The city and the city are Besźel and Ul Qoma, imaginary cities in the real world. Besźel is Eastern European, democratic but corrupt, and going to seed, its government desperately scrambling for American investment dollars with which to halt its slide into irrelevance. Ul Qoma is Middle Eastern, communist, and economically thriving, having leaped from the 19th century to the 21st in a matter of decades. They are the same place.
Sometime between two thousand and seventeen hundred years ago the city was founded, here in this curl of coastline. There are still remains from those times in the heart of the town, when it was a port hiding a few kilometers up the river to shelter from the pirates of the shore. The city's founding came at the same time as another's, of course. ... It may or may not have been Besźel, the we built, back then, while others may have been building Ul Qoma on the same bones. Perhaps there was one thing back then that later schismed on the ruins, or perhaps our ancestral Besźel had not yet met and standoffishly entwined its neighbor. I am not a student of the Cleavage, but if I were I still would not know.Citizens of one city are taught from infancy to 'unsee' the other, until they can walk down 'crosshatched' streets, in which the cities intermingle, and sense only their own. Passage from city to city is permitted only through the Checkpoint Charlie-esque Copula Hall, and visitors and immigrants to either city must pass a weeks-long training course during which they are taught the fundamentals of unsight. This is all done to appease Breach, the all-seeing, all-powerful entity which enforces the separation between the cities. To acknowledge the existence of the other city, to cross over into it or pass anything to or from it, is to call on Breach, and those who do so are never heard from again.
The City & The City begins in Besźel, where inspector Tyador Borlú is tasked with solving the murder of a young woman. The case becomes a diplomatic hot potato when she turns out to be Mahalia Geary, an American archeologist based in Ul Qoma, whose presence in Besźel indicates that someone, either Mahalia or her murderer, committed Breach. When a technicality prevents Breach from taking over the case, Borlú must travel to Ul Qoma and partner with detective Qussim Dhatt. Together they discover that Mahalia, who was digging up mysterious and surprisingly advanced artifacts from the pre-Cleavage era, had alienated both officials and fringe groups--unificationists, who believe the two cities should be one, and nationalists, who espouse the supremacy of one city over another--in both cities in her pursuit of Orciny, the fabled third city which exists in the disputed zones between Besźel and Ul Qoma. Before long, other murders are committed or attempted, and powerful politicians begin to exert their influence on the investigation, leading Borlú to wonder whether Mahalia had indeed found Orciny.
Investigation, I wrote in my review of Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union, is "the exploration of the unfamiliar, and the detective, forced by his role to be both insider and outsider to his community, and to visit its various strata and subgroups, makes a perfect tour guide." In its first, Besźel-set segment, The City & The City, which recalls The Yiddish Policeman's Union in several respects, makes a similar use of Borlú, who teaches us his world, lecturing on everything from the procedure for invoking Breach to take over a criminal investigation to the methods of cross-city smuggling to the laws governing the licensing of vehicles for multiples passes through Copula Hall. Like many narrators of fantasy and science fiction stories, his narrative is peppered with opaque terms and references through which we learn Besźel's culture and norms. Those norms, however, are the norms of unseeing, and Borlú's goal as a tour guide is not to reveal but to obfuscate, to teach us, as tourists visiting Besźel or Ul Qoma are taught, to unsee. The more he tells us, the greater the blank spot at the center of his narrative looms--the nature of the two cities and the separation between them. The experience of reading the first part of The City & The City is therefore characterized by the disorientation that comes from trying to see beyond the narrator's deliberately narrow frame of reference, to look at the things he won't describe for us, to crane our necks at the things he turns away from.
This masterfully executed disorientation is Miéville's greatest achievement in The City & The City, and every time we become acclimated to it, he allows Borlú to see a little bit more of his world, and undermines the fragile understanding we had constructed of the novel's universe. In the Besźel segment, this happens when Borlú leaves the 'total' area in which Mahalia's body was found and moves into crosshatched streets, introducing us to the unique form the separation between the cities takes, but the disorientation is compounded even further when Borlú crosses into Ul Qoma. The deliberately limiting perspective of Borlú's narrative forces us to rely on real-world associations, so that despite Borlú's dismissal of comparisons between Besźel-Ul Qoma and separated cities such as East and West Berlin, it's hard not to imagine Copula Hall as a stopping point on one's journey from one geographic point to another. It is enormously wrong-footing, therefore, when Borlú, having made the crossing in Copula Hall, leaves by the same entrance through which he entered.
