I have written at least four different introductions to this piece on China Miéville’s The City & The City, each focusing on a different aspect of the novel. There is an embarrassment of riches, so much to write about. Which perhaps is itself the best place to begin. There are novels published in any given year over which much is made at the time, but that swiftly fade from memory. In 2009, Lev Grossman’s quite decent The Magicians received nearly equal attention and praise upon release as Miéville’s book; at the end of the year, I don’t recall seeing the Grossman mentioned in any “year’s best” discussions (sorry, Lev). The City & The City, in contrast, is a novel that people have kept talking about, have kept finding new ways and new places to apply its language of and to the world. It’s one of the rare literary works that I feel (not without irony) has added a new lens to the array by which I can see the world.
A personal example:
I am an American; I live in the state named Massachusetts. For most of the first decade of the new millennium, the popular image of the United States of America-as-a-totality, here and abroad, has been various incarnations of the infamous electoral map of red and blue states (see below). I did not much mind this. Whenever I traveled abroad one of the first sentences I invariably uttered to any new acquaintance, immediately after identifying myself as American, was “I didn’t vote for Bush.” It was as if there were two types of Americans, those who did vote for Bush and those who didn’t, and the only way I could feel comfortable identifying myself as an American was with that qualifier. When I traveled within the country, meanwhile, all I needed to say was “I’m from Massachusetts” and people rightly assumed that I was relatively liberal–Massachusetts being long considered the bluest of blue states.
Then more recently Massachusetts held a Special Election to fill the Senate seat left vacant by the late Ted Kennedy; it was an election for a local representative, but it had greater than usual significance across America because of the national health care debate. And amazingly, the liberal Democratic candidate lost. My local friends and I couldn’t understand how this could have happened in our so-very-blue state; we were devastated.
Top: 2008 US Presidential Election.
Bottom: 2010 Massachusetts Special Election.
Watching the Special Election results come in, we saw a map of Massachusetts broken down by county, and it was showing red counties and blue counties. Going online, I found results broken down even further, by city; I was reassured, as much as I could be, by the fact that at least the city I live in had voted 70% for the Democratic candidate. We were blue, even if some of the surrounding cities were red. Watching the results come in, I felt more solidarity with other blue cities further away than I did with neighboring red cities. And it occurs to me that, because of the way we hold our elections in the US, the Democratic and Republican National Committees must have digital maps that can track the red vs. blue voting patterns deeper than state, district, county, city; down to the level of neighborhoods, households, to individual people within households. Which makes me very conscious that I’m living in this shared space called America that in many ways could be seen–is seen, going back to that popular national map–as two different countries, blue-state America and red-state America. Except that unlike that popular conception, the two are densely intermingled at the street level. And frustrating times like the Special Election make me very conscious of the allure of disowning red-state/red-city/red-household/red-pedestrian America; times when I fantasize that if I could, I would.
Us & Them: And who knows which is which and who is who.
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There has, to be sure, been some interesting writing on and discussion of The City & The City already. In particular, I plan on referencing a cross-site discussion that took place between Niall Harrison and Dan Hartland here and here, continuing down into the comments of Dan’s post with contributions from Adam Roberts, and culminating in this review by Roberts. I should also note that I gave a rather hurried summation of what I’m writing here at a book club discussion of The City & The City at 2009’s Readercon; on the presiding panel were, among others, Graham Sleight and John Clute, whose names appear below.
(I wrote the above paragraph in July 2009–yes, I am a slow writer. Since then several other reviews of interest have appeared–Matthew Cheney, Abigail Nussbaum, Jonathan McCalmont, Shigekuni. Good and insightful as these are, none really offers what I’d consider a 360-degree view of the book, and in particular the means and ends of its blending of fantasy and mystery. So I persevere, and the original discussion linked above remains my touchstone….)
In the Harrison/Hartland/Roberts discussion–and echoed by Sleight at the Readercon panel–is the suggestion that The City & The City can be read as containing essentially two layers: the surface level story, and the subtextual layer of the applicability of the story’s ideas to the wider world. Such a dualistic reading is pleasingly apt, given the title of the book. What I’d like to suggest here, however, is that the novel can most appropriately and profitably be read as containing three essential layers:
- The surface story, the mystery to be solved: the characters and their motivations and actions as characters, that form a plot, enacted in a setting, etc.
