Wednesday, 27 May 2009

China Miéville, The City and the City (2009)

I read this novel.

It’s worth reiterating what a superb writer CM is. I wonder if there’s a danger, when any creative artist reaches a certain threshold of celebrity, that commentators no longer feel obliged to note how great they are. It’s assumed, unspokenly, but in a passive-aggressive let-me-list-only-the-faults-in-the-new-Bob-Dylan-album sort of way that overlooks why the new Dylan is required listening in the first place. Miéville may be entering the stage in his career where a tendency to niggle blots out the core fact that he is, and remains, a major contemporary novelist.

More, The City and the City is, I would say, the best written of all Miéville’s novels: his prose has never been so deftly, evocatively or expertly handled. His dialogue—within the parameters of the crime idiom in which he is working—is better than it’s ever been. It is all powerfully atmospheric; tightly constructed; very readable.

The novel’s central conceit (apologies for the spoiler: although it’s something made apparent in the book from very early on) is the superposition of two cities in the same location; run-down Besźel and on-the-up Ul Qoma, both occupying the same bay in an vaguely Eastern Mediterranean location. There are places, ‘crosshatchings’ where it is possible to pass from one city to the other; but the only legal access is through ‘copula hall’ and the suitably Byzantine bureaucracy that governs it. To pass at any other place—or even, technically, to notice the other city—is to perpetrate a terribly serious infraction, punishable by a shadowy group of secret enforcers known as ‘Breach’. There’s also a tertium quid in the topographic mix: a third interurb known as ‘Orciny’, in which some people believe and some do not, and which may or may not actually exist (there’s never any doubt that Besźel and Ul Qoma exist). Orciny. The ‘or’ in that name gets to the heart of it; the novel’s studied imaginative elaboration of the excluded middle, its fucking around with the either/or logic of Western thought—or as one character puts it, ‘the pissing little neither/nor’ [284]— (hence the book’s edging-out-of-the-West, borderline-near-eastern setting: it wouldn’t work if set in Bristol/Weston Super Mare). ‘We’re all philosophers here,’ Tyador Borlú, the policeman-protagonist, claims at the end.

Borlú also carries that ‘or’ in his name. But if his first syllable suggests he’s tied (his base, and ours, is Besźel) his second and third syllables hint at the possibility of a portal for him. There’s a wealth of punning in the book, much of it ingenious. But it’s not mere garnish: Miéville layers his core conceit all the way through. He dwells on liminal states, grey areas, halfway houses (the Besźel police can put someone under ‘half arrest’ for instance), and overlapping categories—academia is a rich seam for this: ‘archaeology … folklore, anthropology, Comp Lit’ [87] are all zealously guarded distinct entities, despite clearly all being pretty much the same thing. Archaeology, indeed, is an important part of the whole (‘digs are constant in Ul Qoma’, 61), presumably because archaeology is all about the simultaneous topographic existence of cities ... of—as it might be—Constantinople and Istanbul. Because, you see, if you’ve a date in Constantinople she’ll be waiting in Istanbul.

The novel is a Fantasy, and a compellingly realized piece of worldbuilding. A core trope which could in less skilled hands have been fey or risible is rendered concrete and compelling. Sights, smells, sounds.

It works brilliantly.

It doesn’t really work.

The novel is a crime story, and the lineaments of murder, clues, suspects, chases, gunfights and revelation are all dutifully copied across from other sources; but it reads flatly, overly-familiar, especially compared with the ormolu precision and evocativeness of the fantasy. A young woman is found murdered, and the novel-as-narrative is the story of Borlú’s investigation into this crime. But it's not this investigation that propels us through the book. It is not that the crime story is poorly handled per se; but rather that it sets up an interference pattern with the fantasy that defuses the effectiveness of either. I argued this in another place and want neither to repeat myself nor not to repeat myself; but I finished the book thinking that the epistemology of Miéville’s crime narrative doesn’t parse the ontology of his worldbuilding in other than superficial ways.

Superposition threatens to overwhelm the narrative. Miéville is no stranger to neologism, of course; and some of it works here. But some of it is pretty strained (khat is called ‘feld’ in Besźel because feld is the Besź word for the English cat. Um…) and some of it flat awkward. To describe buildings that exist in both cities, ‘topographic’ and ‘doppelganger’ get portmanteaued into ‘topolganger’: a word I couldn’t read without thinking of a large group of people simultaneously having sex with the celebrated Israeli star of Fiddler on the Roof.

