lost in china mieville's the city & the city

In The City & The City, author China Miéville asks us for an act of faith; suspend disbelief towards the book’s implausible premise of two cities coexisting in the same topography but separated by the selective perception of its residents. Each city is, for practical purposes, its own domain with distinctive cultures, customs, governmental structures, and so on. To be in one city means to “unsee” the other, a process taught to each city’s residents from birth and strictly enforced by a mysterious authority called Breach that forbids residents of one city to see the other without going through legal channels. As one would expect, there are challenges to this arrangement, particularly when it comes to traffic, to which Miéville responds by positing a sufficiently unconscious form of seeing that lets residents from each city avoid bumping or crashing into each other without actually breaching. This unconscious seeing-but-unseeing even extends, remarkably, to walking over or around people having sex.

As far as concepts go, its malarkey whose potential for clever commentary on the nature of perception is undermined by the sheer inertness of the idea in Miéville’s narrative. Far from being an exploration of how such an arrangement between cities could be possible from a psycho-social standpoint, Miéville allows the concept to settle into the background as a fait accompli whose origination is never explained, whose history is deliberately hidden behind the excuse of insufficient data, and whose emergence from the whirlings of the human mind is left unexamined. While we are given a sense of how the separation between the cities of Beszel and Ul Qoma works in practice through the perspective of protagonist Tyador Borlu, an Inspector in Beszel’s Extreme Crime Squad – crosshatched areas, for example, in which both cities physically overlap and entail a higher risk of breaching, or the irony of being physically close to someone in geographical terms but metaphysically apart in terms of city boundaries – it is never credible, especially given that Miéville situates Beszel and Ul Qoma in our real world. Critics like Abigail Nussbaum see in the novel a deconstructive effort that upends fantasy genre tropes, which is as fair a reading as any, but the deconstruction proves to be rather limp and the upending is strictly derived from reader expectations, not from Miéville’s text.
At one point, a key character succeeds in occupying neither city, putting him out of reach of the police and militia officers pursuing him from each city as well as Breach, who only intervene when the citizens of one city illicity recognize or interact with the other city. Other than a few indications that this feat is accomplished through ambiguous body language similar to the one used by Breach avatars, Miéville never delves into the mechanics of such ambivalence, a study that would be especially valuable given his steadfast restraint from indulging magical or supernatural explanations. So what then is being deconstructed? The dichotomy presented by the two cities is contrived and of a purely psychological nature, but Miéville insists on treating the situation as a kind of mythology stripped of mysticism. His propensity for telling us about the dichotomy through Borlu’s narration rather than demonstrating it to us renders the novel a shallowly cerebral affair, as there’s no challenge in creating a dichotomy, fabricating a phenomena that straddles both poles, and presenting the result as a “deconstruction” of the dichotomy. Considering that deconstruction operates at the stress point of oppositional concepts – life/death, writing/speech, etc. – invoking a loaded word like deconstruction is far too glib for what Miéville accomplishes with his text, namely, mere juxtaposition.

Compounding the problem is Miéville inability, or unwillingness, to offer concrete descriptions. Ms. Nussbaum praises this as an effort to disorient the reader and manipulate impressions of the city through Borlu’s necessarily limited perspective, but to me the impression is of a writer who relies on lazy associations with real-world analogues and ersatz linguistics. Again, we are often told by Borlu that the cities are different, that residents from each dress different, eat differently, and so on, yet Miéville never offers enough description for readers to form a concrete image of each city. If anything, the muddled impression of the cities undermines the premise of citizens who see their own city but not the other, a problem given that the novel’s otherwise real world setting easily allows for outsiders to view the concatenation of the two cities without perceptual filters. Perhaps by denying us that objective perspective Miéville can be said to bring us into the mindset of the cities’ residents, but the lack of descriptive details also means that we can never draw the necessary contrast between the cities that would be necessary in order for us to unsee along with Borlu. That is, Miéville is big on telling but short on showing.

In a sense, we are forced to take on the perspective of outsiders to the city, who even within the book find the whole situation freakishly bizarre, even nonsensical, without any guidance. Why and how the residents would continue to maintain such a system would be the stuff of a fascinating novel. What difference, for instance, would there be in the lives and mindsets of unificationists as opposed to committed segregationists? Alas, Miéville focuses his attention on a murder-mystery that fails to impress even when the narrative brings in the possibility of yet another city, the interstitial power called Orciny, The investigation of an American archaeology student’s murder and its connection to a broader conspiracy is languid and lacking in suspense; no surprise given how the novel has to divide its attention between explaining both the plot of the investigation and the contextual rules in which Borlu carries it out.

As much Miéville is in command of his writing, his execution is ultimately questionable. The characters’ f-bombs are as awkward as the book’s improvised linguistics, and the whole thing is written in a jerky, clipped style that frustrates as often as it appeals. Overly stylized writing masks deficiencies in character development; Borlu, like many of the characters, is rather superficial, useful for the procedure of solving the mystery but otherwise bereft of personality and biography. A murky distinction between characters is a common consequence of Miéville’s writing and a further drain on whatever enthusiasm the book could generate for its unconventional narrative agenda. However, despite all that and especially in spite of book jacket quotes affirming comparisons to Kafka and Orwell – Miéville lacks both Orwell’s polemical directness and Kafka’s existential machinations – The City & The City nevertheless holds the mystique of an ambitious project, however unsuccessful. There’s enough, perhaps, in that mystique for curious readers to justify picking the book up from the library.

For an alternative perspective, you can read the aforementioned Abigail Nussbaum’s review of the book at her blog, Asking the WrongQuestions.

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