Exquisite corpse: the Urban Gothic mindscape in China Mieville’s The Last Days of New Paris

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter (peer-reviewed)peer-review

Abstract

Treating James Thomson’s hypnogogic narrative poem, The City of Dreadful Night (serialised 1874; compiled 1880), as a Victorian precursor, this chapter explores the Gothicised, phantasmagorical urban landscape of New Paris in China Mieville’s novel, The Last Days of New Paris (2016). The chapter begins by situating these texts within a long Gothic tradition of external landscapes reflecting disturbed interiority and fearful imaginings seemingly made manifest in one’s physical surroundings. Examining the resonances between Thomson and Mieville’s work, the chapter draws attention to their shared emphasis on temporal and spatial dislocation and the material manifestation of mental states and imagination. Thomson’s unnamed, nocturnal city possesses an architecture and atmosphere that reflects the poet/narrator’s melancholic pessimism. By contrast, Mieville’s desolate New Paris exists in an alternate historical timeline in which the Nazi occupation of the capital continued to 1950 as a result of the catastrophic detonation of an S-bomb, a device that manifests monsters and ideas from Surrealist art and manifestos. Both cities represent incarcerating edifices that their lone protagonists seemingly cannot or, ultimately, choose not to leave, their traversing of a nightmarish urban terrain resembling a psychogeographic derive.

The second half of the chapter uses Mieville’s novel to explore some of the new aspects of the New Urban Gothic. The popularity of neo-Victorian reimaginings has resulted in a favouring of nineteenth-century Urban Gothic histories over others, for example that of the Second World War.1 Collapsing the boundaries between battlefront and home front, bombings and barbarities generated a sense of the unheimlich. This is clearly demonstrated through the way Mieville’s ‘manifs’ manifest as bizarre fauna and flora, forming a grotesque ecology within New Paris’ ruined, Gothicised spaces. By defamiliarising both Paris’s wartime history and edifices, the S-bomb renders both known time and place unhomely. Mieville’s focus on the monstrous imaginings of the surrealist movement also draws attention to its gothic grotesquery, a modernist response to nineteenth-century Gothic, one that tapped into a nightmarish subconscious in the age of psychoanalysis and world wars. The chapter concludes that while Mieville’s New Paris may echo the Gothic tropes evident in Thomson’s poem, it also marks a significant move away from underlying ideas that pervade the Urban Gothic tradition. Whereas the nineteenth-century Urban Gothic dwelt on hidden horrors and the sheer, oppressive weight of brick and humanity, the New Urban Gothic speaks to millennial anxieties where horrors are made deliberately visible and where seeming solidity can be distorted or reduced to ruin. As a frequent site of terror(ism), a place where ideological manifestos can erupt into sudden violence in the streets, New Paris and the New Urban Gothic speak to a contemporary urban mentality in which we live in a perpetual state of battle, daily traversing geographies of anxiety.

1.Sara Wasson’s Urban Gothic of the Second World War – Dark London (Palgrave, 2010), is a notable exception.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe New Urban Gothic: Global Gothic in the Age of the Anthropocene
Subtitle of host publicationGlobal Gothic in the Age of the Anthropocene
EditorsRuth Heholt, Holly-Gale Millette
Place of PublicationBasingstoke
PublisherPalgrave Macmillan
Publication statusAccepted for publication - Dec 2018

Keywords

  • Urban Gothic
  • Ecology
  • China Mieville
  • James Thomson
  • Surrealism

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