The City & The City (abandoned)

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!

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21 Responses to The City & The City (abandoned)

  1. King Rat says:

    Yeah, if you were in the mood for something wondrous, The City and the City would not work for you. Very much an eastern european city with an eastern european character. All grays and shadows.

  2. Kristen M. says:

    Is this your first Mieville read? I’m asking because I read (and loved) Un Lun Dun as my first of his books and since it’s a YA novel, I’m very afraid that his other books will seem too dark. I loved his writing and his world building but I might feel differently if I don’t love the world he creates.

    • Jenny says:

      Kristen, yes, it was my first Mieville. I saw that Un Lun Dun was a YA novel and wondered how it would be. Thanks for the recommendation — I may try it, as his creativity is clearly genius!

  3. Sometimes books grab you and sometimes they don’t. I usually put abandoned books in a pile and every couple of months I rescue one from the stack. I try again. If I still can’t read it then the book goes to charity. This usually catches those books that just don’t suit my current mood.
    That said, I read another review of the city and the city and it sounds like the premise was a little too ambitious. I still think I’ll check this book out sometime but I don’t know that it will be for the enjoyment of reading.
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  4. Mieville is definitely grim! He’s pretty creative, but I agree you have to be in the mood for very bad dystopic grimness if you read him!

    • Jenny says:

      rhapsodyinbooks — I’m not sure I’d call it dystopic, unless you think the Soviet Union was dystopic. But it was very grey (with flashes of humor, I’ll give him that.)

  5. Amy says:

    I don’t like to abandon books but, if it doesn’t grab in the first 100 pages, I move on. I used to feel guilty about it but not so much anymore. I do put them on a list and try to re-visit if I can though.

    • Jenny says:

      Amy — normally I don’t feel guilty about leaving books I don’t like, if they’re badly written or something. But this wasn’t. That’s why I couldn’t figure out why it wasn’t doing it for me.

  6. Christy says:

    I loved The City & The City (full review on my blog if interested). I can’t argue about the grim tone because it does have a grim tone (though not without some humor, I thought) and either you like that or don’t, and that can’t be changed.

    As for the repetitiveness, I didn’t have that impression, though I agree it does take a little while for the setting to be established. Even then, the setting is the plot in some ways, so there are constant developments throughout the story that change how the reader looks at Ul Qoma and Besz.

    That said, I know how it is to put down a book that you realize is not terrible – it just doesn’t click.

    • Jenny says:

      Christy — I couldn’t find your review. Could you point me to it? In any case, I agree about the humor. I did think it repetitive, but you are also right about the development of the setting (and probably setting as plot, too, though I would need to think about how that can work.) I definitely did not think this book was terrible. I may go back to it one day. And I’d love to read your take on it.

      • Christy says:

        My apologies – I need to figure out a way to make my blog more easily searchable. (Still new at this!) I had meant actually to put the hyperlink in my name for the comment to my review but I guess I didn’t.

        Here is the URL: http://agoodstoppingpoint.wordpress.com/2009/11/08/the-city-the-city-by-china-mieville/

        And I guess what I meant about setting as plot, since I don’t discuss this in my review, is that the mystery here is more than just the murdered woman – the mystery is about the cities themselves and their true nature. Still an idea I’m mulling on.

  7. Steph says:

    The premise here really does sound so interesting, but if the execution was poor, then I could see how this would be a frustrating book! I admit to being intrigued by it, but I definitely am not in the mood for anything grim at the moment… perhaps this is something to try when I’m in the right mood. I haven’t read any Mieville before, but it seems like he has quite the following!

    • Jenny says:

      Steph — I hadn’t heard of him before (in fact I thought he was a woman) but one of my favorite author blogs (Laurie King’s) recommended this book very highly. So I tried it. Oh well. :)

  8. Amanda says:

    You know, I got a bit into this one and abandoned it too. It just was a bit confusing and I think I wasn’t in the mood. I’m glad I’m not the only one!

  9. I’m sorry to hear that you abandoned this book as I am planning to read it soon. I’ll hopefully let you know my thoughts in January.

    • Jenny says:

      Jackie, I really look forward to hearing what you thought. You very often have a different take from mine and you always have great, interesting things to say.

  10. Dorothy W. says:

    It’s too bad that this book didn’t work out, but it makes sense to abandon it given the circumstances. Mieville sounds like an interesting author, but one who needs to be read in the right mood. I’ve been curious about this author — perhaps this book isn’t the right one to start with?

    • Jenny says:

      Dorothy — this is my first foray into Mieville, so I don’t know whether I started with a good one. Kristen recommended his YA novel Un Lun Dun, so maybe I’ll give that one a try. It sometimes seems to be the case that extremely creative people have uneven execution (I find that Neil Gaiman is another example). When you find one who doesn’t (Italo Calvino, Borges), it’s like a small miracle!

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