on 1 August 2011
Neither pure science fiction nor entirely naturalistic, China Miéville's The City and The City functions in a strange hinterland between genre spaces. Significantly influenced by hardboiled noir detective fiction (notably Dashiell Hammet, Raymond Chandler, James Ellroy) and taking cues from Kafka, the novel is strikingly difficult to pin-down; and although many reviewers have tried resorting to long compound chains of genre labels (`post-modern-sci-fi-detective-noir' etc.), this is probably more confusing than helpful. So I think it's best if we stick with Miéville's own self-disclosed moniker `Weird Fiction' [his capitals], which though concise and a tad self-satisfied, is nonetheless a pleasingly eloquent descriptive of what is a damn unusual book.
As the name suggests, The City and The City is a novel rampant with doubling: it's set in two fictional cities in Eastern Europe: Bes'el and Ul Qoma, which although being different administrative, legal and cultural entities, nonetheless share the same physical space, topographically speaking; so one street may be in Bes'el, whereas the street immediately adjacent might belong to Ul Qoma. The citizens of each city must ignore the existence of the other entirely (`unsee' it - strikingly Orwellian neologism?); if they don't, then they are said to have committed a crime called `Breach', and weird things happen to them. Principally the novel concerns a by-the-numbers `extreme crime' detective called Borlú, who's tasked with investigating the murder of a Bes'el woman by a citizen from Ul Qoma; all the while Borlú becomes more and more obsessed with pseudo-academic theories that a third city called `Orciny' exists - functioning entirely unseen between the other two.
Borlú narrates in the first-person past tense, and in essence he acts as the mouth-piece of the reader by expressing confusion at the book's bizarre goings-on on the reader's behalf. Large chunks of the narrative can be baffling, and the book only really comes-together at its shocking dénouement. Compounding this tonal confusion is China Miéville's very slow reveal of made up, idiosyncratic terminology, which has to be gradually decoded by the reader as no gloss or moments of explication are provided - but rather than being frustrating, this refusal to elucidate contributes to a sense of immersion and authenticity that's so often lacking in other, less delicate sci-fi where heavy-handed exposition is problematic.
The cast is drawn competently, though occasionally it does veer into clichés of genre-type (feisty side-kick, cantankerous police chief, unidentified telephone informant etc.) and this is a shallowness of character that can't always be hidden by complex plotting and non-stop action, but I'm willing to let this pass because the real shining stars of the novel (the most developed `protagonists', if you want to be poncy about it) are the cityscapes of Bes'el and Ul Qoma. Miéville takes his (admittedly brilliant) idea of the inter-meshed cities and really runs with it, augmenting the characteristic cityphilia that he's shown in earlier novels with a fetishistic attention to the physical description of skylines, road layouts, architecture and city administration. Not only does this contribute to a unique and highly original sense of place, but also instils an unnerving feeling of the uncanny, as the cities in The City and The City function more like characters than mere settings. As Borlú moves between the two cities, the very nature of the streets, like arteries of the cities, pulses, flows and shifts - the streets tell lies and trick reader and narrator alike. Simultaneously belonging to two very different cities, the streets are alarmingly schizophrenic and threatening: they display a shifty inconsistency that creates an unsettling cognitive dissonance, an effect created by Miéville's unashamedly intricate, complicated prose. The permanent danger is that Borlú will slip-up and commit Breach, and I was torn between simultaneously wanting to see this happen, while also wanting the best for our narrator (who, remember, really functions as the mouth and eyes of the reader - a point of view character in this strange but familiar (hence ` uncanny') world).
So, The City and The City is a dark, violent and complicated hybrid of genre types that functions as a celebration of the idea of `city' rather than of the detective as moral paradigm or of the crime as grotesque indulgence (a trap so many hardboiled novels fall into). It's grounded by a rigorous attention to police procedure and a penchant for unexpectedly naturalistic dialogue (you'll read lots of `ums' and repetitions of colloquialisms/idioms: `you know' etc.) that weights the novel into a quasi real-world context when it could so easily have floated into the realms of the purely fantastical. This teasing of the fantastic can, however, be a source of frustration. The more outré, sci-fi aspects are dangled like the proverbial carrot in front of both reader and protagonist alike: the hidden `third city', the possibility of advanced technology, the strange crime that is `Breach' - these are all narrative threads that are im-rather than ex-plicit, and it's demonstrable of Miéville's skill that, even when he's writing minor fantasy, he can suggest the most head-spinning weirdnesses. But readers looking for the out-and-out bizarro creations of his earlier novels might find The City and The City lacking.