Thursday, July 09, 2009

The City and The City by China Mieville

The cliche goes that books are like a conversation -- they speak to each other and to the reader, some telling jokes, others grabbing the lapels and pleading, a few lying languidly back and rolling out unlikely tales. The City and the City, in that company, is that one guy at the party who seems personable and interesting, but keeps returning to some utterly insane pet theory. You want to like that guy -- his stories start wonderfully, and have great touches -- but then every other sentence is about the Trilateral Commission and you find yourself mentally disengaging from even the seemingly-sane parts of the conversation. But, if you stick with it, you just might find that everything that guy says makes sense in the end -- and then you have to decide if that means that he's just gotten you to drink his Kool-Aid.

The City and the City is a police procedural: gritty, street-wise, particular, grounded. But it's also set in a bifurcated city-state that could have come right out of Borges or, more pointedly, Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities. The setting is fabulist, which keeps dragging the narrative, and the reader's attention, away from the specifics of the police investigation -- the reader's mind keeps trying to reconstruct the entire plot as a metaphor or allegory, and that's just not what The City and the City is trying to do. For most of the length of The City and the City, Mieville whipsaws back and forth -- often within the same sentence -- between the grounded, street-level detective work of Inspector Tyador Borlu, and the existential issues of "unseeing" the other city.

The metaphor of the two cities is so strong, and so foregrounded, that it demands thought on nearly every page, but it also frustrates any thoughts running along the same lines as the mystery plot. The intertwined but utterly separate cities of Beszel and Ul Qoma cannot be investigated and questioned in the ways Borlu is tracing his murder case; they demand to be worked out metaphorically, like a fable. We can read Beszel and Ul Qoma as rich and poor, as black and white, as Christian and Muslim, as capitalist and communist, as any dichotomy we like -- it doesn't fit all of those equally well, and it's a deeper, richer metaphor than any one of those, but it inevitably makes the reader think of other commensal rivals, other thoroughly interwoven yin-and-yang partners.

So The City and the City keeps jarring the reader out of the story to think about the world -- as a Science Fiction or Fantasy book often will do. But The City and the City isn't a SFF book; it's meant to be a mystery, a story about a cop in a very real -- only the slightest bit alternate-historical, to allow this city and city to exist -- world. And that's the problem; it's a novel crosshatched as intensely as the most heavily-trafficked square in its fictional world, bouncing itself between mystery and SFF phrases and ideas in every paragraph, humming with motion as it vibrates between two genres, trying to be in both and neither at the same time.

Somewhere in the Balkans, or at least a vaguely defined "Eastern Europe," exists the conjoined twins of city-states: Beszel and Ul Qoma. They occupy the same space, as anyone else in the world would define it. But somehow -- and, apparently, no one in either city now has any idea how this came to be -- they are entirely, utterly separate. So separate that residents of each city must "unsee" events taking place in the other city, must pretend that half of the cars on the streets, and people on the pavements, and buildings in the sky do not exist at all. There are areas of "totality" of one city or the other, but this novel only rarely takes place in them; the reader begins to assume that they are very few and not well-trafficked. Streets, parks, squares, even buildings are "cross-hatched," with parts being totally Beszel and parts totally Ul Qoman -- and every citizen of either city must have a near-perfect mental map of both cities, and a gazetteer of the acceptable clothing, architecture, body languages, and gestures from each culture. Every Beszel, every Ul Qoman must already know what he is seeing to know what he is seeing -- and to know, most importantly, what he is not seeing.

For seeing the other city is "breach," and this is the very worst crime in both cities. So bad, in fact, that it's turned over to an super-secret agency called Breach, which in some ways is a servant of the two city-states' governments and in some ways is their superior. Breach is known by all in both cities to be everywhere, all the time -- all-knowing, all-seeing, all-powerful, and swift to anger, like the Old Testament God. Some technical matters are handed over to Breach by the governments, but the day-to-day cases -- where a man stares at a building in the wrong city, or talks to a person in the other city, or walks down the wrong street -- is handled swiftly and apparently mercilessly by the agents of Breach, who appear from nowhere and whisk the offenders away, usually never to be seen again. No one in either city knows anyone who ever became a Breach agent; Breach has no connection to their normal world -- except that it permeates that world entirely.

This is a fantastic setting for a fabulist story, and it resonates strongly with many real-world cities and urban issues -- from the obvious ones like the question of Jerusalem to more subtle issues like the "unseeing" of urban homeless and blight to the existential question of whether we can ever see something unless we already know what it is. Mieville has created a wondrous pair of cities, utterly suitable for a great fantasy writer, full of wonder and deep mysteries.

