The City & the City, by China Miéville
China Miéville’s body of work defies adequate praise. The worlds he creates are dark, unique, extraordinary. What other author could take concepts such as mosquito people, a floating random society, or a relationship between a human and an arthropod and make them seamless and, bless his divinely subverted soul, ordinary? Who else could make them so believable that you forget that you’re reading something so fantastical as to be ridiculous, until you try to explain it to someone else, and realize just how hopeless your lesser genius is?
Lost In The Story
Take, for example, his take on the crime novel, The City & the City, where he creates a world that takes half a book to even begin to understand, but by the time you do, you are so lost in the story that it conversely takes a while for you to reintroduce yourself to the “real” world that you actually inhabit once you’ve taken your eye from the page. But this time, it is not the life forms or the ancillary aspects of
Miéville’s created worlds that provide the fantastical – it is the very fabric of the world itself.
The opening factor of The City & the City is “normal” enough – a murder. And our narrator is in a traditional role – the senior police inspector on duty when the victim is discovered, who eventually finds himself assigned to the case. But even with this mundane setting, we are kept off balance by the very language and nuance of interaction which lets us know that we are indeed not in any recognizable landscape. The people look the same, the buildings, the sky, the vehicles – all recognizable. The murder site could be any major metropolitan slum, with details given by the keen eye of a police force veteran. But then the talk begins and things get weird, disorienting, because we get no explanation. We simply have to hold on and make many leaps of faith – the main one being that eventually we are going to know what’s going on other than a murder has been committed.
A Breathless And Exciting Ride
Who, what, where, how and when are clear. Why is to be explored. Everything else is off kilter, and keeps tilting until we are halfway through the story – and it’s a breathless and totally exciting ride. By the time the equivalent of Act 3 arrives, our understanding clicks into knowing why we’ve been taken on this ride, and it’s time to hold on for our literary lives until the ultimate (and unpredictable) conclusion to the murder investigation itself unfolds.
You see, Inspector Tyador Borlú of the Extreme Crime Squad resides in Besźel, a city with a distinct Eastern European flavor. But the murder victim is a foreigner, and Tyador must work with his somewhat reluctant counterpart in Besźel’s “sister city” of Ul Qoma (which feels distinctly Turkish) in order to uncover a much larger plot than a single murder. This requires Tyador to undertake a border crossing unlike any that you’ve ever imagined.
China Miéville In His Glory
Oh no, no… things are NOT that simple. This is China Miéville in his glory, after all! But the kicker is that nothing is explained. Tyrador is not dictating a story to us, we are simply following along in his head as he moves forward in his investigation. And the world he moves through – the worlds he moves through – make sense to him. They do not to us. We have to accept what he is giving us and hold a hellava lot in stasis until we can make sense of it. But Miéville gives us just enough of a toehold in what we can consider normal, and his writing even in the shadow of the unreal is so exquisite, that we can totally disengage our sense of disbelief and ride along in the squad car. I can’t really tell you more – it would spoil the book and, well, sound utterly ridiculous with my lesser genius.
Oh, but I’ve got to mention – as with The Scar and Perdido Street Station, Miéville’s command of the English language is so utterly appropriate and still so lyrical, it defies superlatives. He is one of the few authors that I know who will stump me with words that I have never heard in their context before, and yet are perfect words for the situation (such as describing the drudgery of an urban landscape with the word “tat”). When China Miéville describes squalor, you not only see it – you can taste it. The obstacles his heroes face are overwhelming. The twists his story takes seem annihilating. And yet, as with all his works, The City & the City has a thin but tensile thread of hope running throughout, despite the alienation and strangeness. It’s absolutely, effin’ glorious.
Recommendation? Yes, yes, a thousand times yes.
— Sharon Browning