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The City & The City: a review

The further away I get from this book (I finished it a few weeks ago) the more I realize its gravity. I love this book. Love. It took me reading two more books, both tainted by their lack of being his, to recover my reading equilibrium; an equilibrium I’ll gladly sacrifice upon his next publication. I rehashed this review this last week, leaving in much self indulgence that I cut for size consideration – my original is on Unity Books’ website.

The City & The City by China Miéville

The geography of a city holds discrete realities for wildly diverse peoples. Many of these realities differ so dramatically it’s hard to reconcile their shared space – Do you see the same city as me? Which streets do you turn your gaze from? Which areas are fearfully skirted around or avoided altogether? There are entire sections of our urban topography that we not only ignore, but would deny knowledge of entirely: brothels, drug dens, parliament, high-class restaurants – pick the enclosure and align the bias. It’s an elision done easily, with a minimum of thought or reflection. But what if we applied our thinking strategically instead of tactically? What if we picked half a city and, with dedicated deliberation, unsaw them, edited them from our physical existence? There, but not. This is the realm China Miéville’s The City & The City explores to startling effect; it’s a novel drenched in originality and seething with powerful ideas.

Ostensibly a detective novel set in an imagined corner of Europe The City and The City plumbs the essence of physical and intellectual relationships. The eponymous dual city-state of Ul-Qoma and Besźel are intimately bound by history and territory, yet severed by law and the will of their respective inhabitants. It is an ethereal amputation difficult to describe; no walls or fences curtail the inhabitants, no watchtowers or searchlights guard against transgressions, yet incursions are swiftly and coldly punished by the inscrutable and all-powerful Breach, the nigh invisible agency that polices the divide. Contradictions abound in this byzantine setting as punitive force and civil complicity meet in a lovingly constructed artifice, one deeply laced with meaning.

On the Besźel side of this labyrinthine architecture Inspector Borlú, of the Extreme Crime Squad, investigates the murder of a woman, an assignment that appears routine but soon escalates in complexity. Borlú is drawn into a nexus of political, social and historical events that threaten not only the lives of those involved, but the cultural foundations that allow the coexistence of Besźel and Ul-Qoma. As the plot unfolds Miéville faithfully adheres to the genre rules of detective novels, not indulging easy cheats and always remaining loyal to the strictures and traditions that produce intriguing and compelling stories. And, regardless of concept, The City & The City would stand as a riveting and fully realised contribution to the crime oeuvre, but the beauty of this book is in the further steps taken: Miéville injects ideas into this novel that transform it into another beast altogether.

The core idea is the unique existence of Besźel and Ul-Qoma; cities whose citizens could, through tangled borders and shared streets, easily speak or touch. Their potential interactions are constrained by tradition and law. And Breach, the all-powerful agency that’s constrained by arcane points of law. But the twin populace doesn’t simply ignore the other, they unsee and unsense, editing their existence to enforce their belief. A lifetime of learned signifiers – in fashion, architecture, body language and myriad other cues – allows them to modify their social realities and impose segregation in an instant. They exclude all that isn’t right, comprehensively, removing persons and structures, cars and graffiti; unseeing through a remarkable perception.

It is a truly bizarre culture and place all the more powerful for the detail and reality Miéville imbues it with. A situation accepted like weather by those contained by it but baffling to those entering it – a difference the reader quickly comes to sympathise with. As the book unfolds it becomes clear that the central threat to Borlú and the Cities is, and always has been, existential; it lies in their un-knowledge and un-perception of each other. In order to solve the case Borlú must decipher the obscure boundaries of his cultural reality. Borlú must see not only Ul-Qoma, but also the liminal spaces that separate and define the Cities. He must see for the first time in his life and, with that sight, everything he knows will change.

The mindboggling actuality of the book is impossible to accept immediately, it takes complete submersion, one that is deceptively easy. Miéville creates a finely nuanced place that, as ridiculous as it should be, is real – the Cities breathe in the anomalous histories of Belfast, Jerusalem and Berlin and exhale a Siamese city that by comparison makes those places look whole. Melville understands how hard it is to comprehend the place and the concept and, wisely, doesn’t seek to remedy it with didactic asides or laboured exposition. Instead he allows the unfolding story to bring our perception and awareness of the Cities to a natural fruition – their dimensions wend into our brains unseen, until it’s as if they were always there.