- The way that genre mystery tropes are used to reveal something deeper about the fictional world that is also relevant to our real world. Which is to say, unseeing and all that goes with it.
- The way that, conversely, the fictional world–designed to mimic our real world in so many details–also deliberately echoes and illuminates genre mystery tropes, and thus the mystery genre overall.
The excellence of The City & The City, to my mind, is the way all three layers are interwoven. I aim to pull some of this weaving apart for ease of examination, but with the awareness that in doing so I’m not merely reducing the novel but transforming it into something it isn’t; representing it as more allegorical than it is, turning it into a purely logical construction rather than an aesthetic one.
All of the following, I should note, presumes that you’ve read the book already–this isn’t so much a review as an investigation.
1. The Scene of the Crime
Miéville’s previous novels have tended to deconstruct genre tropes via subversions of point of view, and to a lesser extent plot. Un Lun Dun worked against the usual hero-and-sidekick roles and their associated plotting. The Scar flipped the standard retrieve-the-stolen-object fantasy quest narrative on its head by being told from the side of the thieves rather than the pursuers, and by backing away from the quest objective at the last moment.
In contrast to these books, The City & The City works its genre deconstruction largely via setting, not character or plot. Indeed, what’s notable about the plot of Miéville’s novel is how true its movement is to the very story of noir, the recirculating interplay between individuals and systems: how individuals take on the characteristics of the systems they live by, and in doing so become complicit in those systems; how individuals are absorbed by systems whose qualities mirror their own self-absorbtions. The prototypical noir character is streetwise precisely because they mirror their environment, because with absorption and loss of self can come knowledge and the ability to work within the grid of the system–if never to actually change it. Yet in many recent noir hybrids with fantasy and science fiction, noir is used precisely to present something for the individual to triumph over, to change or escape: Jedediah Berry’s Manual of Detection, Zoran Živković’s The Last Book, going back to the film Bladerunner. (I could perhaps add Jeff VanderMeer’s Finch to this list as well, but I don’t think VanderMeer is aiming for the pure crime noir in the way someone like Berry is–which may be another post for another time.) It stands out, then, that with The City & The City, Miéville has created a story that is so thoroughly noir, that ends with our protagonist Inspector Tyador Borlú co-opted by the system in exactly the way we’d expect–and yet still has something interesting to say about what this all means.
For such a classic noir story to work, we generally need to care about this co-option, this absorption. And so the classic noir story is typically a novel of character. Well, and so. Our Inspector Borlú is, like any good noir protagonist, very much a product of his system–indeed I think there is a tendency to under-appreciate Borlú as a product of his society. When Borlú declares that the situation between Besźel and Ul Qoma is entirely unlike those in Berlin, or Jerusalem; when he declares that it cannot be understood allegorically: the easy interpretation is that this is Miéville speaking to us, and not what someone of Borlú’s character and in his position would say, authorial agreement or no. And yet, a similar sense of character comes through in many of Borlú’s actions: his behavior at the cities conference, his dual lovers, his patronage of Ul Qoman bakeries in Besźel. It is easy to regard these details as thematic–and of course they are, that’s part of what makes the book so good. But the details he provides–choices, actions, patterns of speech–are not only thematic, not when we consider the reaction of others to these attributes of Borlú, which make it clear they are very much unique to him. This gets at the issue with Borlú-as-protagonist, though: it isn’t that he’s not a believable character, but his matter-of-fact acceptance of the system doesn’t incorporate many of the tensions that we see in others throughout the novel. He is a patriot, but recognizing that his country depends on the system, he is a patriot for the system first and foremost. Borlú begins co-opted in all but name, and so there’s little real drama in his personal transition. The dramatic tension in the system, and the true star protagonist of the novel, is instead found in the setting. Fortunately, the setting makes the strong and complex impression that Borlú does not.
