For reasons I don’t remember now – probably because we caught a bit of the film on tv – when I was about twelve my dad gave me a copy of Gorky Park and told me to get on with it. Growing up in a Polish family meant I was probably more aware of the USSR and the Communist Bloc than I was of the UK’s political history; at least, when I started Gorky Park, the only murder mystery I’d read set in Britain was Sherlock Holmes and that was what I expected. The nature of the book threw me. The names and naming systems were strange, the period unfamiliar, the atmosphere weird – everything felt dark and shadowed and cold – and the sense of the ever-watchful state was so pervasive I didn’t enjoy the book at all. I felt accomplished when I finished though, admiring the craft that went into it, rendering a time completely alien to me in such a way that I still remember the relief of not being there.
In the best way possible, I felt that when I finished The City & The City. At least I don’t have to unsee cars in another city on my road, or people wandering through the streets, or buildings with other names. At least I don’t live in fear of Breach for an accidental misstep. At least the ability I have to “unsee” something is the usual skill you get as a Londoner on public transport and not a requirement of my life here. At least neither of those cities are mine.
I’m feeling almost apologetic for not liking The City & The City more because it’s such a brilliantly rendered world it had me looking up halfway through and wondering why I wasn’t seeing Ul Qoma, which is quite a reality-bending achievement for a 370-page book. The languages, names, cultures – Mieville is one of the finest world-builders out there today, if not the best, and The City & The City is an exemplary novel of exactly that. It’s about those cities, &, their intersection, where they “crosshatch”, the blurred lines, the moments of transgression, the breaking and keeping of the rules. It works so well partially because Mieville put it right in our world with our mobiles and GPS and internet, not only of our reality but of our time, and gave us the most mind-expanding concept to take in; Beszel and Ul Qoma, both in the same time, similar geography but also the same exact place, both laid over the other, both with their own names and histories and cultures and cuisine and politics, internal and external. Beszel is run-down and decaying where Ul Qoma is more modern and wealthy, leading to all sorts of tensions with each other and with foreign powers. I assumed this would be hard to cope with but Mieville’s written The City & The City in a deceptively simple style so any struggles I had were my own moments of befuddlement. It’s a confusing book at times but ultimately rewarding, no doubt about that.
So why am I not entirely sold on it? At no point was I really worried for anyone; the plot didn’t feel convincing enough for a murder mystery, nor did it feel like there was a real sense of danger. The revelation of the guilty parties at the end didn’t feel like a light turning on in a dark room – instead there was a scurrying through the pages to find where that character had turned up before. The sense of mystery and foreboding was perfect but it didn’t feel justified by the plot.
Most importantly, I felt no connection to any characters alive or dead, nor did I yearn for any sense of justice. The style, the atmosphere was perfect, but the characters felt like shadows against such a wonderful backdrop of the Beszel/Ul Qoma/Breach backdrop, outshone by the grand idea, and the one thing that kept me turning the pages wasn’t a need for resolution but to see where Mieville was going with his cities. I wanted to uncover every little facet of the cities and how they came to be split and yet be whole, and how Breach worked, what political stresses resulted from such a weird and wonderful situation. In that respect, I felt completely satisfied. There was never a break of believability about the cities, though the practicality of it is, in hindsight, a bit strange (while reading it never occurred to me so I can’t see it as a real criticism). What’s missing is a good empathetic personality. Inspector Borlu is almost there, but there’s too much distance between him and the reader and though he’s likeable, there’s nothing to really latch on to.
Perdido Street Station is still one of the best books I’ve read, and I’d probably put the Beszel/Ul Qoma situation somewhere up with New Crobuzon in a list of my favourite fictional creations – it was a great way to frame ideas about national identity, history, perception, belief. I can see why people adore it and wish I did too, but just as much as I love a good full-blooded bit of excellent world-building, I want characters I care about and to feel an emotional link to the plot. I didn’t get that, but I did get to enoy Mieville’s imagination and intelligence for a few hundred pages and that’s always good. It’s a marked change from his earlier work, and I have my issues with it, but it’s definitely worth reading because it’s completely unique.