The bipolar existence of Besźel and Ul-Qoma powers the plot, the beautifully crafted characters give it gravity, but the spirit of it lies in the interstices, the physical and metaphysical spaces between the cities. It is these gaps, the lacunae that define and challenge the accepted realities of the different locales, which baffle and intrigue the reader. Miéville challenges us to observe what we refuse to see, to draw out of our environs, both real and imagined, the discordant factors that vie for importance in our cities, countries and lives. This wonderful and enthralling novel does what so few others do: it makes us look upon our own places, spaces and interstices with fresh eyes, stripped of comfortable veils.

This book confirms Miéville as a seriously talented writer, one able at will to subvert genre and accepted wisdom with seemingly limitless gifts. In the dense jungle of literature, he is a predator, moving with power amongst established conventions, heedless of their place, before he usurps them, deconstructing them and making them serve his needs, purposes and vision. He produces, almost casually, what so few writers are capable of: originality.

Books and What They Know

There’s a place in a bookstore, a spot where you can stand and hear the books. It’s the focal point of a multitude of lenses, the single point in the store where the projection of all their secret bookish knowledge is in perfect convergence, allowing you to receive everything. It’s hard to find this spot during the day, because all the people in the store throw off the geometry of the information flow, creating eddies around their perspectives and beliefs, futzing the reception. With all those people the bookstore becomes a strangely quieter place.

I’ve worked at various bookshops, in various countries, for a while now and what I’ve learned is that there is rarely a more beautiful thing than finding that secret spot (it forever changes as books migrate in and out of the store, altering ratios and alchemy) and sitting there. Smoking. And you just listen – listen to all the quiet tumult of books calling across the spaces to each other (because they’re not speaking to you, not yet). You can’t make anything out because it’s like those voices in your head that all go on and on at once, a susurrus of pitch and meaning that is almost impossible to decipher for more than a snatch of a second.

Maybe libraries have it, too. I don’t know. But bookstores do, the good ones. If you can find that space, that nomadic area, it will fix your head, it will cleanse your acne and it will pop that slipped disc back into your spine, afterwards bringing you cake. It will make everything okay again.

I recommend it strongly.

People claim reading as a process, a whole process, they condemn books like Harry Potter and The Da Vinci Code as being unworthy of being printed, or being destructive as a thing to read. It’s laying claim to brain function rather than taste. Shoot the shitty, mediocre books down as examples of whatever stylistic aesthetic you’re devoted to, colonised by or trying to get laid with, but don’t condemn the books. They’re just words on pages, doing whatever it is that words do on pages when we’re not paying attention. And don’t condemn those that enjoy reading these lesser tomes – mock them, if it appeals, draw disparaging conclusions about their taste and cerebral proclivities as much as you like, whatever intellectual eugenics bandwagon you want to jump on, but don’t condemn them. Because the books will hear you and they’re not a forgiving bunch. Remember when you read that book? That one that your friends were reading? And you were all talking about it? And there was that bit they were all talking about, the bit that they loved above all the other bits? And you thought, Sheesh, I wasn’t all up in that, I thought it was just a bit, y’know, a space, a thing that wasn’t that great. I thought that other bit was the real deal, the crux of the whole  shebang. Well it was that great, the book was punishing you for that thing you said about Don Delillo being a literary fraud whose books should be taken out of Contemporary Fiction courses all around the world. And for calling Dan Brown a cunt. The books don’t like that. So it hid that bit from you, it warped its narrative around itself so you wouldn’t understand. Then it sniggered.

I’ve spent many nights, after finishing some overflow of work, alone, wandering around bookstores. A couple of years ago I was the buyer for a particular store, beautiful Unity. A job that means I was the filter for all the books that made it through the door from the publishing houses monthly migrations, and, after I had been doing it for a while, I had a night. This night I was staying late, catching up on a thing that was running ahead of me, and I went for a wander, looking for the spot. As I was edging around the biography table, past a display on the central support column of the store, listening intently, I had a thought.

It was all me.

Everything in that store, all the books and all their surreptitious whisperings, were me. Because I chose them.

I’m aware that you never really own a book, you can never possess it beyond it’s papery body, though you sometimes think it. In that spot in a bookstore, where you stand and hear them talking, often they’re laughing at you. Laughing, in good humour, without rancour, because you think you understand. You don’t. You’re just a reader. You’re usually not even a writer (though I think they, writers, poets most of all, sometimes know; they have some conduit, some covert correspondence with the books that they can’t ever fully describe, though the trying must be part of the point, but they can’t hold it in their heads, because it’s the night sky, all full up with stars and expanse).

But I chose them, you see, all these books. All that knowledge stacked and pressed into the shelves and cupboards and displays. I was fucking Moses. I led them to this milk and honey. This whole pantheon of scholarship and erudition was an expression of me. Fucking me. That made me one of them.

