Tag Archives: words

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.

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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.

Words and Lies and Truth and Stuff

Words are a sacrosanct thing to me. Which isn’t to say I’m a grammar Nazi, as such, more like a meaning fascist. Words are intent, they are promises – they’re things that bind. Little gets my panties in a twist more than hollow words, sentences and statements that lack motive force. I don’t require that all that I read or hear be true, far from it, just that it be meant. A lie is almost as interesting, on average, as a truth. What someone is willing to or needs to lie about is fascinating and incredibly revealing. The funniest people are those that mean what they’re saying. The smartest people are those that know what they mean. Boring people are those that can do neither.

I follow the things I lie about with close attention – and I don’t mean big, formulated lies that deceive people for ignoble purpose, I mean the little lies that sprint from your cortex and escape your lips before you realise because, for whatever reason, the truth isn’t tolerable at that moment. Destructive lies are horrendous things I desperately try to avoid; hardly anything will make me feel worse than lies as weapons, though one of those things is the truth as a weapon, through blasé disregard for others or blind adherence to the bullshit dictum that truth is paramount, always. But lies as self-defence, be it my own or someone else’s, that shit draws my attention immediately. It’s like bird watching, just without the anoraks. I’ve had the opportunity, recently, to come face to face with some lies I’ve been telling myself for years, the sort of lies that are told, internally (though by natural progression they made their way to the external world), so often that they became set in the paths and walls of my psyche so I could only see the cracks if I stopped and looked closely. Yank those lies out, as I did with differing levels of disgust, and suddenly your balance goes and your vision blurs because the infrastructure had grown used to their support; nothing is stable for a while. It can be pretty freaky. Lies are important, is the lesson I learned, and should be treated with respect.

I like honesty. Someone who is honest with others and themselves – not to the point when you’re telling your workmates why it is exactly you keep the Vaseline on your nightstand, of course (please lie and tell me it’s for chapped lips, because that’s what I used it for last time I was at your place), that can just be upsetting. And honesty is not something I necessary confuse with truth; truth implies full disclosure, regardless of circumstance, while honesty can be the pieces by which the jigsaw of truth is made. Sounds trite, sure, but seriously, fuck you, sometimes I’m trite; honesty is a process by which you can reach some truth. They’re pieces of each other and thus hard to define (as I’m proving). Saying you like or dislike something is being honest, saying you like or dislike it because the neighbourhood weirdo used to insert his pinky finger up your butt while singing Yellow Submarine, is the truth. Both have their place and importance, you really just need to pick that place and it’s importance carefully because they don’t all lead to happy endings.

(Don’t worry; I don’t even know the words to Yellow Submarine).

The measure of honesty, maybe, is the person who is willing to be honest even if it impacts on their social standing. Seeing someone who’ll be honest because they recognise it as a process to reaching some truth, rather than as a shock tactic or leverage point, is an impressive and inspiring sight. They understand the ideas of social lubrication, and apply said lubrication when required, but are willing to be honest, of themselves and about others, even when it won’t necessarily serve them to be so. You can trust people like that (whether you choose to or not may say something else). I’ve met someone like that. She’s pretty awesome – and I mean awesome in the original sense rather than the surfer sense (though there is something of that in there too).

Words and what they mean are like a compass, telling you where you’re standing. I need meaningful exchanges with people before I can talk shit (which is fun, I don’t mean to knock the talking of shit) – I just need to know where everyone is. Because of all this, as one would imagine, and many could attest to, I really suck at small talk. Which I’m okay with.

Telling Truths

I’ve been tagged with a meme by a blogger who I’ve come to really enjoy reading: phoenixaeon, a gently introspective blog I’ve become increasingly attached to over time. ‘Memes’ equate to online chain letters (however inaccurately named), something I grew allergic to at primary school, but this task interested me: say ten honest things about myself and then pass on the task to seven blogging friends. I’m not going to do the latter, for various reasons, not all good, and the first… well that’s the hook. I was thinking about truth telling in this context, on and off, as I was digging trenches yesterday and it really caught my interest. Now, I could bash out any number of ‘true things’ about myself (I seriously contemplate, almost daily, the sense in wearing undies with the seams on the inside [1]) but what actual use would knowing that be to anyone in my life? Does it require revelations of a more intimate nature (unexpectedly catching glimpses of myself in mirrors often freaks me out quite seriously [2]) in order to be worthwhile? Intimate knowledge is what others have presented with this meme, yet I can’t help but ask the same question: what use is that knowledge to anyone in my life? Sure it allows people to get to know me better, but not for any good reason. If someone wants to know me better they only have to ask me questions (I take answering personal questions very seriously: honesty or nothing [3]), one way or another they’ll get a better idea of me.