While The City & The City is not, by most definitions, a New Weird novel, its setting has about it something of what M. John Harrison labeled the “pick-and-choose” aesthetic of The New Weird. It is quite conspicuously an assemblage of elements designed to convey an impression–in this case, to build a mystery–and make an argument as much as it is an attempt to construct a plausible real-world location. The very vagueness of the location and history of the cities emphasize this. The text suggests that the two nearest neighbors of the cities are Bosnia and Romania–with Greece and Turkey slightly further away. This would likely put the cities on the border of the Balkans, perhaps in, perhaps out…the uncertain dualism seen so often in the novel. Practically, this general location carries with it a mesh of associations: the borderlands, too, between Central and Eastern Europe, and Europe and the Middle East; the concept of “balkanization”; recent countries with names such as “Bosnia and Herzegovina,” “Serbia and Montenegro” that have the meter of our book’s title.
The question of where the cities are naturally leads to other questions about them, which the novel encourages–it’s another mystery, in addition to the foreground crime, a greater one. It has the air of a puzzle to be solved. There’s a sense, then, in which The City & The City represents a very classic type of mystery fiction, the puzzle story where whodunit and how and when are the most important aspects, Colonel Mustard in the Ballroom with the Candlestick. Over the past several decades, however, the mystery genre as a whole has become more character-driven: not so much puzzling out whodunit as examining the character of those who did do it and those who try to prove what was done. Paralleling the growth of forensics, surveillance, and computer networks, the model for the new crime novel is The Wire: a story where everybody already knows who’s done it, and it’s the construction of proof, and the impact of that construction, that creates the drama. Hartland and Roberts in particular criticize the book for missing the sailing of this ship, but I’m not sure they’re appreciating just how Miéville is twining the two types of story, crime and puzzle, together. The “crime” in crime fiction implies laws, which imply a state, which implies borders and jurisdictions; at least in Western societies, a crime carries with it the premonition of alibis, of dueling stories. Miéville, I think, is trying to get at these core elements that define the genre, the mysteries at the heart of crime, and do to this he needs to do a bit of genre archaeology–and to use a dash of fantasy.
If this sounds far-fetched, consider how the language of the story presents a clue that things will be rather meta: crosshatch, equipoise, alterity, interstitial. Unseeing.
2. Unseeing, Unbelieving
The example everybody uses: the way that more economically fortunate people will often unsee the homeless as they pass by. Expanding on this, John Clute in the 2009 Readercon panel mentioned that the rich, the upper class, perpetually unsee the poor as a class: because to see the poor would force the rich to see their complicity in the systems of poverty. That’s true enough, but I’d suggest that–especially for a Marxist like Miéville–there is also a reciprocal unseeing Western society demands of the poor. If poor saw truly, saw fully, the truth would demand revolution. What is false consciousness but a form of unseeing?
There isn’t a judgment passed on unseeing in the novel, however. Miéville is too sympathetic to condemn, too astute an observer of the world. Unseeing is limiting, restricting; it may also be, in at least some cases, necessary. Certainly preferable to many alternatives. The Besźel/Ul Qoma divide is in many ways profoundly silly, yet it does enable two different cultures to survive, two sets of people to peaceably occupy the same space while making different choices. This is in many ways the very ideal that modern multicultural nations strive for. Indeed it gets at the crisis of contemporary society, the conflict between ideals of integration and ideals of pluralism.
The term “unseeing,” though, seems apt to generate misunderstandings. It sounds like magic. I’ve seen readers criticize the book because they can’t believe that people could truly blind themselves to so much of the world around them. What the text shows us, though, is that unseeing is not an act of ignoring based in ignorance or blindness; it is rather based in recognition and understanding. Borlú is constantly seeing Ul Qoma: his unseeing demands that he be able to recognize exactly what he must pretend not to see, as Miéville makes clear right from the start:
An elderly woman was walking slowly away from me in a shambling sway. She turned her head and looked at me. I was struck by her motion, and I met her eyes. I wondered if she wanted to tell me something. In my glance I took in her clothes, her way of walking, of holding herself, and looking.
With a hard start, I realised that she was not on GunterStrász at all, and that I should not have seen her.
Immediately and flustered I looked away, and she did the same, with the same speed. I raised my head, towards an aircraft on its final descent. When after some seconds I looked back up, unnoticing the old woman stepping heavily away…
One indeed suspects that, due to the demands of unseeing, the average citizen of Besźel would know a great deal more about the citizenry of Ul Qoma than the average American knows about our contiguous neighbors. But the seeing of unseeing is not literal sight, but rather acknowledgment and all that goes with it.
