Miéville, China (2009), The City & The City, Macmillan
The City & The City, China Miéville’s seventh novel, is a well-nigh perfect work of literature. We all know Jarrell’s adage that a novel “is a prose narrative of some length that has something wrong with it”; true to form, there are problems with Miéville’s book, as well, but the overwhelming success of the books as whole, the staggering originality of its ideas and the success in pulling the whole thing off, this lifts the novel far beyond many of its contemporaries. Like much of Miéville’s work, it displays a firm commitment to genre, but it’s hazy about the kind of genre that is foregrounded here. At the same time it’s a police procedural, a hard-boiled thriller and a fantasy novel, with links and allusions to science fiction (without every really becoming a SF novel), and it uses the advantages of each of these elements to their fullest, to create an insightful work of art that is too complicated, ultimately, to be reducible to a message or a simple resolution; the latter being its main flaw, by the way, but we’ll return to this. Suffice to say that I urge you to read The City & The City, even if (maybe especially if) you have not been able to take to Miéville’s work before despite the prodding by friends or literary critics. China Miéville, the only three-time winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award so far, shapes up to be the most dominant writer in the field of speculative fiction, and despite the fact that The City & The City is smaller in scale than most of his other novels, it is a great example why he is so important, so well-praised and so extraordinarily successful. He proves himself to be as adept a creator of original concepts, as he is an insightful reader of other texts. His texts, and The City & The City maybe more than the others, appear to be the result of what Emerson called “creative reading”, on the one hand, and a careful, aware and thoroughly critical reading on the other. The City & The City is not Miéville’s best book, but it is a masterpiece, and not a minor one, and China Miéville is a masterful writer.
Personally, in fact, I consider China Miéville to be one of the best living British prose writers. If you haven’t heard of him in these terms yet, it’s maybe because he’s primarily a writer of what we refer to as genre fiction. His work does not have the explicit and heavily theoretical slant of Samuel R. Delany’s 70′s and 80′s fiction, but Delany’s work is certainly part of the tradition Miéville built on; but Miéville is indicative of a larger phenomenon: I think we are currently witnessing among younger writers a renaissance of the kind of genre fiction Delany represents. I think these young writers are part of a resurgence of the energies and inspirations that fueled the New Wave writers in the 1970s and after, as recent high profile publications by Gwyneth Jones (Spirit: or The Princess of Bois Dormant, 2008) and Geoff Ryman (Air: Or, Have Not Have, 2005) amply demonstrate; Jeff VanderMeer notably suggested that some of them, Miéville and himself included, might be labeled as “New Weird”, combining “New Wave with other elements. Miéville’s kinship with Delany rests on more than just a similar critical awareness, care and concerns. From Delany’s wooden beginnings in Fall of the Towers (1963-65) to the sleek efficiency of Triton (1976) and the mysteries of Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand (1984), he has always focused on language as an object in his genre fiction. For him, the writing itself is subject to the same care, deliberation and charged with the same intellectual energies, as is the story, the characters and the broader ideas. In fact, for Delany, writing is more than making use of words to tell a story; I’d say that writing for him means having ideas about language, that can tie into the broader concerns of the rest of the book (as they do in Babel-17 (1966)) but don’t have to. By and large, Miéville does the same thing, to an extent that is actually rather rare, even in these post-post-modern times. His work evinces both a meticulous attention to details and a knack for creating a cohesive, fluid fiction that does not, as Delany’s does, burden the reader with its philosophical preoccupations.
The City & The City starts with a murder and contradictory hints as to the identity of the perpetrator of the crime and his or her motives. Detective Tyador Borlú, police officer in the old city of Besźel, is called upon to solve the crime but as it turns out, the deeper he gets involved in the inquiries, the deeper he and his role, and his conventional ideas about how to handle the everyday playacting of being a citizen, are called into question. A similar impulse propels the narrative of Miéville’s latest masterful novel Kraken (2010) but unlike that novel’s protagonist, Borlú’s understanding of the world is not so much unmoored, confused and obscured, as sharpened, and brightened. For Borlú, the world doesn’t need to be explained, it hasn’t changed, his basic assumptions of agency, cause and effect remain intact throughout the book. What does change is his vision of it. His journey is not one of learning new things, of acquiring knowledge, nothing of the sort. Instead, it’s about learning to see, to evaluate. Borlú’s education in The City & The City hews close to Kant’s famous definition of Enlightenment: sapere aude! Dare to know! Kant’s exhortation to his fellow citizens to use their brains and the knowledge already in them is relevant in other ways, as well. Often overlooked are his contextual restrictions: while one should always think, it does not necessarily follow that one should always tell people about the results of said thinking. Some order is worth being preserved, even at the expense of freely speaking one’s mind. If your thought flies in the face of conventional order, and by speaking out, you violate your duties to that order, you had better keep quiet. There is a difficult tension between these two assertions, the one to think and the other to preserve order, and in The City & The City, Miéville recreates just that kind of tension: his novel vacillates between stasis and progress, between seeing freely and living in the bounds of established order.
