Review: The City and the City

Is it more childish and foolish to insist that there is a conspiracy or that there is not?”

China Mieville

China-Mieville-The-City-The-City-671x1024There are a lot of critics out there claiming that The City and the City is Mieville’s best work.

Which, frankly, worries me a little. Am I missing something?

It’s a noirish detective novel set in a very strange city – a city which is two cities, in fact. Beszel and Ul Qoma occupy the same physical space, intruding into each other so that some streets are in both cities and others only in one. But they are very definitely separate: citizens of one resolutely ignore those of the other, and to do otherwise is to risk calling down the mysterious and unaccountable power of Breach. Inspector Tyador of the Beszel police is called to the murder of a girl in his own city; his investigations lead him to an archaeological dig in Ul Qoma, forcing him to cross into that rival city (via official immigration channels, of course) and dig up old conspiracy theories.

Of course, the concept of The City and the City is ridiculous – it’s hard even to imagine how such a system might have grown up – but, as always, Mieville is one step ahead of us. We’re meant to find it ridiculous that the inhabitants of an entire city spend their whole lives “unseeing” their next door neighbours – until we realise that we, urban dwellers that we are, almost certainly do the exact same thing all the time. How many times have you sat on a busy train and pointedly ignored the person sitting next to you? Mieville’s simply heightening this phenomenon, taking it to its logical extreme.

The novel, then, feels partly like a study in urban alienation. It’s interesting that Mieville uses the noir genre to feed this little nightmare: noir is, after all, about the unknowability, the darkness, of cities, about the people who fall through the cracks. And the cracks in the city here are very literal ones: disputed areas that belong to neither city, or both, areas around which conspiracy and rumour are rife. The novel delves into those cracks before bringing us safely back out again (as the detective story always does), allowing law and order to reassert itself.

But what does that powerfully reassuring, familiar structure do to the absurdity inherent in Mieville’s premise? That noir narrative is all about reinforcing the status quo, but the novel’s status quo is that profoundly alienating vision of two cities refusing to coexist. It’s a clever and subversive move that demonstrates Mieville’s sensitivity to genre matters, but it’s also a statement about the human need for boundaries, about our ability to live with absurdity because we find it safe.

Which is all very clever and very fun to think about (OK, my definition of “fun” may be different from yours), but The City and the City is not exactly gripping. Like Kraken, its cleverness feels self-involved and myopic – which is not to say that The City and the City is boring, precisely, as Kraken was. Mieville’s writing is engaging and truthful, but the narrative feels meandering and irrelevant. It’s a book that plays with ideas, not one which engages and grabs; not a bad read, but not one of my favourites either.

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