepy hole at the top of the hill. The townspeople send the boy back up the hill to stay with his father.
China Miéville’s This Census-Taker is a weird novella that focuses more on atmosphere and mood than plot. This is a story that prefers to suggest more than it explains. The boy’s father, for example, is a key maker, and we learn that:
His customers would come up from the town and ask for the things for which people usually ask — love, money, to open things, to be stronger, to hurt someone or save someone, to fly — and he’d make them a key.
These keys seem pretty amazing. How do they work? Well, they’re made from metal, and the boy’s father makes them. The boy’s father does many things, though we rarely understand why. He kills things and throws them down the hole at the top of the hill. Does the hole lead to another dimension — does it go forever? Don’t ask. This novella is like those disturbing fairy tales in which there is not a lot of space to explore, but there is enough strange stuff nearby that you aren’t surprised that the heroes are eaten by monsters. When the boy runs away from his father, for example, he runs down the hill to the bridge. That’s it: the setting is limited to the town, and we learn that the bridge does not enjoy its existence, but we also understand the setting is large enough to shelter cruel and terrible things.
More than any other Miéville story that I’ve read, This Census-Taker seems designed to push readers outside of any sense that the world around us is sensible or that its order is based in justice and rationality. The world is cold and stifling. Over the course of any two sentences, the narrative voice can shift from first person to third, as it does in the opening sentences: “A boy ran down a hill path screaming. The boy was I.” The boy, presumably a fully grown man when as he writes this account, explains at one point that he has written three books, this being his second. My favorite instance of disorientation is when the boy’s father asks his son: “This man thinks he knows what I’ve done? When? Always?”
This Census-Taker will work best for those readers who are willing to let Miéville take them down the rabbit hole. It feels like the sort of a story established authors get to publish because they’ve earned it, or else the sort of a story a completely unknown author writes because… why not? Consequently, This Census-Taker is probably best read by the adventurous and the already converted.