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!


R said...

Read this thanks to your recommendation -- very cool, very impressive, just as you said! I was really interested in the idea of unseeing -- how we do this in our own cities. When I lived in Manhattan, it was the same kind of division, only between classes -- what do we do so often, after all, but unsee the homeless? I also think that in some ways we have an analogous situation with race.

As with all really good books, I found myself thinking like the characters a little, and once or twice I caught myself wondering if I should be unseeing a car, or a building, or worried about Breach :)

Thanks for the recommendation -- I'm moving on to another you recommended soon (Big Little)

Selena said...

I'm glad you enjoyed it too. I want to read more of his. I can't decide whether to go to the brand new one (Kraken) or go back a bit. Perdido Street Station looks good too.

Good points about our ways of "unseeing" what we don't feel comfortable with -- that's certainly true.