But then he used them to tell the story of Inspector Tyador Borlu, of the Beszel Extreme Crime Squad. And, in a mystery story, what the audience -- and the detective -- have to do is pay attention to everything, to sift out the important from the trivial. But, instead of being able to do that, we get Borlu going on for pages and pages about how this street is full of buildings he doesn't see, and how he's driving even though most of the traffic is cars that he's not officially noticing, and on and on and on. Mieville never lets the mystery plot get any traction; the reader is left thinking not that this is a particularly difficult case, but that policing these cities is utterly impossible, and that they should have collapsed into utter anarchy long before now. (And then the reader smiles at that thought, too, since it mimics what so many have said about so many cities so many times, and wonders if Mieville built that in as well.)

Perhaps everything holds together because of Breach and only because of Breach -- that certainly is Breach's opinion, and seems to be Mieville's. Criminals may be terrified of running away from a crime, for fear of putting one foot wrong and falling into the cold, implacable hands of Breach. It's possible; Mieville spends a lot of time in the first half of the novel building Breach up as an effectively supernatural agency. The characters he has talking about Breach are all cops, and mostly veteran, smart, powerful cops. But they don't complain Breach the way big-city cops complain about the FBI, nor do they have the kind of burning scorn those cops have for Internal Affairs. Borlu and his colleagues find Breach just as ineffable as the regular people of Beszel and Ul Qoma; they talk about Breach in vague platitudes and nonspecific references, showing clearly that even they don't have the slightest clue who Breach really is, how they do what they do, and what the extent of their powers is. They're not cops talking about their rivals or superiors; they're medieval penitents crouching before an angry, unknowable God.

The plot is set in motion by a murder -- a young woman was killed in one city and dumped in the other -- and Borlu investigates, only a bit above the minimum required, since obviously they'll be able to hand it all over to Breach. (And when did a good cop ever think that way? "Oh, just let the FBI/SEC/Internal Affairs/Special Crimes/ATF come in; they'll be sure to find the real culprits.")

That doesn't happen, which shocks and stuns Borlu and his colleagues. So he actually has to investigate this case -- actually has to do his job. (Which is the opposite of the standard police procedural plot, which usually sees obstacles thrown up to the detective at every turn.) But Borlu, partially because of the difficulties of investigating across cities, ends up spending most of his time dealing with more existential matters -- not seeing buildings and people and cars, not talking to suspects, not Getting Off His Ass and Knocking on Doors. It's reminiscent of mysteries set in corrupt and totalitarian societies, where the detective is just going through the motions until his superiors decide who the crime will be pinned on. But that's not going to happen here; if Borlu doesn't clear this murder, no one will.

So the case sees Borlu talking to the same people over and over, mostly about philosophical, existential issues of the two cities -- and, in particular, the semi-crackpot theory, which the dead girl may have believed, that there's a third city named Orciny hidden between Beszel and Ul Qoma. There's very little tracing of physical evidence, and hardly any serious interrogation of potential witnesses -- the murder is less the core of the plot than the Maguffin that Mieville uses to give Borlu an excuse to go first to Ul Quoma and then to more unexpected places.

The City and the City is a deeply frustrating book, one that has the lines of a mystery but continually thwarts all attempts to read it as one. But it's also not much more satisfying as a fantasy -- again, it has elements that read as fantasy, or hint at fantasy, but it collapses those as the book rushes to its conclusion. There are novels that take elements of two genres -- and often those are crime fiction and speculative fiction -- and work within both successfully. The City and the City, though, sets the genre conventions in opposition to each other, and oscillates between them, ending somewhere in the wastelands in between. It does have its strengths, and Mieville's muscular prose and compelling conception of the twinned cities make it a very readable, if ultimately frustrating book.


Paul D said...

Did you take the Breach to be a totally natural phenomenon? I think I enjoyed this more than you, but at the end I wasn't sure if there was something supernatural going on with the Breach.

Andrew Wheeler said...

Paul D.: I took the ending to mean that Breach was not supernatural; that their supposed powers mostly came from living in both cities at the same time. I'm not entirely sure that lines up with what Mieville said about them earlier in the book, but that's what I thought his intentions were.

Paul D said...

I'm glad that there are people out there smarter than me to explain books to me. :)

If the Breach isn't supernatural, it kind of takes away from the novel, doesn't it? In a way it's easier to believe in this supernatural police force than it is a totally 'natural' explanation for the divide of the two cities.

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