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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.


A General Theory of Love: a review

Thomas Lewis, M.D., Fari Amini, M.D., Richard Lannon, M.D.   

“People rely on intelligence to solve problems, and they are naturally baffled when comprehension proves impotent to effect emotional change… Ideas bounce like so many peas off the sturdy incomprehension of the limbic and reptilian brains. The dogged implicitness of emotional knowledge, it’s relentless unreasoning force, prevents logic from granting salvation just as it precludes self-help books from helping.” (pg. 118)

The authors, psychiatrists all, dispel the ingrained binary perception of head or heart by beautifully describing the intricate bonds and balances in the different parts of our brains, and the vital dynamics of these parts when communication between people takes place. Coming from three successive generations of psychiatry Lewis, Amini and Lannon have witnessed a massive shift in the fundamental understanding of the human mind: from the pre-scientific Freudian models that permeate our culture, through early pharmacology to the advent of neuroscience, their knowledge of the mind’s labyrinthine structure and function has undergone the same seismic shifts as the profession. The result is a depth of understanding coupled with a profound humility when faced with the vast agencies at play in the brain. Their triune voice negotiates their understanding, and the reader’s growing comprehension, with grace and humour, creating a resonance with the imparted knowledge and wisdom that’s quite startling.

Yet this isn’t a self-help book, more a scientific essay on the brains relation to the heart, A General Theory of Love explores our drive for intimacy and greater connection; the very real formative physical effect love has on the brain’s development in children and the continuing function of those physical structures in our adult brains. Using contemporary research in cognitive science, evolutionary biology and sociology this book illuminates how vital the quixotic interaction of love and biology are in the emergence of our personalities and, further, the relationships we create with them. But the soul of the book lies in the recognised limitations of science and scientific language; the authorial understanding that in order to explore the mental and emotional connections within ourselves, and the connections we form with the hearts and minds of others, they must avail themselves of the vast resources of humanity’s obsession with this love and its mercurial exchanges. Poetry, literature and the physical arts from across the years (these endeavors of so many hearts and minds) are called on and employed alongside science in order to explore the extent and vitality of the mind-heart connection.

Citing the lives and ideas of such luminary figures as Shakespeare, Freud, Darwin and Frost, this book reveals how the compulsion, means and ways we reach out to others demonstrate how our nervous systems are not self-contained structures, how important and defining the interaction between people’s emotions are. “From birth to death, love is not just the focus of human experience but also the life force of the mind, determining our moods, stabilizing our bodily rhythms, and changing the structure of our brains. The body’s physiology ensures that relationships determine and fix our identities. Love makes us who we are, and who we can become.” (from the preface).

Initially we’re introduced to our brains basic structure: the triune brain; consisting of the Neocortex, Limbic and Reptile brains. The evolutionary process of the triune brain’s development is explored, starting with the reptile brain’s autonomic necessity (controlling all those things the rest of our brain can’t be trusted with) and moving onto the limbic brain, the seat of emotion and instinct: fleeing, fighting, feeding, and sexual urges (known as the 4 F’s) before finally delving into our evolutionary masterpiece, the neocortex, responsible for such marvels as reason, speech and taxes. So impressed have we become with the neocortex many now place it, unrivalled, at the top of the mental food-chain, the senior partner, demoting the remaining sections of our brain to mailroom roles. To counter such hierarchal ideas the authors are quick and convincing in illustrating the equitable interrelations of the three parts of our brain and the resultant beauteous dysfunction we’re left with, all sitting atop our necks in such an illusion of good order that it’s hard to see how we screw ourselves up so badly, so regularly.

After a fascinating introduction to these heady matters A General Theory of Love travels further and deeper, on the road of exposition, into how our limbic brains measurably connect with and shape the brains and lives of others, the pure learning forces at play in a child’s growth and development, how memory can store and shape love, and, ultimately, what recognition of love’s ephemeral and physical effects could allow us to accomplish.

We often attempt to live lives dictated by binary relationships: right or wrong, all or nothing, head or heart, but the dichotomization of factors that confound and affect our lives are a rhetorical convenience that belies the hodgepodge nature of the world and our minds. ‘Emotional life can be influenced, but it cannot be commanded.’ There is revelation contained within these pages, an opportunity to look with fresh eyes on the relationships we have built our lives from, how they have hurt us and saved us with their undeniable transformative effect on almost every element of our lives. Jung said that the relationships we build are the masterpieces of our lives; this book does the remarkable in showing us the brushstrokes of those masterpieces, revealing the grammar and syntax of our emotional existence.

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.

Going Joe

I was of questionable moral character when I was younger (I’m conveniently partitioning age-wise). I had a couple of friends, Brent and Warren, also about 12 years old, who I used to team up with to pull childish heists. There are a host of reasons, acknowledged or not, that would explain these endeavors: acting out, adrenaline rushes, attention seeking, innate evilness (junior evilness, sans animal torture, all senior evil dudes need in order to get their stripes) or just stupidity. The ones most central to our motivations of the time were adrenaline rushes and profit (oops, forgot to mention that one).

One of our favourite schemes was to nick semi-expensive items and then return them for cash refunds. Which isn’t as simple as it sounds; it required someone with my particular skill set. I was a late bloomer, short for my age and a face that radiated innocence. I could also act suitably distressed and/or stupid:

“We really require the receipt.”

“Um, I did have it… my mum just wanted me to give it back coz daddy… I mean my dad… got one as well… I think she gave me the receipt… I don’t know where it is… I, um, might have lost it?” [Stage direction] Widen eyes, look worried, generate blush if possible.

(A look of sympathy) “Okay. I guess it’ll be okay this once, just remember to keep the receipt next time.” [Stage direction] Smile timidly and say ‘thank you’ quietly and abashedly.

