Monday, September 03, 2007

Un Lun Dun (China Mieville)

Less than twelve hours in Singapore and already I needed a distraction from what could have been (or could not) the most important interview of my life, unless I count Judgement Day. Armed with a map, an umbrella, and a phone I couldn't use, I braved the rains to look for my favorite bookstores.

It seemed I wasn't the only one negotiating through unknown territory that day. At Borders, I picked up China Mieville's Un Lun Dun, where friends Zanna and Deeba find themselves in a strange version of their own home. While UnLondon immediately brings images of Neil Gaiman's London Below to mind, the new-world-as-seen-by-a-young-protagonist reminds me more of Clive Barker's Abarat. But let's set aside the comparisons. In fact, that's what Un Lun Dun is all about: the breaking of preconceptions and stereotypes.

The city's Chosen One isn't the Chosen One. The prophecies are useless. The amazing quest that one would expect young heroes from other dimensions would undergo doesn't happen the way you'd picture it. In this regard, Un Lun Dun does a remarkable job to break one's notion of how a quest myth should turn out. At one point, I wanted to reason with the protagonist, "But that's not how it works!" before realizing how brainwashed I've been by the fundamental structure of quests. Still, Joseph Campbell's monomyth holds true: hero enters a new world and is called to a quest, hero faces trials, hero reaches resolution, hero returns. (Or at least, that's the theory in a nutshell.) And that, of course, is what happens here. In a nutshell.

It took me a while before I could get used to the chapter breaks. Forgive me, Mr. Mieville, but the term I will use now is 'sputtering' because reading the first few chapters reminded me of my first time behind the wheel. The car moved a meter or so, and then stopped. Another meter, and then stopped. While I have never gotten the hang of driving, I was thankfully able to adjust to Un Lun Dun's flow.

The commonality of myths is often addressed in fiction, but it's refreshing to see it in a work primarily addressed to children. Un Lun Dun isn't just for fans of Mr. Mieville, who will appreciate his change of pace (and perhaps, like me, try to find my own UnGun); it's also for anyone who's looking for a fun (and maybe read-aloud) adventure with umbrellas and milk cartons, but one that still leaves the reader with something to think about as he closes the book.


skinnyblackcladdink said...

just to be clear, Mr Mieville does actually acknowledge London Below as being part of the inspiration for UnLondon.

and, as a matter of interest (particularly given your 'monomyth' comment), point you to Ed Rants' interview with Mr Mieville:

dementedchris said...

I've always wondered what he'd call Manila. Maniless? mUNila?