I shone, for a moment, like a sun. Head back and arms held up, hard and straight.

The books were quiet, like they were allowing me that moment of incandescence, possibly feeding me a little of their energy. They were quiet, maybe drawing breath inaudibly. Then they chuckled at me, shaking their pages. Because I thought I knew. I didn’t.

But they gave me that moment. So I love them. All of them.

Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives (a review)

Death as an act of creation seems to underlie everything in this beautiful little book, forty very short stories exploring humanity in the afterlife. Eagleman, neuroscientist by day, fictive maestro by night, uses language efficiently and with great power to explore what meaning may be found after death. He conveys with no small amount of beauty a panoply of imaginings. As an act of creation it is a truly impressive work, conjuring angles and perspectives that will keep the reader’s mind dancing with possibilities; which is the strength of the book – the possibilities.
Thematic short story collections run the risk of defining themselves too tightly, not allowing the meaning of the work to transcend the control required to produce the body of words. There’s the danger of wrapping each story up with an implicit message, attempting to construct an explicit argument with the books totality. A fair enough conceit perhaps but, due to the strictures and control required, not to mention the writing talent required, it can oh so easily die an ugly death in the mind of the reader, asphyxiated by it’s own binding. Eagleman, in Sum, flirts with this approach, as a thematic collection must, but flirting is all it is, sashaying within reach of the rules and then defying them with quick footwork and a sly wink. He ignores the implicit and explicit, seeking instead the reader’s inference, each story carving out possibilities that will bounce around the brain long after the last word is read. Eagleman does that thing most authors find so hard to do: he trusts his readers’ ability to read.
Running alongside the profound and the mysterious Sum captures the wild potential of the afterlife using a multitude of metaphors, be it the solitary quark, driven by a crazed love of it’s creations, that weaves the universe and all life it contains, being everything at once, yet fears it’s own quantum limits, or the tale of sentient atoms comprising a single being then, at death, expanding into the greater world before once more being drawn back to sentience, like the stuff of the world breathing through our lives and deaths. On your death discovering that reincarnation is ironic Darwinism, or entering heaven to find Mary Wollstonecraft on the throne because of God’s profound empathy for Dr. Frankenstein. The third death of memory or the search for meaning and how it’s absence defines us. A city full of homeless, passionate and vengeful old gods or humanity as the biology of the divine. After every page I turned I marvelled at a further notion or concept, the invigoration of life through the ideas of death. It seems a book without limits; creating questions you’ll ponder, delightedly, long after you’ve consigned the book to it’s own afterlife on your bookshelf.

Transition by Iain Banks (an almost book review)

I read that Banks was aiming for the best of both worlds with his latest novel; blending the two forms of his literary output – the contemporary and the SF. Each of these outputs has a distinct and loyal following that don’t mix well at parties. I align myself with the SF gang – but that’s just because, in general, his SF is better than his contemporary (thems fightin’ words). I totally dig his contemporary stuff where he explores, as a tendency, specific moral conundrums, political or social situations – shown at its nadir within the rants of The Steep Approach to Garbadale and at its heights in the likes of The Crow Road, but his SF tends towards the more nebulous quandries (pun, of course, intended) of existence, those that require a larger canvas and greater exploration, which ultimately I find more satisfying. Banks generates characters and metaphors in these SF exegeses that possess more dimension and subtlety while allowing his excellent humour and bleak darkness, in turn, to express themselves in new and wonderous ways. Plus his hedonistic civilization, the Culture, as well as being extremely clever and intelligent, is just flat out cool.

Were his two genres of novels to ever get into a fight, sure, The Wasp Factory & Dead Air would be the last to go down, but under the well aimed and devastatingly expressed blows of Excession, The Use of Weapons, Consider Phlebas and the mighty Algebraist, they would go down. Choosing a referee could be tricky, though. Certainly his contemporary books, the ones with obvious overlap into the fantastical, like Walking on Glass and The Bridge would be the logical first choices (especially as they would be next to useless in the fight, suffering the internal conflict of their competing elements) but I don’t think they’d have the sac to Judge, they just couldn’t be impartial. Which is where his new novel, Transition, steps up to the plate.

Transition is the perfect blend of his two talents, using a broader world and fantastical circumstance to bring to bear quite specific moral and political questions that not only have obvious relevance in these days of Terror wars, but also draw our eyes and minds to the historical context and origins of these renewed ideas of political will and expedience. Which sounds quite boring – but that would be me, not the novel; the novel has inter-dimensional assassins, which we all know is the total opposite of boring. Using competing though initially fractured narrative voices, Banks weaves together the face of The Concern, a group with the special knowledge and ability to move between alternate earths, a power they use, under their own moral auspices, to shape the fates of people and through them, entire worlds.

