I’ve fallen a bit behind on blogging — and on reading, too, actually — in the past week or so. That’s partly because this is the busiest time of year for me, between students’ final projects, papers, presentations, and exams, and all the usual Christmas preparation. But it’s also partly because I got seriously bogged down in The City & The City, by China Miéville, and had trouble moving on to another book.
The City & The City has a fascinating premise. Tyador Borlú is a police officer on the Extreme Crime Squad (ECS) of the city of Besz, somewhere (we gather) in Eastern Europe. He is dealing with the murder of an unknown young woman (they call her a Fulana, as we would call her a Jane Doe), and as he uncovers one detail after another of the way she was murdered and her body dumped, he becomes more puzzled instead of less. It’s not that he doesn’t have information. It’s that he has too much information. She has three names; she has known associates all over the city, but in improbably varied places; she was, or wasn’t, a rebel, a traitor to Besz.
As Borlú gathers this information, we begin to realize that Besz is a place unique in the world. It occupies the same physical space as another city — a more prosperous city, with different architecture, different colors, different language, different laws: Ul Qoma. The buildings and citizens and train tracks and very rubbish in the streets of Besz and Ul Qoma are crosshatched, interleaved, so that a warehouse could catch fire in Ul Qoma and a building in a completely separate city draw flame. Citizens are trained from earliest childhood to unsee the other city — not to notice its inhabitants, its traffic accidents, its cooking smells. Crossing borders means Breach. And Breach is punishable by death.
This information is given to us by tiny increments, not dumped. Borlú is the narrator, so the state of things is natural to him, though sometimes he rebels against it enough to watch a “foreign” (Ul Qoman) train go by. At first, he believes that his murdered girl simply Breached and was killed for it. But he discovers that she was studying a third city, a fairy-tale city, that perhaps exists in the interstices of Besz and Ul Qoma, and rules the other two: Orciny.
And that’s where I gave up. I know you’re asking yourself why. I asked myself the same question. It took me over 120 pages to give up on this book, because the premise was completely wonderful. I had predicted I would love this book — it sounded like one of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities brought to life. But in fact, I felt that it wasn’t very well executed. It was slow, maddeningly slow at times. It was repetitive. I grant you that with a premise this complicated, and with no outright explanation, Miéville probably needed to repeat information, but it was still annoying. And perhaps the one thing I couldn’t forgive in the end: it was grim. Instead of making me feel that I’d traveled to some amazing place full of the sound of a new language, the sight of beautiful buildings, and customs utterly different from my own, I felt I’d traveled to Cold War Soviet-era suburbs. Apart from the breathtaking ingenuity of the interleaving of Besz and Ul Qoma, it felt dirty, cold, boring, and slightly dangerous.
I so much wish that either this book had been better, or that my mood had been different (I fully acknowledge it may have been me.) I hated to give up on it. If you loved this book, please tell me why I should try it again!