I’ve told various truths about myself, in previous blog entries, that I was surprised to be comfortable with. I assume that truth telling in this capacity is what other bloggers, phoenixaen included, are partaking of: truths as a process of personal revelation, where the telling is more important than the told (my 4th to last relationship failure was a relief [4]). But, for me, the process of these truths emerging mattered deeply to the process. I’m not sure the generation of ejaculatory truth is something I’m capable of doing with any particular feeling. I wonder at the worth, for me, of telling such truths out of context. I like answering questions and having questions answered, and I like telling the truth, but delivery matters enormously. It’s not just about the money shot. Context binds truth to it’s own ends, so if you’re controlling the context you’re controlling the truth (I hate, fucking hate, post-modernist philosophising [5]). So when I control the context as much as I am now, what truths am I actually telling? What can a reader take from this? (I’m not going to tell you [6]).

I’ve always thought that truths about people are more interesting when you know something about them that they don’t. Not something they don’t know you know (that can be as dangerous as it is interesting) but something they themselves don’t know.

The act of telling the truth can be one of subtle deception – the little omissions that unbalance a story or confession make the truth told a lame creature, lacking in it’s natural power. These are the truths most of us tell, I think. Not necessarily out of a desire to deceive but rather of a desire to protect ourselves. It’s like a peace offering, an enticement: treat this truth well and more perfectly formed ones will follow. Look for what is absent in a person’s truth and you might see what they really want to tell you (I used to look down my friend’s top when we play-fought [7]).

Personally I opt for white noise; tell a lot of truth and you can effectively bury the relevance of it in an avalanche of information. The point of the avalanche is not concealment, per se, it’s a weeding process of sorts. Only those who are listening will glean important information, putting together larger images – truth as a jigsaw puzzle. (I often place my words in the anecdotal mouths of others [8]).

Knowledge, truth and meaning, three interactive concepts that warp each other with their variable gravities, are deeply malleable things (I like being smart but I envy the clever [9]). I was talking with a friend of mine the other day about capabilities: psychological studies have revealed that the hallmark of true incompetence is the inability to question one’s competence. It simply never occurs to some people that they’re terrible at what they’re doing. That can be frustrating when encountered, but it occurs to me that the more dangerous prospect is someone who is exceedingly competent at something yet, also, never questions that competence; there’s an obsessive potential there that could crush all before it. At least the incompetent fall over.

The essential quality for knowledge, truth, meaning and competency is doubt. Doubt is the element that gives dimension to a concept, it makes you move your head to better see the side of a thing, to better understand how much you can’t see. Doubt slows you down and makes you better appreciate whatever quality and quantity of truth you’re lucky enough to encounter.

(Three of these ten truths are lies [10]).

Possibly a little smart arse-ish at the end there?

The Fight (Me vs Poetry II)

The Press Conference:

Poetry: “Getting ready to grumble?”

Me: “What? You’re gonna alliterate me to death? What rhymes with orange, old timer? Answer me that!”

The Weigh In:

Me: “…look you guys know that while I have the utmost respect for Poetry’s record, and obvious amounts of admiration for it’s abilities, I can’t help but think it’s time is over. Modern convention has convoluted Poetry’s overall technique making it vulnerable to my superior reach and hand speed.”

Poetry: “Bring it, Fatty.”

The Post Fight Interview:

Me: “No there won’t be a bloody rematch. Get that camera out of my fucking face!”

Poetry: “He floated like a butterfly… because that’s what big girl’s blouses do. Rhyme that asshole.”

Petting dos & don’ts

I feel great nostalgia for the pets of my childhood. I’m convinced that Rosie the labrador was the greatest dog that has ever lived – and I don’t mean that I’ll just stick up for her memories and life out of loyalty, regardless of evidence of other doggie greatness, I mean that I believe, fully and unreservedly, that Rosie is the greatest dog that has ever lived. I have kick-ass anecdotes made entirely of love and awesomeness that have never been surpassed. Feel free to test me, it is a competition.

Recently I stayed at home with my parents for a couple of months (a frankly embarrassing length of time for which I have several excellent excuses) which gave me ample opportunity to observe and interact with the current dogs, all personal-like. They’re two yappy little motherfuckers (poodles by breed, of the size that would comfortably fit into the tumble drier), called Mort and Sophie. They’re apparently unrelated, a recently learned factoid that made me feel a bit guilty for the multiple slippers I’ve thrown at Mort every time he starts humping Sophie.

