Monday, May 31, 2010

China Mieville: The City and the City

One nice thing about the Memorial Day long weekend is that it allowed me to finish The City and the City that I bought last week. While I used to plough through books in two or three days on a regular basis, I don't generally have that kind of time any more. I read it rather compulsively, and it leaves me feeling irrationally guilty that I haven't discovered this author earlier.

Mieville gets stuck in the genre fiction ghetto because he writes in the sci-fi/fantasy realm; in fact, he has won the U.K.'s Arthur C. Clarke Award for best science fiction three times, which I believe is a record. But I wonder how it is that he's not being at least long-listed for Booker Prizes and the other premiere literature prizes?

I'm sure I've never read anything quite like The City and the City. That someone could conceive of such an intricate, psychologically and philosophically rich world, and then set a first-rate mystery-thriller into it leaves me rather slack-jawed. Is there such a genre as the existentialist noir crime novel of ideas?

I'm going to give you a little summary, but I'm telling you right now, it's not going to do it justice. Somewhere in contemporary Eastern Europe, two city-states border one another -- Beszel and Ul Qoma. The first person narrator is a career detective in Beszel, Tyador Borlu, of the Extreme Crime Squad. The story kicks off as he investigates the murder of a young woman, her body dumped at the edge of a skate park. Soon after he realizes that the crime involves not only Beszel, but it's foreign neighbor Ul Qoma, the stakes are raised considerably and a wider, shadier, conspiracy becomes apparent. Just why the conjunction of Beszel and Ul Qoma complicates Borlu's investigation so dramatically is something that you have to read the novel to understand.

The shadowy organization called Breach, which exists as a dark, all-seeing Big Brother agency somewhere between the two cities, finds and fixes "breachers"on both sides of the cities' borders. The powers of Breach are unknowable; but the rules it polices are rigid. It is one of the creepiest, coolest, fictional constructions that I've ever come across.

Mieville himself is an interesting dude, to say the least. Born in London, he has a degree in social anthropology from Cambridge, a Ph.D. in International Law from the London School of Economics, and also held a fellowship from Harvard. He's a Marxist who, as a member of the British Socialist Workers Party, unsuccessfully ran for a seat in the House of Commons in 2001. He's written six previous novels or novellas and he's only 38-years old -- one of those ridiculously talented upstarts that I seem to be running across more and more lately. Seriously, what's wrong with this younger generation?

As I've started to contemplate the rest of my annual summer reading list, I would definitely recommend this novel (just out in trade paper) to put at the top of yours. I'd love to hear what others think of this one. Mieville has a new novel coming out this month, but I'd like to go backwards and read some of his other books. He has stated that his goal is to write a novel in every genre. Of course!

Monday, May 24, 2010

Michael Chabon's Maps and Legends

It's been almost two months since I've posted here. Spring always sneaks up on me -- all of a sudden, I have yard and garden work again, Derby festivities, and this year, I also picked up some fun side-work writing about live music for Since April, I've been going to more shows, doing interviews with artists, and writing reviews, and I'm still getting used to the new schedule.

It has definitely cut down on my time with other things, although I did manage to follow up Romola with reading Ross King's history of the building of Brunelleschi's Dome, an architectural marvel which looms, literally and figuratively, over much of the history of Florence where Romola is set. I learned a little bit about architecture, and it included some great character studies of Brunelleschi and his artistic rivals. Anyone with an engineering bent of mind would probably enjoy reading about the practical challenges of building such an immense dome, the innovations it required, and the machines that had to be created just to hoist all that material up to the workers.

Right now, I'm reading the essays in Chabon's Maps and Legends, a witty, fun, and very illuminating collection about the act of writing, of reading, and of what fires the imagination. He pays close attention to the subject of "serious" literature as opposed to writing for mere "entertainment." By way of making his case for fiction that is both, he uses Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories as an example, and argues against the rather patronizing attitude of critics, not to mention some readers and writers, toward fiction that gets labeled as genre writing for "entertainment" purposes -- mysteries, fantasy, adventure, and science-fiction.

I loved his essay on The Road by Cormac McCarthy, another example that he uses to extend his argument of serious vs. genre fiction. He posits that The Road is "allowed" into the serious literary fiction club, even though it treats a "fantasy" post-apocalyptic world, peopled by near-mythical figures, because McCarthy is already established as a literary writer and his speculative world hews close to accepted forms: "For the post-apocalyptic is also a mode into which mainstream readers may venture without risking the stain of geekdom."
The status of relative legitimacy enjoyed by the literature of global disaster may in part result from the fig leaf that a satirical or religious purpose provides, and from the congeniality to conventional realism of a world without supercomputers, starships, or eight-foot feline warriors from the planet Kzin.
Chabon obviously is not afraid of the stain of geekdom, as he spends quite a bit of time on comic books and what they have meant to him as a writer. One reason that I'm drawn to him is that he is able to put into just the right words, a lot of what I feel about the reading and writing of books. Of course, he goes the extra step of actually putting those thoughts into practice by writing brilliant, entertaining fictions.