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The City & The City is a missed opportunity [spoilers]

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message 1: by Lepton (last edited Sep 07, 2010 08:35PM) (new)

Lepton | 176 comments The City & The City by China Miéville The City & The City

Being totally unfamiliar with Mieville's other works and the content of The City & the City, I decided to dive in based on the awarding of the Hugo for best novel.

Upon encountering what seemed to be some very postmodern notions of divisions, transgressions and boundaries and some very direct pointers to current and historical locations divided by political and ethnic ideologies, I settled in for some heady and abstract storytelling. What I found however was a squandered opportunity to explore these issues and subjects in favor of a somewhat gritty detective story. These missed opportunities take the form of Unseeing, Breach, and the Divided City.

From the beginning of the novel we are at odds to determine whether the Unseeing and the existence of the two cities or nations is something more akin to parallel universes, quantum realities and such or something more grounded in reality as a mere social convention. This for me formed an essential mystery that I had hoped might not be resolved but explored and played with within the range of these possibilities. However, within the first few chapters we learn that Unseeing is merely a social construct, a way of acting and behaving that must be taught to children.

The idea that this way of being and seeing is merely an ingrained way of behaving and not a more fundamental existential and psychological condition is born out when Inspector Tyador Borlú must transgress the boundary to the other city to continue his investigation. He characterizes the efforts of the Ul Qoma to transform his way of seeing so that he may see Ul Qoma to avoid "Breaching" as childish and insulting, and of course, unnecessary.

Mieville strips away what could have continued to be a mystery and a space to explore in favor of a very narrow, very physical explanation. By making the notion of Unseeing and likelihood of incidental Breach so ordinary, he squanders the opportunity to have his characters discover or explore the basis of the division of the cities and of Unseeing, and for himself as the author to explore the nature of this division, be it social, psychological, physical, and/or ideological, and of division itself.

Breach is a numinous mystery whose power preserves, adjudicates, and maintains division. That the agency of this power is later physically manifested in the form of an Avatar that carries mere technological implements was deeply disappointing. For most of the novel, the relatively abstract nature of Breach provides a fertile ground for thinking about the nature of transgression. The physical manifestation of Breach removes these possibilities in favor of some mere technological and "alien" authority.

The text also suggests a more political interpretation of the idea of Breach as interceding and controlling authority. The political powers of the two city nations bristle at the suggestion that the murder investigation be turned over to Breach, characterizing Breach, as a foreign power. The parallels in The City and the City to politically and ideologically divided locations such as Berlin, Bosnia/Herzegovina, Srebrenica, Jerusalem, and Palestine led me to see Breach not only as some force beyond normal reality but also as an indication of the external political forces that reinforce division amongst peoples.

By giving such an ordinary manifestation to Breach, Mieville squanders all the mysterious cache he builds up in favor of supermen, of avatars, of a science fiction cliche.

The Divided City:
The tangible connections that Mieville intends for the reader to make between this divided city and its real world counterparts adds gravity and sense of relevance to the entire proceedings. The people of Besźel and Ul Qoma would seem to be none other than the Serbs and Croats right down to one people's use of Roman and the other's of Cyrillic alphabets. The setting is Balkan to be sure. Yet, Mieville allows in his Berlin, in his Jerusalem, absolutely no tangible consequences of this division to these divided people. This divided city is post-conflict, post-industrial, post-consequences, where an all powerful authority maintains division and the only consequence is for the individual who Breaches. Yet in these real world counterparts people do indeed suffer. There is conflict. There is suffering. There is death. And no convenient super-authority to keep the peace.

Mieville cashes in on the political weight of these real divided locations of suffering to add gravitas to a division without difference, without consequence. The economic fates of one city/nation or another is passed off as mere history or ebb and flow/rise and fall. The ideological differences are couched in mere amorphous terms of authoritarianism vs social democracy with one being hard to tell from another. Or the divisions are of the variety of mildly religious vs secular. There is none of the weight, none of the consequence of the real, thorough and abiding economic, social, ideological, and religious divisions that Mieville seems to want the reader to find within the story of these two city nations.

Here again, Mieville squanders the opportunity to ground this division in something tangible and to explore this space where division and transgression intersect in suffering and death. The division between these two peoples is bloodless and is mediated by an authority outside themselves which denies them any accountability for that division and for maintaining that division. There are no real consequences for these people other than a denial of the existence of the other, whereas the consequences of the divided city and the divided nation in our own world are real, are deadly, and are within our own responsibility to overcome.

While there was much that I did enjoy about The City and the City, I had entirely different expectations of the subject matter than what Mieville had intended. That he chose to eschew these much larger and difficult issues and to tell what seemed to be a less than complicated detective story full of hard-bitten, swearing gumshoes interrogating hapless twenty somethings and ideological idiots with a touch of "Dan Brownian" intrigue in the form of Orciny was wholly disappointing. I enjoyed the prose. The concepts were interesting but unexplored. And the opportunity squandered.

message 2: by Paul (new)

Paul (paulcavanaugh) | 51 comments Hey Lepton, it is too late on the start of a weekend to do justice to your well thought out comments (and read into that what you will -- mainly the "start of the weekend").
First, I enjoyed your analysis. Trenchant. In many ways on the mark... Nevertheless...

