Saturday, June 13, 2009

ArtsPaper Books: Miéville's brave new novel remarkable, and a page-turner, too

By Chauncey Mabe

Admirers of China Miéville’s brave new novel, The City and the City, are advised to take care lest they hurt themselves straining for comparisons to describe – to begin to describe – this amazing literary performance. Raymond Chandler meets Franz Kakfa? Philip K. Dick collides at a busy intersection with Georges Simenon? A mad scientist sews George Orwell’s head onto Ian Rankin’s body?

Professional dignity bars me from playing this particular game -- but if I were to indulge, it would involve Denis Johnson doing something unseemly with Mervyn Peake, to their mutual pleasure.

The City and the City begins with the trappings of an ordinary, if well-turned, crime novel. The body of an unknown young woman, dumped in a vacant lot in a fictional Eastern European city, falls to the responsibility of Inspector Tyador Borlu of the Extreme Crime Squad. A confident if world-weary civil servant, Borlu sets about his investigation with procedures and conventions worn smooth in innumerable detective novels and police shows.

So far, so familiar. As Borlu tries to track down the woman’s identity, something infinitely more intriguing comes into focus – the setting, of all things. Borlu lives and works in Beszel, a shabby if elegant place where computers are outdated and he can only get dial-up Internet service at home. Its sister city, Ul Qoma, by contrast, is brash and affluent, marching into the 21st century with no regard for historic architecture.

Unlike sister cities in the real world, Beszel and Ul Qoma do not lay alongside one another, sharing a common border, but occupy the same geographic space. Some parts of each city are out of the reach of the other, but many of the streets, parks and buildings are shared, what is called “crosshatching.” A store might be in Ul Qoma and the apartment building next door in Beszel.

The origins of this bizarre arrangement are lost in the ancient past. The residents of the cities train their children in “unseeing,” the consensual illusion that the buildings, people, cars in the other city are not actually there. Each city has its own government, police, language, culture, laws and mode of dress. Division between the two cities is enforced by a third authority, known as Breach, which has unlimited powers but only when someone violates the separation of Beszel and Ul Qoma.

In the hands of a lesser writer, this conceit, as artificial and contrived as it is inspired, would promptly collapse of its own brittle weight. But Miéville develops it with the surest hand possible, by the simple expedient of treating the most outrageous aspects of this fantasy as though they were completely down to earth. As, indeed, they are for Borlu, who narrates the story, Beszel-born and raised as he is.

Here is Borlu at the initial crime scene, gazing down at the body: “A young woman, brown hair pulled into pigtails poking up like plants. She was almost naked, and it was sad to see her skin smooth that cold morning, unbroken by gooseflesh. She wore only laddered stockings, one high heel on.” That single feature, the victim’s skin “unbroken by gooseflesh,” roots the scene in our consensual reality. Of course a dead body would not react to chill, but how many writers would think to include such a tiny, telling point?

Miéville parcels out the chimerical aspects of the voluntary segregation of Beszel and Ul Qoma so skillfully that for the first half of the novel it, more than the murder mystery, drives the narrative. Learning more about “unseeing,” and Breach, and the history of the twin cities generates more suspense than the question of who killed the girl.

Borlu eventually learns the dead woman is an American post-graduate student named Mahalia Geary, working at a Canadian-run archeological dig in Ul Qoma. She was a figure of controversy, championing the theory that a third city, Orciny, exists in the shadows where Ul Qoma and Beszel meet. Borlu travels to Ul Qoma, to work with police there, giving the reader a mirror-image view of the two cities, which proves profoundly satisfying to anyone falling under Miéville’s spell.

By tweaking some key crime-fiction conventions, Miéville succeeds in making this novel that rarest of things, a murder mystery that doesn’t collapse into faint disappointment once the killer is revealed. His achievement with the fantastic elements of the novel is even more impressive. A leading figure in the “weird fiction” school of modern British fantasy, Miéville here abandons the baroque language and grotesque fantasy of King Rat, Perdido Street Station, Iron Council or the other novels that earned him a rabid cult following over the past decade.

By keeping the fantastic elements, powerful as they are, in the background, and focusing on the humanity of the characters in the foreground, Miéville moves fantasy in a new direction. Like Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy, it’s unlike anything that came before.

And Miéville also tells a thumping good mystery story. Amazing.

Chauncey Mabe, the former book editor for the Sun-Sentinel, can be reached at Visit him on Facebook.

THE CITY AND THE CITY, by China Miéville, Ballantine Books, 416 pp., $26.

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