Using his natural wit and intelligence Banks explores the importance of choice and culpability under various systems of societal participation and control, from the ethics and practice of torture to greed and the nature of power with all its self-sustaining and self-destructive practices (playing nicely on Foucault’s maxim that power creates resistance, and resistance new forms of power – a maxim I’ve always regarded as super-cool). He also does a clever wee thing in the focal society he uses by inverting the ‘terrorist threat’ and, the thing I really like, goes no further into it, just allowing the reader to quietly juxtapose our contemporary assumptions with those in the book; a small but quite effective maneuver. Well played Mr. Banks, well played.

Also comfortably present is Bank’s ability to give his characters and organisations perfect names, cool but not try-hard. There’s a perfect balance expressed not only in his characters nomenclature and abilities but in their very substance, lending them, and the organisations they comprise, their remarkable place in the narrative while actually managing to keep them grounded and believable as they flit through the alternate worlds of The Concern’s broad reality.

I have a long standing problem with blurbs giving away far too much of the first 100 pages of a book – when I read a blurb I like I wait a few weeks or months, until I’ve totally forgotten everything other than the fact I want to read it. The same goes for reviews. So I’ll pretty much leave it there, hoping you’ll be satisfied with a vague thematic overview punctuated with wildly enthusiastic plaudits. Speaking of which: I absolutely loved it. Exciting, fast paced and intelligent; a wonderful demonstration of Iain Bank’s ability to be continually creative and challenging as a writer, while exuding that effortless cool of his that always leaves me satisfied. It is quite easily one of his best books, regardless of genre, and perfectly meets his intention of the best of both worlds.

Atlas Shrugged (and I went and looked in a mirror)

If there is one thing that is easy to spot in Rand’s writing, it‘s the bad guys. In westerns they wear black clothes, in spy thrillers they have outlandish accents and in fantasy novels they’re often ninjas. In Randian novels they’re ‘visually compromised’. For example:

“His mouth was the part of him which he could not pull tight at any time; it was uncomfortably prominent in his lean face, attracting the eyes of any listener: when he spoke, the movement ran through his lower lip, twisting its moist flesh into extraneous contortions of its own.”

Or:

“…had vague features and a manner devoid of all emphasis… his only distinction seemed to be a bulbous nose, a bit to large for the rest of him.”

Sometimes she even fakes you out with a little misdirection:

“He was a large man with big, virile gestures; everything about his person was loudly full of life, except the small black slits of his eyes.”

Of course all her heroes are perfection itself, strong lines and chiseled features that reflect the majesty of their souls and philosophies. I’d throw some examples your way but they tend to drag on a bit. Suffice it to say that she kinda hammers the point home.

But it doesn’t end there, no sir. Even if you were blind to the descriptions you could hardly miss the names – her heroes, by and large, are deigned with strong, punchy, almost onomatopoeic names: Hank Reardon, Dagny Taggart, John Galt, Ragnar Danneskjold, Ken Danagger, and Ellis Wyat. While her bad guys, or anti-characters as I came to think of them, get the revealing likes of Wesley Mouch, Bertrum Scudder, Cuffy Meigs and Orren Boyle.

There are compromise names and names that could go either way, but those fall into a development process – like James Taggart, the douche brother of the heroine Dagny, whose name transforms depending on who he’s talking to or who is talking about him, Jim, Jimmy, James, as if he’s a Nothing Man whose meaning is defined by the regard of the characters surrounding him. Or Robert Stadler, the world bestriding scientist (apparently based on Oppenheimer), who was something of a ‘could have been’ that turned into the worst kind of sell-out. I think Stadler is her only attempt at some sort of middle ground – though it is a weak middle ground as his initial status comes purely from what he was, a great mind, rather than what he becomes, a total betrayer and apologist. Stadler never presents an argument of any substance, always becoming ‘furtive’ and evasive when confronted with Rand’s vision of Truth.

The names and physicality of her characters and anti-characters really emphasize an ever present devise of Rand’s, an intentional one I can only presume: the refusal to invest any argument, or representative of that argument, with any substance whatsoever. They are designed to fail. Something that grates the more it happens. It became harder and harder for me to take her arguments seriously due to her refusal to challenge them through the narrative with anything other than glass-jawed falsosophies. Rand’s refusal to trust the minds of her readers struck me as ironic in the worst way.

