meilufay’s (final) #CBR4 review #101 The City & The City by China Miéville
For me, the last third of 2012 was all about China Miéville. After watching his polemic at the World Writers Conference in August, I rapidly read every article about and interview with him that I could get my hands on. Then I moved on to his essays and lectures. Finally, I decided I should probably read this guy’s books already. I read Kraken first, and loved it. Then I dug into Dial H, and ditto. For The City & The City, I thought it would be interesting to do a little bit of genre reading as a companion so I read a selection of crime novels (Hammett, Chandler, Highsmith & more). And then, because it felt appropriate, I read some Kafka and Philip K Dick. I watched Brick, Miller’s Crossing, The Big Sleep and Blade Runner. I’d been meaning to reread Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy so that went into the mix too. This reading project has been a really entertaining, thought-provoking and intellectually stimulating ride. I definitely feel as if I have a deeper appreciation for all the works I read than I would have if I’d just read them solo.
It just so happened that my reading this book coincided with The City & The City being Twitter book club #1book140’s December choice. So I was able to further enrich my experience by participating in the discussions there.
Having written all that, I feel as if I should write a really amazing essay about this book but, honestly, I’m kind of tired. I just wrote 20 reviews in two days. So apologies to my readers, the tweeps at #1book140 and China Miéville if my review fails to adequately capture this book. All failures in this review are my own.
One of the things I really like about China Miéville (other than the AWESOME acute accent in his name) is the fact that he’s incredibly rigorous about following through on his ideas. Miéville describes The City & The City as a crime novel and its plot is definitely structured in the same way as the procedurals we all know so well. But because Miéville is not satisfied until his work has some element of the fantastic or surreal, the murder his detective is investigating is overshadowed by a larger mystery – that of the relationship of the two cities of Beszel and Ul Qoma. These two Eastern European cities are entangled with one another but it is unclear if this relationship is magical (like London Above and London Below in Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere), or if they are simply intricately and absurdly sharing the same geographical space. In order to emphasize the separation between the two cities, citizens learn as children to “unsee” any elements from the other city. Certain colors are limited to either Beszel or Ul Qoma. In crosshatched areas, areas which are shared by both cities, traffic and pedestrian from the two cities mingle yet retain their separation by unseeing one another. To violate these precepts is to risk the ire of Breach, a mysterious power that enforces barriers between the two cities. Breach is spoken of as being “invoked” and it is unclear if Breach has supernatural powers.
Procedural murder mysteries are like the paradox of Schrödinger’s cat. In order to maintain the audience’s tension all possible solutions exist simultaneously until the “true” solution is finally revealed and all possibilities then collapse into one. Miéville takes quantum physics theories and applies them to his novel in a astonishingly rigorous way. There are the obvious ways: the two cities are entangled, and the aforementioned collapsing of possibilities. But he also applies Schrödinger’s paradox to the genre of the book. A supernatural and a natural solution to the mysteries of the murder and the entanglement of the two cities exist in tension to one another until the end of the book when Inspector Borlú, his hero, finally observes the truth, collapsing all possibilities. It’s a high wire act and throughout the book I and my fellow book club readers were questioning whether or not Miéville would pull it off. That he did absolutely astonishes and delights me.
Based on what I’ve heard about his other books, I don’t think that The City & The City is destined to make my list of favorite China Miéville books, but this book is so inventive, so well-structured, so extraordinarily carefully well-crafted, so smart, that I am rather dazzled by his achievement and talent.
Hey thanks this is a great review! And I’m really glad that you joined in December’s #1book140 read and discussion of The City and The City.
I really liked this book because Mieville combines a police procedural with elements of ethnography (see here for a quick definition http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ethnography) and he combines them brilliantly to lampoon some very influential but over-used concepts, particularly Homi Bhabha’s concept of ‘interstitiality’. Check this out for a quick run-down of the man and his work http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homi_K._Bhabha . But don’t confuse his work with that of Homi J. Bhabha the Indian physicist http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homi_J._Bhabha .
More to the point, Mieville bases this book on a central notion – if not the central conceit– of the social sciences: to know the full landscape and nature of your society is real power. The story demonstrates that this knowledge is true power, and that partial knowledge can be deadly. What many #1Book140 bookies found tedious is where Mieville took great narrative pains to demonstrate how the incomplete, contingent, daily-use-kind-of knowledge we have of our roles, our community and of our place in society is so fragmented and incomplete that we *may* only sense the whole. I use that term purposely here because Mieville is painstaking in demonstrating how effective national and legal boundaries are in circumscribing our lives and minds. Yet they are absurdly byzantine and arbitrary to an independent or objective observer.
Combining these aspects of contemporary ethnography with a police procedural is brilliant because it shows how social structures and forces weave to *create* life and death situations. ‘Breach’ has power over two nations only because of the byzantine divide they’ve created to protect their distinctness and their national sovereignty. Breach has no power or jurisdiction against the incursion of global business, tourism, immigration and widely-available digital media. This clearly hi-lights the recursive nature of the ‘power’ of Breach. It doesn’t protect against breaches of the peace, or against breaches from outside powers. It guards only against breaches in the perception-filter the residents of the dual city-state must employ to live there. Residents can talk about each other, can debate unification in certain circumstances, but to visually/perceptively acknowledge their ultra-national neighbours is against the law and enforceable by Breach.
I don’t believe that Breach has supernatural powers, nor do I think that Mieville hints at this. I think CM hi-lights the fear people have of the unknown — things from the shadows real or imagined — and how groups and individuals use that universal human emotion to their advantage.
Without any spoilers, this brings us back to the mystery at hand. About half-way through the book I began to wonder if Mieville is entirely playing with his readers. Perhaps the whole thing is about a simple case of em-Beszel-ment? Mieville uses a lot of references to Canadian places. For example, Bowden is the name of the medium-security prison in western Canada and noted for housing some of our most infamous frauds. As a Canadian, it’s cool to have our place names, universities, and companies lampooned. Parody is one of our national pastimes, check out CBC.ca.
I really enjoyed reading this book; though as a group we read it at a very busy time of the year. I hope that others pick up the book and read more from a gifted and unusual talent like China Mieville.