Which is not to say that unseeing is completely believable, but that its power as a concept stems from existing just beyond the horizon of belief. It is the summation of much that we have seen before. Consider what we know of how people see, the neurology of how people perceive and can be conditioned to ignore significant elements of the world. Consider the tradition of utopian and dystopian novels, and include in that tradition not just the usual dystopias, but also novels of more utopian social conditioning like Skinner’s Walden Two. Consider the quasi-mystical way people have regarded real-life enforcement organizations such as the KGB: all-seeing, pervasive, prone to making people disappear. Consider the power of Foulcault’s panopticon as a method of enforcement. Consider Václav Havel’s famous essay “The Power of the Powerless,” an explication of the post-totalitarian state that is created by individuals following everyday norms. Consider the way individuals from outside the most privileged groups often find themselves unheard, unseen–consider a novel like Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, a story like James Tiptree Jr.’s “The Women Men Don’t See.”
The beauty of unseeing as a concept, then, is that it captures a certain curve of the world–it is a tangent that approaches that curve. The two may never formally touch, but to read The City & The City is to experience the difference between them becoming smaller. And as the final facet of the novel makes clear, this curve of unseeing describes not only quotidian interactions, but also the larger narratives that we live by.
3. Building a Mystery
In his review of The City & The City, Adam Roberts suggested that the two cities of Besźel and Ul Qoma represented the duality between fiction and the truth of real life. A core problem Roberts had with the novel was that these are two things of different types, not co-equal, and so cannot properly be represented by Besźel and Ul Qoma. But I think it’s fairly clear that this conception of the cities is awry.
The superposition of Besźel and Ul Qoma mirrors the superposition of possible solutions to an unsolved mystery. They are both suspects. Until a mystery is solved, the possible solutions are co-equal inhabitants of the same space in the story. Besźel and Ul Qoma are then both equally fictions, stories: competing, mutually exclusive narratives to describe the past and present of a space. Truth would be the lifting of such narratives. According to the internal metaphysics of the book, then, truth can only be Breach. Consistently in Miéville’s descriptions, Breach is not so much a story as the absence of story:
It was gray, without adornment. [...] Someone stood in the doorway. Light behind him, he was a cutout of darkness, a lack. [...] Their faces were without anything approaching expressions. They looked like people-shaped clay in the moments before God breathed out.
Breach reveals itself as anathema to story in several ways. It has an unparalleled access to raw data, but it cannot make sense of that data, cannot see connections, without Borlú’s assistance. Breach cannot even give a coherent account of itself. There’s a telling narrative shift that occurs whenever it tries to, whereupon Borlú switches from reporting verbatim what those in Breach say to offering his own summary of what was said–his own narrative, because he alone is capable of creating one.
If Breach was not Orciny, what would it be but a mockery of itself, to have let [Orciny's transgressions] go for centuries? That was why my questioner, when he asked me Does Orciny exist?, put it like this, “So, are we at war?”
I’m an avatar of Breach, Ashil said. Where breach has occurred I can do whatever. But he made me run through it a long time. His manner ossified, that opacity, the glimmerlessness of any sense of what he thought—it was hard to tell if he even heard me. He did not argue nor agree. He stood, while I told him what I claimed.
Committing Breach is, to return to the idea of unseeing, to disbelieve a story; it is a literalization of suspension of disbelief, a rejection of a fiction. Breach can go anywhere, see anything, if only it is invoked: you need only speak it. Once you see it, you cannot go back. But on its own Breach is profoundly empty, unable to generate anything new within itself. This is again very much the essence of noir: the sense that if you pull back the skin of the world, the truth is that there’s nothing meaningful there, just amoral systems to maintain the status quo. Breach contains only pale copies of what exists outside it, needing a constant infusion of new blood in order to do its job, to provide solutions, construct stories.
To solve a crime, in other words, is not to choose between truth and fiction. It is to construct an explanatory narrative, to choose between fictions.
