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Publisher: Bluejack

April, 2009 : Review:

Metropolis Squared

A Review of The City & The City by China Miéville

Let's get it out of the way up front: in a violent, unexpected break from his past work, there are no monsters in China Miéville's new novel.

Not even one.

The City & The City is a police procedural set (roughly) in our present day. Though it takes place in two fictional city-states, we're never invited to understand the book as a piece of alternate history; rather, the Central European sister-metropolises Besźel and Ul Qoma are the sort of tiny states about which a Westerner might well have managed lifelong ignorance. I hesitate to spoil the central conceit—Miéville controls and massages our confusion masterfully—but I will say that certain leftist groups in both places (illegally) consider the two cities one.

The chief sense in which the novel is not a departure for Miéville is relatively obvious: here, as always, milieu is king. In this regard, The City & The City is perhaps his strongest work yet: real-world constraints do not allow him to substitute world-building for building a sense of place. Though the flavors of Besźel and Ul Qoma are informed by certain generalities of their larger European context, the cities never feel like jury-rigged composites or stand-ins for other countries. The characters themselves push back against reductive analogy:

"I was young. I was at a conference. 'Policing Split Cities.' They had sessions on Budapest and Jerusalem and Berlin, and Besźel and Ul Qoma."


"I know, I know. That's what we said at the time. Totally missing the point" (74).

The story that unfolds here is a fairly traditional murder mystery. The Besźel policzai find the body of a young foreign woman in a run-down skate park. In due course, Inspector Tyador Borlú's earnest but routine investigation begins to suggest that someone has broken the law which precedes all laws in Besźel and Ul Qoma—the law which makes the cities possible. To say anything more about the plot would be a disservice, but it is an exceptionally well-crafted procedural, compelling from first to last page, and as a mystery it plays fair. The conclusion is entirely satisfying. Borlú, our narrator, is a likable, refreshingly everyday protagonist. He lacks outlandish quirks or traumatic histories. He is competent (though not hypercompetent), a good guy—the sort of cop you'd want on your case whether you were victim or accused.

The publisher advances Chuck Palahniuk and Dashiell Hammett as touchstones for the book, but those comparisons don't quite resonate—there's no acerbic verve here, no gleeful iconoclasm. The tone is instead one of tired and dutiful pursuit. To my mind, The City & The City's nearest antecedent is something by Orhan Pamuk: The Black Book, maybe, or Snow. It reminds me a bit of Murakami as well, with its search for answers in a landscape of surreal or unfamiliar rules.

Miéville never plays his conceit for laughs, but absurdities arise from it. Borlú and his colleagues make dry, weary jokes as often as one would expect from human beings, without ever lapsing into machismo or noir cliché. Similarly, the prose is lovely but does not swagger. Miéville retains his love for puns and neologisms: a black-and-blue Besź police car is a "bruise." The Ul Qoman equivalent of a Besź city block is its "topolganger." Relative to his past work, the language is crisp and declarative, though now and then something in the rhythm or word order of a sentence forced me to read it twice. Take this passage:

She had not even had a photograph on that earlier expedition. That early it had been aboveboard contacts: it had been liquor-store clerks; the priests of squat local churches, some the last of the worker-priests, brave old men tattooed with the sickle-and-rood on their biceps and forearms, on the shelves behind them Besź translations of Gutiérrez, Rauschenbusch, Canaan Banana. It has been stoop-sitters. All Corwi had been able to do was ask what they could tell her about events in Pocost Village. They had heard about the murder but knew nothing (18).

Taken alone, several of these clauses are rather ugly; read all at once, there is a cumulative poetry to the passage. While there are phrases of plain-and-simple awkwardness in the book, the accumulation of prosal idiosyncrasies begins to suggest subtle, distinctive cadences to Besź and its Ul Qoman counterpart, Illitan. If that effect is intended (it may be merely a symptom of Miéville's style), it is appreciably nuanced, suggesting non-Anglophone rhythms without exoticizing.

Also appreciably nuanced: the novel's politics. The City & The City speaks to Miéville's academic interest in international law much more directly than his past works; I'd love to see an in-depth essay reading the novel in light of Between Equal Rights. In spite of the real-world setting, the political subject matter, and back cover reference to 1984, the book isn't didactic in the least. Right-wingers will not read and dismiss it as a left-wing screed. It seems to me that the author is more interested in prodding the deep structures of law than excoriating his fictional rightists, leftists, or governors. There are systemic terrors in Besźel and Ul Qoma, without question, but this isn't a dystopian novel; the two cities aren't nightmare states, but respectfully imagined places in which the variform forces of national difference articulate themselves in unfamiliar, mind-bending ways.

A vocal minority of Miéville's current fanbase will react to his new offering with something less than enthusiasm. By and large, The City & The City won't tax or even tap your internal SFX budget, and though it certainly qualifies as speculative fiction—Besźel and Ul Qoma are incredible inventions—at no point is the impossible performed. Those for whom the monsters and gonzo world-building of Bas-Lag are sine qua non may want to read a chapter or two in the bookstore before spending hardcover money; the rest of Miéville's fans, however, and lovers of spec-fic/mystery, will find The City & The City thoughtful, compelling, and fresh. If properly marketed, the book is likely to earn its author an entirely new segment of readers whose tastes run more to the mainstream or literary.

And when those newcomers pick up his back catalog, perhaps they'll fall in love with the monsters.

Copyright © 2009, Eric M. Gregory. All Rights Reserved.

About Eric Gregory

My fiction has appeared (or is forthcoming) in Interzone, Black Static, Outshine, Sybil's Garage, and LCRW. I live in southwest Virginia with my wife and an aggressively affectionate cat.


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