The trick was to surrender your fate wholly and voluntarily into their hands. Give them complete power and then let the cute innocence do the legwork. It was pretty fucking predatory, really.

We’d celebrate with massive sugar binges and fireworks.

Another favourite thing to steal was G.I. Joe dolls, though this was a non-profit venture. We’d take them home and blow them up with fireworks bought with our purloined profits. “Go Joe! Greatest American Hero!!” We’d yell as Duke went sub-orbital, sellotaped to the back of Dr. Mindbender’s ICBM. Boom! [Stage directions] Commence giggling.

Sometimes we’d get one of those candle-like ones that spewed sparks and fireballs and use it to melt the faces of the more uncooperative dolls.

Mangled figurine limbs littered our neighbourhood.

I actually didn’t like doing that explosive stuff so much. Not because I thought it was silly or sick or anything, mainly because I thought it was a waste. I still played with my action figures, you see. Formed bonds with them. Brent and Warren didn’t, they considered that childish. I would smuggle out the occasional prisoner and keep them hidden in my room for when we could properly save the world or go adventuring, maybe trying to make up for the karmic harm I caused when in my villainous role. I liked the ninjas the best: Snake Eyes, Storm Shadow and Jinx.

It was quite embarrassing when the police busted us shoplifting and it spread around school that we stole dolls. It didn’t seem to matter to anyone that we could produce disfigured evidence of our cool pyrotechnic proclivities. We stole dolls, that shit sticks.

It almost rubbed off the shine of notoriety we’d gained the previous year for the porn-mag ring we’d established amongst the 11 year olds.

That story doesn’t really have a point other than to offer up a reason why I, a man in his 30s, would go and see the G.I. Joe movie. Which was simply awful. I loved it, because of the nostalgia and all, but wow, what an irredeemable piece of shit. Easily one of the worst movies I’ve seen in my life. I’d have wandered out half way through if their pyrotechnics hadn’t brought a nostalgic tear to my eye. I laughed, quite inappropriately, when Cobra Commander’s face was melted off (Golden Showers! That’s what those flame-spitting fireworks were called! Ha, Golden Showers! You’d think that would put the fire out…) – the laugh was a reaction that garnered a dubious look from someone down the row (like I cared, honestly, they’re watching action doll’s blow shit up. You’re not equipped to have moral suspicions when you do that).

Anyway. Don’t go and see it. Unless you’re a masochist, of course. Or a recovering thief. Or a  bit thick with a short attention span. Though the Baroness was quite hot, something I can better appreciate now though knew even at 12, still 2 years shy of puberty. Which might explain the doll thing in the first place.

Stalking Sylvie

As mentioned in an earlier entry, I love Sylvie Guillem. She graces this earthly plane purely for the benefit of our lowly senses.

I was lucky enough to see her for a second time in Wellington earlier this year, performing with Russell Maliphant (a name that conjures malcontent pachyderms in my head), who also choreographed the show, Push. It was an excellent performance, as it really couldn’t avoid being. Maliphant is a better choreographer than dancer (though that’s always a highly relative measure when one is standing next to Guillem) and it’s important to (double) qualify that by pointing out he’s a superb choreographer. Using, as ever, light and movement and their co-creations in highly interesting and effective ways. Witness the joy…

On top of this, when I got to London on my recent international excursions, my sister in law, Vanessa-Jayne, had hooked me & my brother up with tickets for Sylvie’s London show of Eonnagata, teaming with Maliphant again and some French-Canadian dude called La Plant (a name which just conjures vegetables wearing tutus in my head). This show, a biographic production about a french cross-dressing, military officer cum spy who lived half his/her life as a woman, was a real mix of theatre and dance, leaning closer to theatre, but was spectacular none-the-less.

So I’ve been stalking Ms Guillem around the world with a little help from my friends. I still love the first thing I saw of her the best, Sacred Monsters, but still, wow.

Security (T)issues

I flew into Melbourne last night (I’m on my way to Europe for 4 weeks – Envy me!) and, as ever, on a clear night, Melbourne is a wonderful city to see from above; such a sprawling, varicose veined,  suburban light show.

Australia has obviously responded to the Swine Flu Spazdemic quite strongly. Not only was the airport swarming with Quarantine Officers scanning for those afflicted with sniffles (God help you if you coughed) but you actually have to fill out a Health Declaration Form along with that immigration form thing before you can come into the country. This form has such questions as, Are You A Bit Sick?, Have You Pashed A Member Of The Porcine Family Recently? and, most cleverly, If You Had Frenched A Pig, Would You Actually Tell Us? Also, various announcements were made by the cabin crew during the flight, urging us, if we had suffered from a slight fever, or knew someone who did, just let a flight attendant know, implying,  in kindly tone, that if that were the case they would kindly bring us a tissue. Obviously two people did as, I shit you not, Quarantine Officers came on board once we had landed, masked and gloved like Michael Jackson (with fewer spangles but same sickly pallor), and took two people away. I saw one of them later at the baggage carousel but I know not of the other’s fate.

On a lighter note, the film on the plane was ‘He’s Just Not That Into You…’ and it was awful. Really, really awful. It played on so many gender and relationship cliches and stereotypes that it’s ridiculous message became hopelessly convoluted. Ironically, I really liked Ben Affleck in his role. That was a new experience. It also had Jennifer Connelly in it, which is just one of the insufficient and stupid reasons I watched the whole thing (call it a boyish Labyrinth hangover). To a young man or woman, seeking to understand how to best relate and communicate with the opposite sex, watching porn would be less destructive to your future potential for happiness than watching this film.