Now, it’s quite impossible to explain in any detail how the concept of the two cities works without creating problems for the prospective reader. The blurb on my copy tells us that Borlú has to travel “across a border like no other” and that is both fitting as well as the full extent of information that you can impart upon an unaware reader without spoiling the book for him. Reading the book is like unwrapping a present: with an impressive deftness, Miéville manages to peel off the layers of Besźel order one by one, chapter by chapter without ever boring us. The concept itself is strange and adventurous but only slowly do we realize how thoroughly, really, it’s planned and executed. Details of how the world of the The City & The City is constructed keep coming up, and this stream of revelations (that get ever smaller, with the largest ones naturally in the very beginning) is one of the reasons for The City & The City‘s enormous readability. If you know how the two cities, Besźel and its neighboring city of Ul Quoma, work, the book will no longer be as enjoyable. It is no spoiler, however, if I tell you that both cities are modeled after a surrealistically heightened image of an old, large East European city. Many descriptions, names, places and even the odd phrase now and then, contain a mixture of languages and cultures such as Hungarian, Polish, Czech, Croatian and others. There is a constant sense of decay, especially in Besźel, which is the poorer of the two cities. The precariousness I mentioned earlier is not only due to the unique situation of Besźel, but also to the morbidity that oozes from the old battered walls of the city. Besźel feels almost claustrophobically small, and its citizens’ purview seems small and provincial as well. Miéville’s language is instrumental in creating this impression.
Unusually for Miéville’s work, the language in The City & The City is largely lean and spare, but the unmarked, quiet nature of the narrative voice is the perfect backdrop for the names and terms used. Instead of creating a slightly fantastical oddness, this method hammers home the East European setting, creating a very believable sense of place, and an authentic voice for Borlú, who is the protagonist. There is enough exoticism in the names and the concepts, so Miéville opted for a voice that is sober, elegant yet conversational. He doesn’t speak like someone translated, or with an unbelievable eloquence, he speaks like ‘one of us’, in a register and vocabulary that is carefully tailored to reflect a whole tradition of hard-boiled writing without lapsing into straight pastiche. The balance between the cities is thus reflected in the language of the novel, and vice versa, in its balance between exotic names and plain vocabulary, between sharp thinking and a fluid conversational quality in the writing. Additionally, the way that names and writing clash, this transports a strangeness, which is in line with the strangeness that exudes the two cities. Miéville knows very well how central language is to early 20th century pulp, how in novels by Hammett or Marlowe, the language is simple and visceral enough to keep readers hanging on, keep them reading, while injecting a certain, palatable amount of oddness into the work, thus creating yet another balance, hiding the complexities behind the dirt and the grime. It’s a tradition that has continued in excellent hard-boiled novels. But The City & The City is not, in fact straightforward hard-boiled pulp. Beside borrowing from the police procedural, bestselling thrillers and SF, it’s quite clearly a fantasy, and fantasy novels quite regularly strain for effect, for writing ‘high register’ prose. In cases like David Anthony Durham’s Acacia novels (2007 – ), it’s almost painfully inept, while for writers like George R. R. Martin it works like a charm. The pretension to offer something else to readers, a different world, yes, but also a different feeling for that world. Even Martin’s brutal, blood-soaked, disillusioned knights feel medieval, and his language is the main reason why.
