Thursday, March 19, 2009

The City and the City

I'm an unabashed proselytizer for China Miéville. Between, Mrs. Speculator, my book group, and a few other innocent bystanders, I've made a few converts. I've also failed a couple of times, when the subject of my evangelism decided that the New Weird, the sub-genre that Miéville once described himself as a part of, was Too Weird. For myself, between the fascinating plots of the stories Miéville tells and his descriptive (I almost used "ornate" but that's not quite right) writing style, I find that I am constantly on the look-out for his new books. He has even joined the ranks of authors for whom I will buy the hardback edition, just to get the book in my hands that much faster.

So you can probably imagine my excitement when I was offered an opportunity to read a prerelease version of The City and the City. When I received the early version, I anxiously read the description on the back cover and then shared it with a Miéville acolyte, the aviator. The press described a murder mystery in the small European/Asian (Eurasian?) country of Beszel, a crime that would lead its detective to the sister country of Ul Qoma, in some ways the opposite of Beszel. The aviator suggested that perhaps this was the first entry in a new sub-genre, New Crime or perhaps New Weird Crime. We chuckled and I dove in.

As it turns out, Beszel and Ul Qoma are not just sister countries; they are tiny city-states somewhere near Turkey that share the same space. The novel starts out being unclear about that space-sharing—inhabitants of Beszel can see inhabitants of Ul Qoma (and vice versa)but ignore them, apparently out of politeness. The impression, at first, is of some sort of dimensional rift separating the two cities, not allowing any sort of physical interaction. But as the noel goes on, the reality turns out to be far more strange: the two countries share the same physical space, sometimes sharing features and sometimes with features clearly "belonging" to one country or the other. Thus a street goes by one name in Beszel and another in Ul Qoma, while a building in Beszel may stand beside a building in Ul Qoma. The separation of the countries is purely one of the mind, but one that is strictly enforced by the mysterious Breach, such that any interaction between the two countries—even looking at a neighbor who happens to be in a different country—is subject to the strictest punishment. Those who breach simply disappear.

Against this peculiar backdrop, the novel describes the investigation of the murder of a young American student whose body is found in Beszel. Our protagonist, Inspector Borlu, is convinced the crime is one of breach and works to get the mysterious enforcers involved in the investigation. But even as he waits for their assistance, he continues to investigate and eventually is forced to believe that perhaps it is not a breach, but requires him to seek aid from the police in Ul Qoma.

However, the murder really isn't what the novel is about; it just offers a viewpoint for extended meditation on the nature of these two countries and their shared existence. Nearly every facet of Borlu's investigation serves as a way to expand on the strange circumstances or deal with fringe elements, such as ultranationalists who want the territory to belong to just one country and unificationists that want the land to belong to everyone. That the murder victim is a young archeologist with a professional interest in the history of the two countries just serves to allow Borlu to look at some of the scientific underpinnings of the strange dual existence. In fact, as a mystery story, the novel fails spectacularly—there is no way that the reader can solve the murder, as important information is left unrevealed to the reader until near the climax. Real crime happens this way, that new evidence can suddenly take the investigation into a direction that is completely unexpected. But such events rarely make good a good mystery story, where part of the fascination is in the attempt to solve the crime.

But the meditation on the dual countries, while somewhat interesting, doesn't completely work either. The novel carefully straddles the line between a history of the dualism and a philosophical meditation on the how it affects the citizens of both countries. But it never goes satisfyingly enough in either direction. How such a bizarre geographic situation could have arisen would be a fascinating story in a lot of authors' hands, especially as the novel reveals more and more details about the two countries' differences. But Miéville never takes us there, and so the mystery that really underpins the novel is never revealed. But neither does he go all metaphorical, using the symbolism of the dual countries to explore very much about the nature of the human condition. There are hints at metaphor, the barest promise that all this symbology means something, but it too is never fully fleshed out. So much of the book deals with duality—poverty and wealth, history and modernity, European and Asian—that it seems to want to carry the weight of depth, but it never happens, instead leaving the reader grasping for something beyond "Well, that's odd." The book itself appears to be an artifact of some duality, a mystery and a literary novel, but like the other dualities not really explored in either direction.

Perhaps that is Miéville's ultimate point, that living on the edge of duality is really no existence at all. The events in the story certainly seem to bear that interpretation out. But that feels so clichéd, so Aesop-y, and I've come to expect so much more from Miéville. Perhaps his insight comes from a specific source in Miéville's life, and he feels compelled to share it. But without a frame of reference, the reader can only pocket such advice and hope to remember to use it when circumstances arise. Unfortunately, there is nothing memorable about the book to cause the reader to want to remember the advice. Even Miéville's usually evocative prose is missing in this gray gray story. And as a result, this is by far his weakest fiction (I've not read his non-fiction and so don't wish to compare it).

Any Miéville is a treat, but The City and the City is missing something fundamental to make it stand out, as the rest of his writing usually does.

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