Impressions: The City and The City

I was delighted to purchase a signed hardcopy edition of China Miéville’s “The City and The City” from Shawn Speakman’s The Signed Page. (Free plug: if you’re after autographed copies of sf&f books, you could do worse than hop along to Shawn’s site. Miéville’s book made it, without a hitch and with perfect packing, to Malaysia! Thanks Shawn!)

UK cover of The City & The City

I’ll be honest. The reason I first got into Miéville was because he’s an avowed socialist and we members of an endangered species have to stick together. So, The City and The City (hereafter, TC&TC). What’s it about? The inner flap says:

When a murdered woman is found in the city of Beszel [can’t find a way to do a “z” with an acute accent … sorry — ksa], somewhere at the edge of Europe, it looks to be a routine case for Inspector Tyador Borlú of the Extreme Crime Squad. But as he investigates, the evidence points to conspiracies far stranger and more deadly than anything he could have imagined.

Okay! Science fiction, crime, and conspiracy theories, all rolled into one. Oh frabjous day! Kaz is delighted, and opens the book with unbridled enthusiasm.

The “gimmick” of TC&TC is that the city of Beszel is interwined with the city of Ul Qoma, and the citizens of both cities have to train themselves to “see” what is happening in their own city, and “unsee” what is happening in the other city, even though there are patches of intense “crosshatching”, where the boundaries between the cities shift from one to the other quickly, even from one house to another, and it takes a deep, visceral understanding not to step across from your own familiar territory into the Other. For those that ignore the rules, and acknowledge in some way the Other, without adhering to the proper protocols (a situation known as Breach), punishment is swift and unremitting via a corps of shadowy figures, also called Breach, that shift in and out of each city, spiriting the trespasser away for immediate retribution.

The novel is told in first person by Tyador and there is a definite European twist to the way the English language is used, a certain economy that’s descriptive and refreshing:

I got off by the statue of King Val. Downtown was busy: I stop-started, excusing myself to citizens and local tourists, unseeing others with care, till I reached the blocky concrete of ECS Centre. Two groups of tourists were being shepherded by Besz guides. I stood on the steps and looked down UropaStrasz. It took me several tries to get a signal. (p 14)

I know I’m generalising wildly here but an American writer would probably emphasise the groups of tourists whereas, with Miéville, you’re caught by the frustration of not getting a clear phone signal instead. It’s these little mundane and completely relatable deviations that make the book such a pleasure to read. Ever since Böll, I miss reading such wry sparseness in a novel.

The rest of the novel charts Borlú’s pursuit of the murder of a woman who was killed in one city and dumped in another. But, even with the intricacies of co-habitating cities, it isn’t as easy as that. There are repeated allusions to Orciny, a city that’s believed to exist between Beszel and Ul Qoma … a city of fable. Or is it?

First, what I liked about the novel. The first-person take. I like the unreliable narrator angle. It makes me work, wondering if Borlú is correct in his suppositions, or not. I liked the use of language and the way Miéville jams two words together to give an indication of tempo (like “stop-started” above). I liked the fact that the two cities, Beszel and Ul Qoma, were totally different and yet had existed side-by-side for decades. I liked the fact that the novel wasn’t based in the United States. In general, I liked the novel.

Now, onto the tougher bit, which is what I didn’t much care for.

Tyador Borlú. A very likeable protagonist, yet so divorced from his own reality right from the start. There was nothing anchoring Borlú to his home city of Beszel and I thought that made the ending less poignant than it could’ve been. He was already a rootless piece of flotsam, tugged this way and that by forces that — for most of the novel — were beyond him. When all is revealed, it’s a bit ho-hum.

The last fifth of the novel. This ties in with the above point. I found the last twenty percent of the novel to be too predictable, sacrificing — I thought — the speculative side of the theme for something that, more and more, resembled a Hollywood action-film climax. If I had managed to read so far into the novel, chances were I was enjoying it thoroughly. To have the tone change to something more mundane was … disappointing. And smacked of pandering.

The next point could well be my own private bugbear, and I’ll cop to that charge, however…. If your novel is compared to Kafka and Dick, then I’m expecting something that will shake the foundations of the structure that the writer has put together. Throw in the surreal reality of Beszel and Ul Qoma, and I’m expecting something momentous — a towering denouement, a scathing indictment, a vitriolic unmasking. Instead, I get … Establishment. The novel begins and ends with nothing resolved, much the same way as a mix of oil and water may produce some entertaining turbulence for a few minutes before settling back into predictable equilibrium. What has been achieved? Essentially nothing beyond some interesting, and temporary, distraction.

And, lastly, I thought TC&TC lacked atmosphere. From living in many different places, can I tell you that they all smell different? Australia smells different to the United States, which smells different to South-East Asia, which smells different to Ireland. Each place has its own unique combination of colours, scents and impressions that form the whole. Miéville touches on the colours and architecture, but I felt he could have done a lot, lot more with the layers of difference between the two cities. What happens when a sizzling kebab at an outdoor stall in Ul Qoma sends exotic spice-laden aromas across to the more utilitarian Beszel side? One can unsee, but can one unsmell? Totally unhear that which evokes a visceral response? There are so many layers to different cities and I thought that Miéville only hit a couple of them, while ignoring others that would have made his prose a lot richer, and the differences between the two cities more stark and compelling.

And he poses certain questions, but leaves them unanswered. The true nature of Breach. The rationale behind the splitting of the cities in the first place. Some sense of the historic chaos that must have occurred when the cities were split asunder. These are little niggles, but niggles nonetheless.

So those are my impressions of TC&TC. Having said all that, China Miéville is definitely on my to-buy list. I still have three more novels of his that I’m itching to get to, but will have to wait until I’ve discharged my current obligations. So, you may think that I’m flaying TC&TC, but that’s not true.

I give it 7.5 out of 10.

POSTSCRIPT: For a different reader’s impressions, stay tuned for J’s take on the novel on Monday.

ADDITIONAL: And I’m blogging @ Novel Spaces. Why not drop by and say hi?

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