Friday, June 10, 2011

“We Tell the Truth Best By Becoming Lies”

EmbassytownIt’s a line of snark, said so often that it passes for proverb: “Writers tell lies to people for money.” It’s true, of course. Truth may lie at the heart of stories, but lies are the ink pumped through their veins.

So imagine then, a language where lying is impossible. Such a Language is one of the central conceits of China Miéville’s new novel, Embassytown. Imagine what you lose from speech when there is no symbolic language. Not only is lying impossible, but so are similes, nuance, stories.Forgive me. That’s not quite true. Similes are possible, but before they can be used, they must be enacted, made real. The main character of Embassytown, Avice Benner Cho, becomes a simile early in the book. Not word made flesh, but flesh made word, she is canonized into Language.

Embassytown foregrounds the power, the possibility, and the inherent failure of language. We, of course, can lie. But even without explicitly intending to, we fail to communicate truth all the time. Words have nuances, meaning. There is a gap, whether we want there to be or not, between signifier and signified, between word and referent. We say things, and then must clarify our intent, must say again what we meant to have said. Even when we do say what we mean, there are still legal cases that turn on what the exact meaning of the word “is” is.

This split and duality is enfleshed in the Ariekei, the Hosts, the unlying aliens of Embassytown. Double-mouthed and simul-speaking, requiring words to be spoken with intent in order for them to be comprehended, it is their relationship with language that drives the story.

Because if you have a perfect, honest, true Language – a language that one might call Edenic – you also have a Fall. And if Embassytown is the story of an idea of a language, it is also the story of a Fall.

Miéville engages directly with the symbolism. Embassytown is rife with the language of the holy, not just Avice’s canonization as simile, but the kenning of the god-drug, and the raptures of the Ariekei, which resemble nothing so much as medieval mystics in communion with the divine.

Embassytown is a novel of ideas. Big ideas, dealt with in an intelligent and articulate fashion. Everything else is secondary to that. The scope of imagination here is breathtaking, but character and plot are in service to the idea. I find this a feature, not a bug, but not all readers share my literary kinks. If you are fascinated with words, and speech, and communication, with the power and beauty and frailty of language, this book will be like sacred text for you.

Although, perhaps, I may not mean what you think I do. Words can be like so many things.