Solution-narratives have scope: to present something as a solution is to delineate what we are willing to accept in a solution, how much truth (or at least, explanation) we need. In this case, when Besźel and Ul Qoma are presented as the two initial leads in the case, the suspects, it’s worth remembering that the two are not just cities but also nations; investigations bring us a further suspect, Orciny, also (potentially, in some narratives) a nation. But like many good mysteries, the suspect most responsible for the crime turns out to be the one that was mentioned briefly and seemingly inconsequentially early in the story, the one that we may have even forgotten was present: the United States.
It is mete that Miéville’s crime novel operates at this level of nations, because the notion of crime is tied up in nations. Crimes are violations of laws; laws are enacted by nations. And nations, in turn, are based on narratives of justice. Nations are fictions that are, as Borlú says, “the skin that keeps law in place.” This gets at one of the thorny issues with crime, of causes. Causes often lie as far back in the past as we’re willing to look; they often do expand to the level of nations, cultures, social systems (one suspects religion, implausibly minimized in both cities, is so because it operates in parallel on the same principles). At a certain point we always have to accept that there are causal elements we won’t be able to know.
There’s a great deal of clever paralleling throughout The City & The City between the old-school puzzle of the cities, that is operating at this meta level of nations and concepts, and the investigation of Mahalia’s murder that’s representative of street-level crime noir. The excavations, of course, the digging into the past; more subtly, the linkage of the individual members of the nationalist groups of both cities as suspects, or the fact that Bowden commits the murder because of a story of a city, a nation, Orciny. There’s again the realization that noir is a mirroring of character and environment. And there’s the overall movement of the methodologies employed as we progress in the book from the classic procedural tone of Borlú’s initial investigations in Besźel, which wouldn’t have felt out of place in a crime novel from the 1930s, through to Breach’s system of networks and surveillance and informers, the technolologizing of the apparatus of truth, the new crime fiction. (My crime fiction guru and colleague in genrethink, Brian Lindenmuth of Spinetingler Magazine, mentioned to me that he experienced the movement to Ul Qoma and the character of Dhatt as an intermediary step in this metahistory of crime fiction, albeit one he was disinclined to credit as consciously intended on Miéville’s behalf.)
An interesting question to ask, given all this, is when exactly do we consider the mystery to be solved? I would posit that for most readers it will be when Borlú apprehends Bowden, a type of final confrontation ubiquitous within the mystery genre. Here is Borlú speaking to Bowden:
“You told Mahalia she was the only one you’d tell the truth. That when you turned your back on your book, that was just you playing politics? Or did you tell her it was cowardice? That would be pretty winning. I bet you did that.” I approached him. His expression shifted. “‘It’s my shame, Mahalia, the pressure was too much. You’re braver than me, keep on; you’re so close, you’ll find it…’ Your shit messed up your whole career, and you can’t have that time back. So the next best thing, make it have been true all along.
“Did she think you were fooled too? Or did she realise you were behind it? [...] I think she didn’t know. It wasn’t her character to taunt you. I think she thought she was protecting you. I think she arranged to meet you, to protect you.”
What’s fascinating is that here Borlú is again called upon to be a storyteller. Bowden barely says a word, remains equivocal–and so we don’t even know if the story Borlú tells is true. But we accept it as truth, as a solution, because it looks like what we expect a solution to look like. To solve a mystery, even the truth needs a story. Which is why Breach needs Borlú. And Borlú, having seen, can no longer unsee. He is indeed no longer Tyador Borlú, as an avatar of Breach he becomes simply Tye. And I wonder (even though the pronunciation is probably not right) if this isn’t another of the kind of pun that Miéville seems to relish: Borlú is now the Tye that binds the two cities together, and also the Tye that denies ultimate victory to either.
In having Borlú become this avatar of Breach, Miéville achieves a final synthesis of noir and fantasy that makes a worthy finale to the novel’s conceptual fireworks. Borlú has been reduced; he has lost his name, his personhood, become subsumed as an enforcer of the system. This is the very essence of the tragic inevitability of noir. And in the grammar of fantasy, Borlú’s transformation into an avatar is also a movement of becoming. Borlú is moving towards a doppelganger of the fullness of view that the equivocations of his character always strained towards, a sense of his place in the fictional sense–acknowledgment that he is a participant in, and engulfed by, narrative. By the book’s end, the fantasy and the noir have fused into the same understanding. At the very point Borlú is reduced to an avatar within the story, he solidifies into what he always was to the reader outside the story.