Thursday, July 9, 2009

The City and the City

The City and the City, by China Miéville
2009, 312 pp.

If I were to declare that China Miéville is the most creative author alive, I would expect that statement to meet with only blasé concurrence. That hypothesis has by now survived the rigorous testing which characterizes the gulf between theory and fact and has emerged unscathed into the realm of epistemological truth. I am prepared to go farther: China Miéville is the best living writer in English. Full stop.

The City and the City is not his best book. That distinction is still reserved for The Scar. But The City and the City is a demonstration of the range of his capability, which as near as I can tell is more congruent with than asymptotic to the infinite. He's not a "cult of the sentence" writer, so this review will not bristle with excerpts of his particularly clever descriptions. He does not produce the sort of prose the New York Times likes to call "poignant" or "evocative." He produces the sort of prose readers call "excellent." More to the point in this book, he has a masterful control of voice. In The Scar he is a frightened, lonely, highly-educated woman; in Iron Council a jilted, gay, male revolutionary; here he is a tired, professional Eastern European police officer in first-person narration. John Updike would have made Inspector Tyador Borlú sound like a dewy-eyed poet. Miéville makes him sound like a tired, professional, post-Soviet Eastern European police officer. The voice and tone never strike a wrong note. It's a virtuoso performance, all the more so for the absence of rhetorical and prose pyrotechnics.

Additionally fascinating is the grasp of genre conventions Miéville displays here. In his Bas-Lag trilogy, Miéville spent considerable time merrily running around, dynamiting every genre convention in sight. Here he has created a book which is two parts police procedural in the gritty realist style of Ed McBain or Richard Stark, one part metaphysics, one part Cold War thriller, two parts sharp-eyed social criticism, with a splash of Philip K. Dick, and maybe a little Borges thrown in. In The City and the City, almost all of the conventions of the detective genre are on display, but Miéville allows them to evolve organically and plausibly from the logic of the narrative, so they are unobtrusive structural conventions rather than lazy clichés. There are the usual meddling politicians, a Mysterious Caller, a Dead Girl, a Buddy Cop, and jurisdictional conflicts aplenty, but they are not labored constructions in Miéville's deft hands: they read instead like a demonstration of his mastery of the genre. The City and the City is like a trigonometry exam on which the student completes every question perfectly, then on the back provides an elegant new solution to Hilbert's Entscheidungsproblem. Based solely on his grasp of the genre and the mechanics of a forceful narrative, The City and the City is a very good detective novel. But Miéville is only getting warmed up.

As good as his use of plot and voice are, Miéville's genius is for world-building. The City and the City takes place in a fictitious Eastern European city called Besźel, rather gray and decaying, which occupies the same physical space as another city called Ul Quoma, which is its long-standing political and cultural rival. Citizens of the two cities are forbidden to interact with each other, even to see, smell, or hear each other, and are trained from childhood to "unsee" each other. This ban is enforced by a shadowy entity called "Breach," which seems to be a sort of hyper-efficient secret police. They know everything and see everything and maintain the separation between the two cities. Citizens who "breach" and violate the separation disappear. It is never particularly clear just how literal the separation is: at first you get the sense that there is a sort of mystical separation between the two, that maybe people in one city seem vague and ghostly in another. As the book goes on, though, it seems increasingly like the two cities are literally occupying the same space, and people recognize what to unsee based on colors, designs, and cultural stereotypes. This is a brilliant conceit. Miéville gives Ul Quoma a vaguely Muslim flavor, allowing him to build an utterly plausible replica of the European social tensions over Muslim immigration in all its various political and personal permutations, but literally manifested in the enforced separation. There is of course a storied history of cities with mythical, mysterious, magical, or otherwise hidden cities underneath. Making the other city just as real but hidden due to politics was a masterstroke of invention, and he gets quite a lot of mileage out of it. There is nothing absurdist or fantastic about the events of The City and the City: every event, every action is either explained or open to be explained, and this allows for Miéville to take his ideas seriously. There is no deus ex machina here, no authorial trickery. He has serious things to say about the social strata of modern Europe, and has thought of an innovative, serious way to say them.

The story begins with a murder. I will attempt not to give away too many of the narrative's plot convolutions, but will say only that the murdered girl turns out to have been an archaeology student working in Ul Quoma. Her body turns up in a housing project in Besźel, so Inspector Borlú is assigned to the case. She seems to have shadowy connections to unificationist radicals, to discredited academic ideologies, and to vague legends about something called Orciny, which may or may not be a hidden third city in places the Besź think are in Ul Quoma and the Ul Quomans think are in Besźel. From there the story opens up, hopping between the cities, delving deeply into their history and intellectual culture, and into their conflicted political spectrums. The two cities are perfectly realized. Miéville has thought of what their currency is called, what their Internet domain names are, what their American investment policies are, and how the elaborate diplomacy between their governments works. He's thought of their folklore, neologisms (the delicious topolganger, for instance), a fictitious Chuck Pahlaniuk novel, and what UNESCO thinks about the whole affair. He wisely makes both cities plausible, neither more attractive, more realistic, or more sympathetic than the other.

If I have criticisms, it is with the characters. We see a little of Borlú's home life, and a scene at hoome with his Ul Quoman partner, but the only sense we get of them as people are in their professional roles. This is standard to the genre, but I felt that Miéville usually layers in more depth of motivation for his characters, so their actions are a function of their personalities and the internal logic of their relations. The police procedural format does not lend itself well to this, but the reader will only notice if he happens to be looking for it. Borlú is dogged, meticulous, intelligent, sympathetic, and sensitive, and if nothing else, there are a whole stable of stock character traits less talented writers affix to their detectives which Miéville rightly ignored. As criticisms go, this is rather like complaining that your delectable steak dinner was not also covered in chocolate, so it should not be taken too seriously. The City and the City is a superb book, and a resounding confirmation that yes, China Miéville really can do anything.

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