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The City and The City: Choosing What to See

August 11, 2010
Courtesy of i09

Courtesy of

It’s been a long time since I’ve read something that surprised me, but China Miéville’s The City & The City is full of surprises. I’ve been hearing about this book for a while now — some comparisons to Neil Gaiman’s Neverworld, a fair amount of praise — but nothing truly prepared me for reading this book.  The City and The City is a mindfuck book, at least for first 50 pages.

Often when we talk about structurally or narratively complicated movies we call them, in the parlance of our times, mindfuck movies. You know the ones: Fight Club, Memento, Labyrinth, Dark Side of the Moon, most anything by David Lynch. (And for whatever reason, I’ve seen most of mindfuck movies late at night.) Having studied film, enjoyed these movies, and re-watched most of them, it’s easy for me to reconcile diverging plot lines, mingling characters, and other such complications. But while I can see film evolving, I tend to think of literature as already having most of its revolutions.

When I think about experimental literature, I think of  Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, which has been recommended to me several times, or perhaps William S. Burrough’s Naked Lunch. I’ve studied the history of literature, so I know that Edgar Allen Poe, Mark Twain, Walt Whitman and Virginia Woolf were all considered experimental in their times, and are now hailed for their far flung ideas — pushing the boundaries of taste, narrative structure, and dialogue. But in the Post-Modernism age, it’s rare that I find fiction that challenges my intellect, or changes how I read a book.

Structurally The City and The City isn’t that risque, but the idea, well, that’s something very different. The central idea behind The City & The City is two cities occupying a single geographic location. We learn that the cities of Besźel and Ul Qoma are two separate cities due to an ancient and forgotten rift. They have different police forces, different governments, different relationships with foreign countries, despite being quite literally the same city. Citizens keep up this facade through rigorous self-policed perception filters, learning to keep everything foreign unseen and unheard, relegated to background noise. The only thing separating Besźel and Ul Qoma is a state of mind.

However, people are fallible, which is why Breach exists. Breach is like the Stasi of East Germany. They are the much feared secret police: all seeing, all hearing, all knowing powers that be. They are described as an “alien power,” at one point, and until their agents make an appearance, for all the reader knows, they are boogie men come to life. The language describing them conjures the image of a great vampire bat swooping up out of the sky and plucking offenders off the street.

However, Miéville works very hard to set this novel in reality. Everything that blocks the investigation, everything that prevents these cities from seeing one another is a result of manipulating a mental point of view. There is a wealth of evidence for this kind of behavior in history: During the Cold War the CIA convinced natives in the Philippines that communist insurgents were vampires, The SS and later the Stasi were perceived as omnipresent. Big Brother is watching, and people will believe what their told. If one city is now two cities, then so be it.

The first fifty pages of the novel really make you work as Miéville explores the world he’s created using Eastern European inflected sentences and word choice. Our tentative guide is Inspector Tyador Borlú of Besźel as he attempts to solve a Jane Doe murder case, which of course leads us across the border, and eventually to Breach itself. Through this tour we get to explore the politics that affect the daily lives of citizens in this strange place.

All while reading this, I couldn’t stop thinking about what we do and don’t see in our own lives. What do we ignore? The homeless, the panhandlers, the boring houses on the commute to work, the fine print. We don’t deem these things as part of our lives, so they become a part of the background. The City and The City made me wonder, what am I not seeing? What am I not looking at? Billboards, advertising, people on the street — all of this has been trained out of me. But from my walks to and from work, and on errands, if I take the time to look around, I’m almost always rewarded with a quirky bit of architecture, a fun people watching story, something that makes me appreciate the varied culture that I live in.

Miéville plays illustrates this change of pace when Inspector Borlú goes to Ul Qoma, he must unsee everything he is accustomed to seeing, which becomes a greater metaphor for seeing his murder case anew, and his own views on his world. Would Besźel and Ul Qoma be better as one city, or would chaos break out, and nationalist groups on each side begin indiscriminate killing? What about the agents of Breach — are they covertly manipulating the cities for their own gain? To what end?

In a certain genre of fiction, these leaps of logic — the government is secretly manipulating us! — are expected, but framed in this weird world with an excess of rules, Miéville allows the reader to more closely connect to their own city, its own process, quirks, and diversions. Having moved back to Seattle, I’m all that more excited to find out new places I still haven’t been.


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