“They’re terribly intelligent, darling”, pronounces my Mother when I question their dogworthiness. “At least Sophie is, Mort can be a tad retarded on occasion, but honestly just look at his coiffure.”

They emerge from the local dog-groomer bi-monthly, smelling very nice and looking ever so pretty, something I can’t deny, yet it throws into strange relief the memories of me and my sibling’s getting our hair cut at home with such paraphernalia as bowls and scissors, until, near grown, we fled home hoping to discover a social life undetermined by our weird looking heads.

“Stay still, dear… oh no, look what you made me do,” tolled the social death knell.

So some envy may have biased my failed relationship with pets, generation 3.

The dogs were taken to ‘Obedience School’ for some training, yet all they seem to have learned is to wait, sitting down, as their food bowls are put in front of them, whimpering until the key word is uttered and they can chow down. They pretty much just stare at you blankly if you expect them to do anything else.

Honestly, they’re idiots. Occasionally cunning idiots but, as I’m fond of pointing out to my mother, cunning doesn’t necessarily denote intelligence. My nephew can cunningly and consistently crap his nappies 2 minutes after they’ve been changed, no matter how varied the changing times or places. Very impressive, but the important thing to remember is that it’s his pants that are full of shit.

But embarrassment catches me up and pokes me in the sternum with the stiff finger of ‘so you think you’re so smart’ once more: My parents were away and I had to go around to theirs and hide the dogs in the laundry. Easy enough to do, you just have to get these beef-jerky treat things and bribe them into the laundry and close the door, they always fall for it. This stops them spending the next two hours yapping at the neighbour’s butterfly infestation. While I was at it I figured I’d try that discipline thing and get them to wait for their treat while reinforcing my obvious superiority. Firm commands of ‘sit!’ and ‘stay!’ were successful so down go the treats. Sophie and Mort are swapping their eyelines between the jerky and me, almost vibrating with the need to devour the food. I wait just a few seconds, getting a momentary feel for the joys of power over lesser creatures, before generously saying ‘eat!’. But they just sit there staring at me. I say, ‘Go on, you can eat now’, then, ‘go!’, ‘eat!’, ‘food!’ ‘alright!’ They just stare at me dubiously, like they’re thinking, ‘come on, we’ve got like one trick, stop fucking around and give us the word already’. I’m just staring at the beef-jerky saying random words, ‘yours… consume…  now… hairdrier… shamrock… sphagnum… …um, please?’

I eventually had to kind of push them right to the food and make encouraging noises and eating sounds while rubbing my belly. It was quite embarrassing for me and obviously confusing for the dogs. I swear they were looking at me differently afterward.

I asked my mother today, when I swung by to welcome her home, what the magic word was. Apparently  it’s ‘okay’.

I’d been hoping for something like ‘menopause’.

I don’t think I’ll give it another try, I really couldn’t cope if it didn’t work out again, the implications would be difficult to blot out. And those poodles can generate some pretty mocking looks, the bouffant bastards.

Redefinition

I was shown a fax at work today by Jenny (the wife of my boss, who is a total technophobe – the fax being the pinnacle of technology she’s willing to interact with while not pulling faces) that had the winners of the Washington Post Mensa Invitational Contest, which takes submissions of words that have have one letter changed, by adding, subtracting or substitution, and then are cleverly redefined. Here are my favourites from the list – I’ve spent a fair portion of the afternoon chortling over the last three especially.

1. Cashtration (n.): The act of buying a house, which renders the subject financially impotent for an indefinite period of time.

2. Intaxication (n.): Euphoria at getting a tax refund, which lasts until you realize it was your money to start with.

3. Bozone (n.): The subs tance surrounding stupid people that stops bright ideas from penetrating. The bozone layer, unfortunately, shows little sign of breaking down in the near future.

4. Foreploy (n.): Any misrepresentation about yourself for the purpose of getting laid.

5. Sarchasm (n.): The gulf between the author of sarcastic wit and the person who doesn’t get it.

6. Osteopornosis (n.): A degenerate disease. (This one got extra credit.)

7. Glibido (n.): All talk and no action.

8. Dopeler effect (n.): The tendency of stupid ideas to seem smarter whenn they come at you rapidly.

9. Reintarnation (n.): Belief that one will come back to life as a hillbilly.

10. Ignoranus (n.): A person who’s both stupid and an asshole.