British fantasist China Miéville’s reinvention of postwar Paris is an ingenuous homage to the sorcery of Surrealist art. It is 1950, and the ruined capital is occupied by war-winning Nazis who must now contend with the banshee manifestations of ideas, paintings, photos and collages lifted from decades of Surrealist and Dada art (with a side order of Fascist Futurism). Imagine dozens of Magritte, Yves Tanguy, Man Ray and Dalí concoctions given animated heft and let loose to wreak havoc — trains become wolf-tables become sperm silos become garden airplane traps. These “manifs,” canvas-born interlopers, made Parisian landfall in 1941 after a mishap involving a box-sized machine created by an over-eager American rocket scientist named Jack Parsons. Captivated by the Surrealist movement (he dines with André Breton and co-conspirators in Marseilles) — “knowledge poured out of everyone…” — Parsons decided to “wire” fantasy against fascism. If only his dream-catching warhead hadn’t been stolen and blown up in Paris, “the S-Bomb,” leaving the city (Germans, Resistance fighters, and Marxist-leaning Surrealist recruits) up against the maverick mojo of dozens of occult minds run amok.
Into this brave imagined world comes Thibaut, a young Surrealist-socialist warrior dressed in ragged but courage-abetting pajamas (conjured from a poem by Simone Yoyotte). He and his colleagues in the La main à plume movement (the real name of a clandestine Surrealist “cadre”) seek details of a Satanic Nazi project codenamed “Fall Rot” whose architect is none other than Josef Mengele, he of the “crooked gap-toothed grimace.” Thibault in turn is partnered with an Allied spy named Sam, modeled on American war photographer Lee Miller. It’s Thibault, Sam and the “Exquisite Corpse,” a giant mix-and-match Surrealist creation, against the forces of “science and demonology” — a postwar war on Miéville’s terms, beginning with the S-Bomb and its florid aftermath, “a fucking storm, a reconfiguring, a shock wave of mad love, a burning blast of unconscious. Paris fell, or rose, or fell, or rose, or fell.”
Purple prose aside, this is a Saturday matinee novel with “Raiders of the Lost Ark”-“Ghostbusters” trappings. Fair enough, if only Miéville knew to put a lid on artist name-dropping, which he doesn’t — “Paris with its manifs. Breton, Char, Dominguez, Brauner, Ernst, Hérold, Lam, Masson, Lamba, Delanglade, and Péret, purveyors of the new deck [of cards].”
And while there’s no challenging the author’s cartwheeling mind, the human side has a stilted feel. Hero Thibault and cohort Sam are brittle interlopers in a story most at home with its conjured beasties. Miéville seems to know this, attaching an exhaustive postscript-cum-glossary detailing the historical roots of his stunning conceit, one that might have been better served by a long short story.