Friday, November 8, 2013

The Garden of the Mind: The City & The City by China Mieville

            We don't know who he is, this author with the unusual first name. The paperback edition of his mysteriously wonderful book, "The City & The City," contains no author information whatsoever. Our daughter has recommended this book. It's reputed to be on the boundaries of the real and the surreal, a murder mystery and a fantasy. It slips in its alternative-reality premise carefully, along with a murder here and the usual bureaucratic police context.
            "I unsee them," the narrator says a few pages into the story. An expression? A neologism? A peculiarity of language -- part of the city argot? Our narrator's city is called Beszel. The place has an Eastern European feel to it. Something about the undramatic pessimism of the citizens says Balkans. The narrator makes a reference to Turkey as some other place, not this one. Beszel the city is not a disguised portrait of a real place, but a qualitatively different sort of place.
            It is different because it shares something with a neighboring city, named Ul Qoma. Perhaps the tone there is slightly Middle Eastern or Asian, maybe even similar to one of the Asian tigers since its economy is more prosperous, attracting foreign investment; its architecture newer, more contemporary, lighted by whatever comes after neon.
            What these two cities share is the same space.
            To live in the one, or the other, of these Siamese-twin cities, you must be able to "unsee" whatever place or person does not belong to your city, even if it's in front of your eyes as it often is. To fail to do so is to "breach." And if you are caught, the shadowy super-agents of an uber-authority called by the same name, Breach, comes after you. You disappear.
            So the novel,on the philosophical level, is a parable.  Our world is determined, it suggests, by what we choose to "see" and what we choose not to see. In fact, it might be argued, all our cities, our places of human habitation, are as many different places as the number of their inhabitants. We make our "city" up for ourselves. A house, or building, with people we don't know? We don't see them. We coexist on subways by not looking too closely at strangers. We pass by one another on the sidewalks in silence. We avoid the places some of the "others" seek out, because they are others and we are more comfortable with "us."
            "The City & The City" imagines a rationalization of this mindset. It makes an authoritarian, bureaucratic, legalistic polis from these aspects of living in our own "real" worlds. The book's two cities each train their citizens how to behave and how to unsee. In this respect, the book is an inspired work of speculative fiction.
            Mieville's novel has a mystery plot, a crime to solve. It's also a procedural of law enforcement within these cities' fantastic premise. Assassins strike. International corporations are powerful and shadowy. The cops don't always know who to trust.
            But it's Mieville's brilliant conception of two separate states, one space, and the rules everyone is willing to follow to preserve their status quo that seizes our imagination and feeds it to the end of the journey -- and keeps this book in our thoughts after we put it down.