Second, I don't agree. Or, rather, I do agree, but I think the "ordinariness" is precisely the point. Mieville's refusal (reluctance?) to explain and analyze, to preach, I found to be an essential aspect of the text. To analyze the reality, to explore the pathology of it, would be to destroy the underlying horror and dissonance. Sort of Heidegger's "uncanny" -- once we think we understand the reality of it, the etiology of the unseeing and the breach, then we can imagine ourselves "at home" with that reality, we can control it, we can be comfortable with it. But we need to see our own "un-at-home-ness" to recognize that we are, in many ways, ourselves unseeing.
If he had delved deeper into the cities, then we could easily say to ourselves, "oh, we're not like those strange people at all." But since he doesn't, since he leaves everything at the level of the completely ordinary, it seems to be a deeper criticism of contemporary society. We can't say, "See, that xyz event never happened here, so we're not like he two cities at all."
I found myself thinking all the way through the book about how much unseeing I did in my everyday life. So, squandered? Or avoided?
Anyway, agree or disagree, thanks for your analysis. Be interested to see what you think about Perdido Street Station if you read it.

message 3: by Rick (new)

Rick Pasley (hikr3) | 71 comments I have to agree with Paul. While I first expected something akin to the division of Berlin, something fierce and bloody, the farther I read the more I felt I lived in a world very much like Ul Qoma/Beszel. I thought about the men and women living on the fringes of society within my own small town and how their city and mine are completely seperate entities. Of how I "unsee" them as I jog the path through the park.
Lepton's critisisms are accurate, but I don't think Mieville wanted to tell that story. I think his choices of the mundane were intentional and lead me to feel more grounded within this story, thereby leading me to more introspection of how I live than the more high-minded approach Lepton suggests would have.
In the end, The City and the City left me feeling awed by the utterly unbelievable and yet very real feeling world Mieville created. It made me think about my own existance, and therefore was a complete success in my eyes. And yes, thank you very much for your analysis, Lepton. From time to time it is good to see the other side of the city, as it were.

message 4: by Amy (new)

Amy Pilkington | 104 comments It's too early to think things through in depth, but I will say I both enjoyed the book and was slightly disappointed. The ideas and the cities were great, but I guessed the identity of the killer early-on, which killed some of the plot suspense. The hows and whys were still cool, but the ultimate twist was killed for me. I also found that it hit a lull around 70% for me and didn't pick up again until I got close to 90%. I didn't find any of the characters compelling though, so it may have been that. I'm more of a character-first girl, so books that center more around there ideas often slow a bit for me.

message 5: by Debra (new)

Debra | 1 comments I think the mundaneness of Breach was done well--ordinary guys who got themselves into a situation (a breach) and had no way to return to "normal". I liked the sense that there was no "force beyond normal reality" but only people trying to deal with what they'd been dealt.

I saw the cities as a metaphor for a situation in which neither side can win, so they agree to disagree, with all the requisite fictions thrown in to maintain the status quo and keep the peace. The breachers, when forced to deal with the truth, may have chosen to play their part in maintaining the fiction so as to maintain the detente.

So, what fictions do we, ourselves, foster and promote in order to keep the peace?

message 6: by Lepton (new)

Lepton | 176 comments To clarify some of my overblown language and get down to brass tacks, here is what bothers me about the novel.

Mieville uses language and concepts that invoke a larger, more mysterious, and more numinous reality than is borne out in the actual facts of the world he has created.

Mieville sets up these grand notions of Unseeing, Breach, and the Divided City. Text and language are deployed to imbue these ideas with a meaning that is supposed to give the novel its weight and its power as the story itself is not compelling in the slightest (it's a murder mystery), but that mystery and power is dispelled by being grounded in very ordinary and very physical explanations.

Or conversely, where Mieville would seem to reference powerful notions from our own world and history, that of the Divided City, he simultaneously drains all power away from this metaphor by undoing and minimalizing the very real physical, historical, and ideological divides that create broken nations, broken cities, and broken peoples.

In both of these interconnected areas, Mieville hasn't earned the right to invoke these grand notions when he refuses to honor the meaning and gravity that he intends the reader to take from them.

My problem essentially is that the novel is not internally consistent, amongst other things.

message 7: by P. Aaron (new)

P. Aaron Potter (paaronpotter) | 585 comments Lepton, thank you for the review. I'd been considering the book for the same reason you had, but my limited exposure to Mieville's work in the past had made me a bit leery. I don't feel qualified to comment on his work as a whole, but it certainly sounds like this may not be his best work, based on reviews here and elsewhere, Hugo or no Hugo.

Can a fan suggest a work that maybe is a better introduction to why the man has come to be so popular?

message 8: by Rick (new)

Rick Pasley (hikr3) | 71 comments I started with Un-Lun-Dun, his YA book from a few years ago and was entranced with the world he built. Perdido Street left me a little flat, but again the world is the true star of the story. I liked City and the City but didn't think it was his best work either. I do find his work compelling enough to bring me back again and again, but it certainly isn't without fault.

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