The Book Group and The City and the City

China Miéville, The City and the City (Macmillan 2009)

Before the Book Group meets:
We decided to read some science fiction. Rather than opting for someone’s idea of a classic (Asimov, Heinlein, early Gibson or Stephenson) we decided to pick something current. I’d loved China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station and heard interesting things about The City and the City – among other things it had been nominated for a Hugo [and now has tied with Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl for Best Novel]. I suggested we take it on, and the suggestion carried the day.

So I was suffering a mild case suggester’s anxiety when I started reading. What response would the book get from Groupers who’ve read even less science fiction than I have? Would the meticulous world-building strike them as so much tedious scenery-painting? Would they see the elegant police procedural plot as something from a by-the-numbers TV show, the characters as two-dimensional, the tantalising central conceit the equivalent of a one-joke comedy? I’m pleased to report that after a while I stopped caring and was absorbed in the book’s world and its story.

The City and the City is hard to write about because it really is an extended exploration of a single conceit. I would infinitely prefer to have had it revealed  to me by the narrative itself, and don’t want to have a hand in spoiling it for anyone else. In a Book Show interview, Miéville went as far as saying that the story is set in two cities that share an unusual relationship to each other, which is true but doesn’t give anything away. Not until the end of the first chapter is there any hint that the world, or at least the cities, of the book are in some sense science fictional/fantastic. I would love to know how a reader who wasn’t forewarned would understand that first jarring moment, and how long it would take to grasp the full situation. Of course, in one sense, the full situation isn’t clear until the very last pages: as in Kafka and Raymond Chandler, to whom Miéville acknowledges indebtedness, the narrative at one level concerns itself with solving a single crime, but it also unfolds the deeper political realities of the world of the novel.

Pushing the spoiler envelope just a little, I had an insight into the book when out walking recently with the Art-Student. As we approached a small group boys riding their scooters in the street, one of the boys momentarily lost control and wheeled directly into our path. He pulled up short and called over his shoulder to his friends, ‘I’ll try that again.’ He had carefully avoided hitting us, but otherwise acted as if we dog-walking old people weren’t even there. He had ‘unseen’ us. Then I remembered noticing on my last visit to Cairns that though there were plenty of Aboriginal people in the streets, the non-Aboriginal people generally behaved as if they weren’t there, and vice versa – another case of mutual unseeing. The City and the City takes this common phenomenon to impossible extremes, and much of the joy of the book lies in how consistently and thoroughly he has imagined it. Miéville succeeds to the extent that every now and then a reference to the world as we know it – to Coke, or Madonna, or a Google search – brings one up short: oh, this is all happening in the world as I know it! The climactic point of the story consists of four people walking briskly down a street in close physical proximity – and it’s totally thrilling, not just because one of them is carrying a gun. That’s all I’m saying.

After the meeting:
It was a small meeting, but all of us had enjoyed the book. The group meeting had been postponed for six weeks or so, so quite a bit of time had passed since most of us had read the book. And even though in the intervening weeks one had reread it and another had read Perdido Street Station, our memories weren’t generally fresh enough to generate much detailed discussion. I needn’t have worried about the appeal of the world building: everyone enjoyed it. And my curiosity about how the setup was revealed to the unspoiled reader was gratified: the consensus seemed to be that the odd word (‘crosshatched’) created a sense of unease, enough to alert rather than alarm, and there was pleasure as more of the workings of the cities was revealed, until one felt (several times over), ‘Ah, now I get it!’

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