In The City & The City, Miéville’s language supports no such pretensions (it’s different in his other prose) and in its precise rendering of incredible events and places, it’s close to Czech writer Franz Kafka. Kafka is one of a long list of writers mentioned in the novel’s acknowledgments, and the way that Kafka keeps his language clean, organized and careful, even while telling us brutal stories about cats and insects is indeed an important reference here. However, Miéville’s accomplishment becomes more evident if we consider another writer mentioned as well in the acknowledgments, Alfred Kubin. Alfred Kubin’s opus magnum is the 1909 novel Die Andere Seite (translated into English by Mike Mitchell as The Other Side, published by Dedalus Press (highly recommended)), a towering achievement of early expressionism, endlessly influential. Kubin’s novel tells of a married couple’s journey into a dream country somewhere between Europe and Asia, which promises to free the traveler from the turpitude of modern progress. It’s a land of uncertainty, but doesn’t at first seem anything except dreamy to the husband while the wife succumbs to fear and eventually dies. At this point a crazy war between an invasive American industrial tycoon and the lord of the dream country sets in that leads to the total destruction of the realm of dreams. The “other side” is a place where good dreams and fears coexist, a place that can be both dangerous and soothing, but a hazy, imperiled place, unable to withstand an outsider’s violent pressure. Kubin’s language is fanciful. It retells a feverish dream in an exceptionally wild language that carries the seeds of Alfred Döblin’s mad epics published ten years later. As the story gradually disintegrates into comic madness, the reader is afloat in the midst of it, because Kubin’s language is part of that whole stampede of crazy. Miéville has taken up this idea of the other side, and turned it into a Chinese box of otherness, tempered by a clean, yet popular language.
Kubin takes an outsider and has him witness the story in our stead, a narrator with our values and traditions, who can convey an impression of the place that would mirror ours. There is no such normative stance in The City & the City, where the meaning of being on ‘the other side’ keeps changing dramatically, without blurring the issues for the reader. The simple juxtaposition of dream as a place of ancient truths and submerged knowledge with reality as a harsh, violent voice, and modernity as a place of decay and sheer concrete both, it doesn’t quite work like that in Miéville’s book. Miéville’s focus is on the power of fear, of the “obedience reflex”, to shape people’s behavior and even their perception. The language is his tool to let us, his readers, see it too, shorn of the illusions of pretty writing. The formal clarity of a police procedural, which structures the whole novel, conforms to the writing and has us not only descover the murderer, the political reality in Beszel but also the import of the events for our world. At the same time, it’s all greased with dirt and ambiguity. One startling fact is that Borlú, contrary to expectations is shown to be consistently conservative and protective of the Besźel status quo. In Kubin’s book, dream and reality merge in a final showdown, as Kubin questions our daily priorities. Miéville also looks at daily life, but his novel suggests a precariousness to the roles we play. Ultimately, The City & The City seems like a plea for more awareness, not for rejecting our roles, but looking at them honestly, and assuming them, if at all, with full, honest acceptance. The illusions of pseudo-scientific hogwash to explain prejudice, or of necessity to explain violence and callousness, these, to Tyador Borlú, Miéville’s protagonist and narrator, are not acceptable. That the book manages to suggest all this without ever becoming preachy, without forgoing ambiguity, indirectness and uncertainty is no mean feat. He has used the destabilizing force of fantasy writing before, but in The City & The City precariousness co-exists with balance and order. He uses fantasy to tear his readers from their own conventions, and as their eye adjusts to the new world, they are made to see similarities. At the same time, it’s also a crime novel, as I mentioned befor, and much of its power (and its flaws) derive from this fact.
Reading Miéville often means reading a writer who displays an invigorating joy in the act of thinking. He doesn’t supervise or admonish his readers as much as involve them in his own mental peregrinations. The writing is by no means undisciplined, but his interests clearly diverge from the demands of straightforwardness and effectiveness now and then. The tools of plot and suspense can sometimes can slip from his grasp and create an odd disharmony. This, incidentally, is also the one major flaw of The City & The City: the ending is extraordinarily dissatisfying, so that we as readers feel almost robbed. However. the ending of a novel of suspense and mystery is, I’d argue, always a delicate affair, an extremely difficult task and most writers do tend to bungle it. Like them, Miéville also fails to deliver: in one single cataclysmic scene he attempts to wrap up and explain and contextualize a whole novel’s build-up of mystery, intrigue, of sabotage and murder. Almost predictably, he fails. The rest of the book does work well. Indeed, for the most part, The City & The City is genre fiction at its best: effective, well-structured, insightful, and utterly readable. The overall style is taut and concentrated on fully conveying the necessary details of plot and place, both of which are a bit complicated and not all that easy to understand. If you have read other reviews at this site, you’ll know that I consider it a great achievement to write and succeed in writing a literary novel that is a success as a genre novel and despite Miéville’s problems with the climax and ending of the novel, The City & The City is just that: a successfully executed crime novel.
