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.