All of that said; the effects were impressive in many ways. I came to really admire her heroes, their manner, minds and comportment. And the power of her argument’s facets are often enthralling and attractive, though in the manner of a attractive jigsaw puzzle that you can reshape, on occasion, into pictures of antithetical meaning to the original. I’ve rarely come across something so beguiling and repulsive in equal measure. I thank various deities that I didn’t read this when I was twenty and loudly atheistic and logical, as I’m sure I would have adopted it as an outsourced morality and code of living. That would really have pushed me over the edge of assholedom.

Lets finish on a winner:

“Wesley Mouch had a long, square face and a flat topped skull, made more so by a brush haircut. His lower lip was a petulant bulb and the pale, brownish pupils of his eyes looked like the yolks of eggs smeared under the not fully translucent whites.”

Atlas Shrugged (while I tried not to heave)

I always get a shudder of revulsion when I see someone, especially those in their 20’s, reading the works of Ayn Rand. A reaction that I feel is totally understandable in its unreasonableness. It’s like making a judgment call on someone’s basic personal drives when you see them masturbating on public transport – it may be unfair, as you know not what inspecific tradgedies brought them to that point, but you’re sure as hell not going to get close enough to offer them a wet-wipe.

Despite these basic belief structures (if one may call them that), I find myself reading ‘Atlas Shrugged’, Rand’s ‘masterpiece’. A very good friend of mine recommended I give it a whirl as, regardless of Rand’s philosophies, her expression and ideas are fascinating in of themselves and have a remarkable adaptability if one isn’t weighed down with Randian hero worship beforehand. All of which, at my age, I should be able to read and understand without fear of some sort of meme-like contagion stripping my mind of all my current values and re-wallpapering it with new, shiny, Objectivist ones.

I’m actually a wee way into the 1000+ page behemoth and am finding it engrossing for all kinds of fucked up and sensible reasons. Many of which I think I will come back to on my first attempt to write an ongoing piece on this blog. Gotta say though, for a woman who was capable of saying a number of complex things in a clear and succinct manner, she sure can waffle on for pages and pages about the most trite stuff, I can totally understand various literary accusations of melodrama.

It would be fair to say I’m going into this with highly preconceived notions about Rand and Objectivism, but, hell, it’s always interesting to test one’s own ideas by bashing them repeatedly with someone else’s. And, in my case, when my world intersects with that of reality and the personal doubts and conflicts generated by that friction are surfacing more and more violently, I find it easier if I can anchor my thoughts and feelings on important matters by the land masses of other philosophies. I do wonder at the wisdom of choosing Ayn Rand… well, if I wake up a different and more Objectionable person at the end of this, just remember to blame Sara.

Reading

The Man-Kzin Wars, books VII, VIII, IX, X & XII short story collections (plus ‘The Children’s Hour from M-K Wars II).

created by Larry Niven but franchised out to other authors since, like, the 80’s.

The mighty, tiger-like, carniverous Kzinti humbled by the leaf eating monkey boys of Humanity. Many explosions, much creativity and an immense amount of fun.

I’ve been going on a pulp sf binge for a couple of months now and ‘The Man-Kzin Wars’ have been central to this indulgence, comforting me through the re-establishment of paid employment. I find the comfort of some standard sci-fi cleverness – those science-like brains capable of such impressive ideas constrained only by the laws and ledgers of physics and chemistry, imagination and socio-cultural design by arithmetic. That whole Cartesian comfort zone of a mechanized universe, not to mention the ego bolstering effect of species conceit (as it is on earth, so it should be in the heavens). The central assumption of this series (and most other sf) is that, regardless of how advanced, intelligent or powerful an alien species is, there is just something unique, something so damn special about humanity that we somehow manage to scrabble to survival, then propel ourselves to our rightful (read dominant, in either military or moralistic manner) and lofty place among the stars. This sort of stuff always makes me feel better about whatever mundanity is assaulting me in my day to day existence; sure, when analysed it falls somewhat flat but so do most things. It still brings back that warm glow I remember from my early teens when I watched such optimistic sf as Star Trek, or read other mainstream sf authors such as Asimov or Heinlein where, in the end, we were all okay.

The Man-Kzin books alternate between the clean cookie-cutter, humanity wins because we’re so neat to the grittier, we may not be so much better but still come out on top. There’s even the occassional alien sympathetic they can have a small, meaningless win that asserts their general right to exist but mainly just demonstrates their base-line cleverness as a firm measure of how much smarter we are.

I just can’t help myself, I have to read them. Plus the covers are, in the grand tradition of such sf, brilliantly grotesque.