The crime novel, whether police procedural, hard-boiled novel or something else, generally works predominantly with revelations, some of which are gradually imparted to the reader an/or the protagonist through their encounter with the place the book is set in, and the inhabitants of the place in question. There is a sense of epistemological closure to, especially, the ‘clean’ crime novel (like a regular detective novel or a police procedural), which, unlike many others, seizes places as objects, and looks inside, closing them off to the outside, like small criminal biotopes, squeezing them for information. There is a certainty in this kind of search, because chaos is always contained within the confines of time and place. The hard-boiled novel, on the other hand, is much less concerned with this kind of certainty. In fact, much of the violence and depravity often ascribed to hard-boiled novels is due to the fear of the unknown. These novels often have their protagonists work through their fears to achieve a result, often gyrating through an unfathomable world with obscure rules. Fear, anger, violence, sarcasm, and a hard-won common sense supplant clear knowledge and sober decision-making. This process, this journey through obscurity and confusion, paradoxically, often leads to a much clearer depiction of the actual forces at work (as opposed to the consensual, polite rules, the agreed-upon roles). In the regular, ‘clean’ crime novel, consensual order is often briefly knocked off balance by the fierce, destabilizing force of violence, with the authorities called upon to rectify this unacceptable change. In the hard-boiled novel, order is (or seems to be) perpetually off balance and no amount of gumshoeing will change that. Given this juxtaposition, it’s fitting that in The City & The City, Miéville has constructed a wholly new world, one that is not only normally balanced, but whose very existence is a realization of the idea of balance, which aligns his novel with crime writing and true to the hard-boiled elements in it, all spaces in the novel, the different balances, they are all constantly endangered. The novel is swamped with a dark precariousness, with uncertainties, but we as readers only learn this bit by bit, as Miéville, like a master showman, reveals his world to us, selling us his idea chapter by chapter.
The concept of the two neighboring cities reflects the closing off of a clean police procedural, and Borlú’s way of dismantling the cities in search of the culprit or culprits shows that he reads his own world as finite, as a closed system where all signs can only point inward, to places and people within, acting strictly according to the rules of the place. But Miéville does not lend him a hand in his endeavor, instead he continually undermines basic assumptions, ultimately creating a perennially open world which is in constant danger of slipping away into historical and cultural oblivion. The weak ending, too, seems to provide closure, but here, once again, we are led to believe that it is delusional. The last, ridiculously conciliatory paragraph of the novel reads, in the larger context of the book, like soothing words whispered into an oncoming storm of arbitrariness and violence. Thus, in a way, The City & The City seems like a black hard-boiled wolf stitched into the sheep’s skin of the clean procedural. Borlú never sheds his basic assumptions, the world doesn’t force him. But in the focus upon sight and the use of one’s own brains, it gave him a choice. In a way, Miéville’s decision not to commit to a clear position is the final validation of the book. I disapprove of readings of books that raise weak writing onto a pedestal if it potentially reflects weaknesses in the characters. I have had a few discussions with Auster fans who, desperately trying to defend the smoky-eyed Brooklynite, keep bring up this kind of hogwash. I think it’s lazy, but in the case of The City & The City, it’s tempting. However, even agreeing that the ending is weak, and seems forced upon the author by his commitment to genre and his wish to tie off the book without breaking that mode of writing, the noncommittal end has interesting implications for the rest of the book. A novel that seems so like fantasy, with an improbable scenario, it turns out to be a kind of realism. In fact, by handing its readers a concept that seems like an allegory of sociological ideas, it seems to capture reality far better than novels that use the conventions of what we call realism. The book, as a whole, is a kind of tantalizing hyper-realism, complex in its implications and references, a book that no other writer could have pulled off and that even Miéville may have trouble topping in the nearer future. As a reviewer, I must admit that it challenged me like no other book I have ever attempted to review, and the innumerable flaws of this review are in part witness to the difficulties I had to even attempt to do justice to a book like this. Do not let the review dissuade you from reading the book. Unless you have a strong aversion to the genres I mentioned, you cannot not read The City & The City.