The City & The City

Before proceeding with this review, take a small quiz, if you would. Please link each of the two passages below with its correct source.

1) “We are all philosophers where I am, and we debate among many other things the question of where it is that we live?. I live in the interstice?.”

2) “?already exist. We have pretty much always existed. But the growing Balkanization?is making it expedient — more than that, vital — for us to draw attention to ourselves. Those of us on side of the border are not slipping through the cracks any more. We’re falling into them and disappearing.”

Your choices for the sources are:

A) Delia Sherman’s essay, “An Introduction to Interstitial Arts: Life on the Border.”

B) China Miéville’s new novel, The City & the City.

If you guessed 1-B and 2-A, good for you! You’re obviously already hip to new movements in the literature of the fantastic, and have spotted the fact that Miéville’s sixth novel functions (in a secondary, distinctly subtextual way) as a manifesto about — and exemplum of — interstitial, or “slipstream,” fiction.

We’ll take a look at that aspect of the book at the end, however, after we examine its pure narrative and imaginative triumphs — paramount virtues which are all that really matter to the average, story-loving reader, and without which no amount of clever allegory would carry the book.

* * *

The City & the City is a standalone tale, set outside the cosmos for which Miéville has received the most acclaim, his Bas-Lag universe. This earlier series illustrated — and in fact pretty much defined — the type of fiction known as “New Weird,” a subgenre we looked at here some time ago.

Noted for its sense of radical estrangement and in-your-face bizarreness, the New Weird always faces a couple of hurdles in its conquest of the reader. First, too much oddity begins, paradoxically, to pall and seem stale. When all is fantastic, nothing is. Secondly, each bit of outrageousness demands to be topped, resulting in fiction that gets progressively louder and louder, within each book and from book to book inside the genre.

Interstitial fiction, however, salts naturalism and verisimilitude with a calculated and unpredictable leavening of the unreal, producing a continually oscillating mix of homey and alien that is more subtle and insidious. (But which also risks seeming wan and twee at its worst.)

Luckily for the reader, Miéville’s previous experience with the rigorous and exacting brutalism of the New Weird allows him to keep a steady hand on his interstital tiller, so that he steers an undeviating course between the comfortingly familiar and the upsettingly strange.

The City & the City starts out as a Ruritanian police procedural (cue Avram Davidson’s The Adventures of Doctor Eszterhazy). Somewhere in Middle Europe lies the city-state of Besźel — naturally not to be found on any map in your conventional atlas, although Besźel slots neatly into contemporary global affairs. Van Morrison made a tour not long ago, after all, and Canada and the USA send foreign aid and investors.

In these vividly echt-Mitteleuropan streets, we encounter our narrator and protagonist, Inspector Tyador Borlú of the Extreme Crime Squad. His current case: the murder of an unidentified young woman, with the help of his assistant, the spunky and occasionally abrasive and foul-mouthed Lizbyet Corwi. (Curiously enough, the affectionately thorny relationship between the two cops recalls that between Christian Walker and Deena Pilgrim, in Brian Bendis’s Powers graphic novels, another interstitial outing.) Borlú ‘s investigation faces the standard hurdles: uncooperative witnesses; false leads; pigheaded bureaucrats and unsympathetic superiors; dangerous perps; nutcases and flakes; the Inspector’s own conflicted emotions. As police procedurals go, Miéville’s venture is competent and engaging, but unexceptional.

But gradually, through subtle contextual allusions — avoiding entirely the dreaded authorial info-dump — the essential fantastical nature of the venue begins to assume coherent, startling and dominating shape.

Besźel is overlaid in enigmatic, never-fully-explicated fashion by a sister-state, Ul Qoma, which possesses a distinctly different cultural and political setup. At some point millennia ago, the two states were one. But then came the inexplicable Cleavage, a climacteric both physical and mental. Ever since, the citizens of each “overlapping magisterium” (to contort Stephen Jay Gould’s famous phrase about the separation of science and religion) are prohibited from interacting on a daily basis, even in the slightest fashion. From earliest youth, individuals in Besźel are taught to “unsee” any parallel structures and events and people in Ul Qoma. The citizens of Ul Qoma do likewise. Any accidental or deliberate interaction between the two realms is deemed “breach,” and is punished severely by the near-omnipotent agency of that same name.

And as Borlú gets deeper into his investigation, which involves officially sanctioned travel to Ul Qoma, he finds that the woman’s death threatens the entire ontological and epistemological underpinnings of the ancient system, and also risks bringing Breach down upon his head. Central to the mystery is an apocryphal third city, Orciny, which mythically lives in the interstices between Besźel and Ul Qoam.

Once the whole apparatus is made sufficiently comprehensible (although surprises continue to erupt right up till the end), Miéville juggles both the police procedural aspects and the fantastical aspects of his hybrid narrative with a deft vigor. Borlú’s consciousness, steeped in this odd tradition of irritably tolerated self-hypnosis and self-deception, becomes as intimately familiar to the reader as his own, and serves as our passport to this strange realm. At the same time, the quotidian details of Borlú’s work and life serve as a mimetic anchor to the reader.

In evoking this alien yet human mentality through sheer immersion, Miéville follows in the footsteps of such science-fictional greats as Robert Silverberg (A Time of Changes); Gene Wolfe (The Book of the New Sun); Samuel Delany (the Return to Nevèrÿ on quartet); and Jeffrey Ford (the Well-Built City trilogy).

His deliberate employment of the twinned cities as a multivalent allegory for almost any polarity the reader cares to name — East & West; Muslim & Christian; religion & science; socialism & capitalism; feeling & logic; tradition & modernity — resonates with such metaphysically surreal and satirical authors as William Burroughs, Zoran Živković and Rupert Thomson, specifically the latter’s Divided Kingdom. And Miéville’s Phildickian messing with perceptions adds yet another layer to the cake.

To compact all this harmoniously into a single book, eschewing purity of any one genre, is the ambitious gameplan of interstitial fiction in general. Given Miéville’s role as a bold and inspirational bellwether in the field, his tacit endorsement of this mode, championed by Delia Sherman et al, is an intriguing move in both his personal career and the development of the field.

But note the harsh lessons for would-be authors of such genre-crossing books conveyed by the subtext. Borlú experiences lack of support and comprehension from everyone around him, battles those who would deny his synthesis or his very right to propose such a merger, and in effect is completely broken down and deracinated before achieving his final transformation.

Whew! That’s a heavy cross for any interstial aspirant to carry. But Miéville makes it all look as easy — and as dangerous — as committing breach.