Neil Gaiman, China Miéville’s Un Lun Dun and the Pleasures of Genre

I picked Neil Gaiman’s The View from the Cheap Seats off the Lucky Day shelf from the Multnomah County Library. China Miéville’s Un Lun Dun was on the shelf with librarian recommendations. I checked out The View from the Cheap Seats to read the essays on Diana Wynne Jones, Terry Pratchett, Harlan Ellison, Douglas Adams, and Tori Amos and to find some new authors and titles. I’d been meaning to read Miéville for years.
The View from the Cheap Seats includes a talk titled “The Pornography of Genre, or the Genre of Pornography” where he reflects on an insight from Linda Williams’
Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the “Frenzy of the Visible”:
Professor Williams suggested in her book that pornographic films could best be understood by comparing them to musicals. In a musical you are going to have different kinds of song – solos, duets, trios, full choruses, songs sung by men to women and by women to men, slow songs, fast songs, happy songs, love songs – and in a porn film you have a number of different kinds of sexual scenarios that need to be gone through.
            In a musical the plot exists to allow you to get from song to song and to stop all the songs from happening at once. So with a porn film.
            And furthermore and most importantly, the songs in a musical are, well, they’re not what you’re there for, as you’re there for the whole thing, story and all, but they are those things that if they were no there you as a member of the audience would feel cheated. If you’ve gone to a musical and there are no songs, you are going to walk out feeling that you did not get your musical money’s worth. You are never going to walk out of The Godfather going, “There weren’t any songs.”
            If you take them out – the songs from a musical, the sex acts from a porn film, the gunfights from a Western – then they no longer have the thing the person came to see. The people who have come to that genre, looking for that thing, will feel cheated, feel they have not received their money’s worth, feel that the thing they have read or experienced has broken, somehow, the rules. (44-5)
The takeaway is that genre is defined by its set pieces – the showdown in the Western, the quirky best friend in the romantic comedy, the lovers’ duet in the musical, the car chase in the action film, etc. These set pieces are enormously reassuring. They give a genre order and familiarity that does not come with art that does not fit into a genre. Genre fiction is the comfort food (maybe the pornography?) of literature.
This is not in any way to disparage genre fiction (or comfort food or pornography). Its best practitioners are masters of a craft. Just as endlessly inventive blues can be wrenched out of a I-IV-V chord progression, authors working in a genre succeed by turning set pieces into something familiar yet unexpected and new. Which brings me to China Miéville’s wonderfully exuberant novel Un Lun Dun.
Zanna – the Shwazzy (French: choisi) or chosen one – and her friend Deeba (the funny sidekick) climb down into the sewer into Un Lun Dun. But when they reach The Propheseers who possess the book with the prophecies of how the Shwazzy defeats the Smog (i.e., sentient smog that seeks to burn and inhale Un Lun Dun and eventually everything else), Stink-junkies ambush them. (Stink-junkies are addicts that inhale the Smog and are thus under its control.) The binjas (garbage bin ninjas) are unable to protect Zanna. A Stink-junky smacks her on the back of the head, incapacitating her. Deeba – the funny sidekick and now the “unchosen one” – takes over, uncovers the evil Smog’s plot with the help of half human, half ghost Hemi.1Eventually she completes the quest to recover the UnGun (a fearsome weapon), and vanquishes the Smog.
As one of Portland’s librarians pointed out, Un Lun Dun is a variation on Joseph Campbell’s hero’s quest that both subverts and preserves the moral order through endless reference to other works. Un Lun Dun is a composite of some of my favorite books: The Phantom Tollbooth, Neverwhere, and, of course, Alice in Wonderland. Like Alice, they go down a rabbit hole (in this case a sewer). Un Lun Dun corresponds to Gaiman’s London Below in Neverwhere and borrows many of its elements.
Though Norton Juster’s Phantom Tollbooth is not listed as an influence, Miéville most explicitly references it in the confrontation with the tyrant Mr. Speaker who controls the Talklands. Mr. Speaker’s words turn into creatures (utterlings) and he decides to imprison Deeba so that she spends her days teaching him new words such as bling, diss, and lairy (British for “cheeky and aggressive”). Deeba points out:
“Words don’t always mean what we want them to,” she said. “None of us. Not even you.” The room was quiet. All the people and things in it were listening.
            “Like … if someone shouts ‘Hey  you!’ at someone in the street but someone else turns around. The words misbehaved. They didn’t call the person they were meant to. Or if you see someone at a party and they’re wearing something mad, and you say ‘That’s some outfit!’ and they think you’re being rude, but you mean it really.”
            “The thing is,” Deeba said, eyeing Mr. Speaker, “you could only make words do what you want if it was just you deciding what they mean. But it isn’t. It’s everyone else, too. Which means you might want to give them orders, but aren’t in total control. No one is.” (268)
Upon hearing this speech, Mr. Speaker’s utterlings rebel and Bling, Diss, and Caludron join the quest.
Giving away the general details of the plot should have absolutely no impact on the pleasures of Un Lun Dun. The question is not whether Deeba defeats the smog – this is required by the genre – but how she does it. Un Lun Dun is unusually self-conscious genre fiction (Miéville cites debts to Joan Aiken, Clive Barker, Michael de Larrabeiti, Tanith Lee, Walter Moers, and Beatrix Potter), but it is genre fiction nonetheless. It is the genre that makes a novel as excessive and weird as Un Lun Dun a page-turned and a source of pleasure.
1One of my favorite passages:
Deeba looked around the gathered ghosts. “You … don’t want to possess people?”
“For Deadsey’s sake, of course not! said Hemi. “Look, you,” he said to Deeba, jabbing his finger at her. “I’m not going to tell you no one from Wraithtown’s ever nicked a body. Just like you can’t tell me than no one from UnLondon’s ever stolen clothes. But do you see me blaming you all for that? Do you?” [187])

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