More jarringly, structurally speaking, this self-conscious fiction is artfully draped in real-world reference (Pahlaniuk’s written a novel about Besźel; Van Morrison’s toured there) as if to intimate that fiction and real life coexist in the same way that Besźel and Ul Qoma do. But this isn’t right: in the case of Besźel and Ul Qoma one doesn’t have precedence over the other. Life, however, trumps fiction; only delusionals and schizophrenics think otherwise. The danger the trope of superposition continually risks is of falling between the two worlds, in to the nullity of Orciny, rather than of properly representing the proper both-wave-and-particle thang. And in the final analysis (sorry: more spoilers) Borlú’s cannot rest in either Besźel or Ul Qoma, but must vanish into the nebulous and ultimately not-as-believably-rendered realm of the organization known as Breach. Which has seemingly magical powers of surveillance, apprehension and punishment. Although these are revealed as being actually just exactly the same powers that the other police have.

That The City and the City is the best written of all Miéville’s novels becomes, almost, a problem, although it sounds like an odd thing to assert. But Miéville’s reputation is based upon books that achieved their greatness not despite but because of a gnarliness of articulation, a sculpted rawness that did sometimes veer into the purple, or clumsy, or clotted writing, but not in a bad way. Here things are a little too clipped, too polished, to achieve the imaginative overhang—the gorgeous, ungainly excess—that is the glory of Miéville’s earlier major achievements. More, Miéville's Chandleresque tone can't manage the leavening wit that makes the best noir more than just a pose in black-and-white and fedoras. There are moments of attempted humour here--or there are lines that have the form but not the content of wit: a woman has 'skunk-stripe hair like a film-studies academic' [58] and a security guard 'a mid-period David Beckham mohican' [154]. But their effect is to pinpoint a kind of hollowness at the heart of the rendering.

I don’t need to tell you how good a writer CM is.

I didn’t read this novel.


Gaenor Burchett-Vass said...

Nuff respek (yo yo).

A very clever, Measure-for-Measure mirror-image review - you're so sharp, you'll cut yourself!

Mike said...

The setting doesn't have to be out of the West. There is already a "pair" of cities similar to this straddling Belgium and the Netherlands in a fractured fashion. Baarle-Hertog/Baarle-Nassau

escoles said...

Nicely written. All that having been said, I would still say that for my money, a Mieville novel that "doesn't work" in the way you describe is a lot more fun and thought-provoking than most novels that do "work."

Adam Roberts said...

Escoles: I wouldn't disagree.

Moody Fool said...

I realize this is a tardy post, but I feel compelled to comment, on the grounds that Mieville drives me berserk sometimes, and I feel howling in the voids helps with my feelings of isolation.

That being said, I actually like Mieville's other work, including quite a few of his shorts stories. What drives me nuts is the praise he as garnered for Kraken and, to a lesser extent, The City and the City.

It took me a while to realize what bothered me about tCatC, when it finally hit me; Mieville never bothers to articulate or even intimate why the bizarre traditions that separate both cities in tCatC arose.

Fair enough, though. That is obviously not what interests Mieville, and he is free to write in a manner of his on choosing. However, in a novel so intimately concerned with tradition and cultural difference, it is manifestly disconcerting for the author to fail to address the question of what purpose tradition serves. Indeed, the idea that tradition might serve a purpose appears to never occur to him; we are never given the slightest indication of why the cities must remain separate. The Breach exist without a discernible purpose.

In Kraken, however, the problem is much more pronounced. The plot is, on a basic level, asinine. SPOILERS BELOW:




Firstly, the conceit that, absent a few of Darwin's fossils, the theory of evolution would not exist and people would be free to believe any damn-fool thing they please is asinine. It sucks a great deal of life out of an otherwise interesting story, because it is so very, very dumb.

Secondly, the things that the cults believe in are stupid, in every sense. The book betrays a remarkable blind spot when it comes to why people believe in things. People in modern societies just don't believe in things like a Kraken as a god. They simply don't. Bear in mind, the Kraken is one of the more sensible gods in Mieville's universe. Others are a good deal more nonsensical.

The real problem is that belief in a higher power makes no sense to Mieville. It is clear he thinks it is idiotic nonsense; ergo, he feels no need to create plausible or reasonable belief systems, because he does not recognize such a beast.

You get the impression of an child born without a sense of taste. He can watch the other kids eat candy and see that they enjoy it, but when it comes to eating it himself, he can't tell the difference between a jawbreaker and a rock.