On disliking a “brilliant” book

I recently completed Perdido Street Station, by China Mieville. To say I hated it would be an overstatement. To say I loved it would be a lie.

This was, I was often assured, a “brilliant” book. Evidence exists that supports that. It was nominated for Hugo and Nebula awards, and won others. And it spawned two more books by the same author set in the same city (New Crobuzon). I’m told Mieville saw it as part of a new movement in sf/f, “the new weird.”

But I didn’t take to it. There were parts that I really enjoyed. The steampunk aspects were, for the most part, surprisingly enjoyable for me. (This may mean I’ll need to read some more of that.) I was duly impressed by the evil slake moths, and how invincible they seemed. I was duly grossed out (I’m sure I was meant to be) by the khepri-human romance. I can’t say I enjoyed all of those aspects, but I feel like I “got it.”

But who cares what I like? What I’m getting at is something else: What can you learn about books by finishing books you don’t finally care for?

Maybe nothing. But I’d like to redeem the 20-plus evenings I spent with this one, wrestling through 10 pages some days, and 50 some others.

1) Long descriptive passages are only enjoyable to readers who like the world in which the story is set. I wasn’t one of them, so my eyes glossed over every time we went to a new part of New Crobuzon. I kept thinking, “Are we done world-building yet?” And the answer was always, “No. No we aren’t.” Not until the very last page. On the other hand, I seldom mind it when Tolkien goes on about terrain and rocks.

2) You can defy Strunk and White, and some people will be okay with that. I wasn’t one of them. One rule of good old Strunk was not to toss out a neologism when a good old fashioned word will do. Mieville broke this rule frequently, probably on purpose, and so repeatedly irritated me. He also rejected one of my favorites: “Omit needless words.” Maybe I obsess too much over tight prose?

3) Story structure doesn’t matter to everyone. Unfortunately, I’m too hidebound for a sprawling 700-page, quarter-million-word novel that has no discernible shape or structure. Now, granted, there were story elements that held together and worked well, and some later things tied back to earlier things. But it’s a bad sign when you’ve got 60 pages left and you’re thinking–“Wasn’t that the end of the story?” Or earlier, at about 150-to-endpoint, when I was disappointed that the last slake moth escaped alive. I think some people felt that way about the last part of Lord of the Rings (the Shire bit); I wasn’t one of them. So, again, maybe it comes back to liking the world in which these things are happening. Readers forgive a lot if they like that world.

4) People have different tastes in literature. This is obvious, and there’s nothing to be learned from it. Some people, a lot of people, thought the book was brilliant. The same thing happened when I made the mistake of watching a few “New Girl” episodes. Other watchers crowed about how awesome the episodes were. I found myself wishing I were reading a cereal box.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not blaming Perdido Street Station — at least, not really. I recognize that I’m a creature of the countryside and so, when I read fantasy, I want countryside, or a pre-modern village, or islands and sea. The idea of having humanoid bugs and cactae walking through a hellish cityscape doesn’t exactly turn me on. But that’s partly because I dislike cities.

This deficiency of mine ultimately doesn’t square well with the future of our planet. It also doesn’t do justice to the things I do like about cities. On the other hand, my experiences of cities aren’t entirely disconnected from reality. I see the squalor, the social inequity, the urban decay as a negative thing, something to struggle against and ameliorate. So Mieville, in describing this urban squalor, evokes that in me. He, on the other hand, maybe wants to highlight the humanity that shines through that squalor. But his novel just makes me want to go for a long walk in the woods.

In reading an interview with Mieville, it seems that the author purposely didn’t want me to want to go to New Crobuzon. Well, that worked (for me; I don’t know about his fans). He also claims to sort of experiment with story structure. I can appreciate the desire to do that. So my dislike maybe shows up my preferences for more traditional story types. Maybe.

Well, that’s the best I can do. I recognize that I and this book have irreconcilable differences. I recognize that I bear part of the blame. But I don’t see myself changing much on this front. I’ve read the book, and tried to let it read me. As usual, I came out on top.

What do you think? Is there more to be gained or lost here than I’m seeing? Did you read it and love it or dislike it?

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