On our way there I had had the driver take us, to his raised eyebrows, a long way round to the Besźel entrance on a route that took us on KarnStrász. In Besźel it is an unremarkable shopping street in the Old Town, but it is crosshatched, somewhat in Ul Qoma's weight, the majority of buildings in our neighbor, and in Ul Qoma its topolganger is the historic, famous Ul Maidin Avenue, into which Copula Hall vents. ... I had unseen it as we took KarnStrász, at least ostensibly, but of course grosstopically present near us were the lines of Ul Qomans entering, the trickle of visitor-badge-wearing Besź emerging into the same physical space they may have walked an hour previously, but now looking in astonishment at the architecture of Ul Qoma it would have been breach to see before.As the novel's plot and the investigation of Mahalia's murder progress, there are other wrong-footing moments of this type--Borlú pursuing a suspect who has crossed over to Besźel while Borlú is still in Ul Qoma, following him on crosshatched streets, seeing him only out of the corner of his eye; Borlú, having been taken by Breach and then sent back into the city to find Mahalia's murderer, realizing that he doesn't know which city he is in, and then that he is simultaneously in both and in neither. Each of these represent a leveling-up in our understanding of the city, another veil tugged aside to reveal the true nature of the city. And the more we learn about it, the clearer it becomes that that truth is entirely mundane, that there is no magic mandating the separation of the cities or the existence of Breach, but simply tradition and human perversity.
In their discussion of The City & The City, Niall Harrison and Dan Hartland felt that this mundaneness was a barrier to their enjoyment of the novel, as it forced them to read it as naturalistic, or at best allegorical, fiction. "[M]y argument with the book is precisely in the extent to which it is not fantasy or allegory. If The City & The City had been set in an invented world, or if it had created a secret, mythic world within our own, I suspect I would have found it (paradoxically) easier to believe in," Niall writes, and Dan says
The City & The City is [set in our world] ... For me, that’s where the book trips up — it situates its metaphor in a milieu too familiar. I didn’t believe in, as you say, the necessity of the separation because I didn’t believe the cities’ inhabitants would — not because people can’t be conditioned to accept something so absurd, but because people would never have made the separation, or sustained it, in the first place.And in a conversation in e-mail, goes on to describe the novel's transition from suggesting the fantastic to suggesting the mundane as "confusion," an "inability [of the book] to define its own terms":
[The City & The City] wants to be read as fantasy some of the time and not at others, which ... makes a nonsense of at least one of its concepts. ... the rules by which the two cities operate, and by which their peoples perceive, are constantly suggested to be our own ... and yet it is frankly bonkers that human beings on planet Earth ever would behave - ever conceive to behave - in this way. Either, as you say, Mieville needed to make these cities Magic, or he needed to make them Make Sense by the rules of the world he chose to put them in - our own.What Niall and Dan read as confusion, however, I see as a deliberate, and purposeful, dismantling of the fantasy genre and its core assumptions. As Dan points out, The City & The City combines elements of each of the four types of fantasy Farah Mendlesohn described in Rhetorics of Fantasy: "this fantasy is a portal quest (Copula Hall), yet it is also immersive (because we begin in the world and our POV character is part of that world); at the same time, it is intrusive — Breach and one city exist constantly at the edge of perception for inhabitants of the other — and liminal, since that gap between our world and the fantasy is never properly resolved." The better, I believe, to thoroughly undermine the genre when it's revealed that there is no border between the cities except in their inhabitants' minds, and that Breach is no more magical than any other civil authority (though Miéville cheats a bit by ascribing, and describing, near magical powers to Breach in the novel's earlier segments which aren't sufficiently explained by the organization's actual structure when we get a closer look at it). When Besźel, Ul Qoma, and Breach are revealed to be mundane or nonexistant, Miéville has not simply subverted fantasy but the specific fantasy archetypes he had encouraged us to identify in the novel's earlier segments, and so too has he subverted the fantastic city tropes he's made such memorable use of in his previous novels, each of which The City & The City, as I've noted above, recalls. This, however, does not make The City & The City a mimetic novel or even a novel confused about its genre--it is fantastic precisely because it is such a deliberate anti-fantasy.
In most fantasy novels, the very suggestion of a secret city is a guarantee of its existence, and Miéville gestures heavily in this direction by stressing the unusual nature of the pre-Cleavage artifacts Mahalia and her colleagues were uncovering--your classic wisdom of a lost age scenario. But though Borlú and Dhatt discover that Mahalia was in contact with Orciny, this turns out to have been a trick. There is no third city, and the identity of the novel's actual villains feels like the end of The Scar writ large. In that novel, the creatures pursuing Armada are assumed to have mystical, alien motivations--the retrieval of a holy and perhaps magical artifact--but their interest turns out to be purely economic, their quarry a spy who has stolen trade secrets. Similarly, in The City & The City the people who presented themselves to Mahalia as representatives of Orciny are using her to steal artifacts so they can sell them to American R&D companies, whose representative is flatly dismissive of the Besźel-Ul Qoma-Breach mystique.
"I'm neither interested in nor scared of you. I'm leaving. 'Breach.'" He shook his head. "Freak show. You think anyone beyond these odd little cities cares about you? They may bankroll you and do what you say, ask no questions, they may need to be scared of you, but no one else does." He sat next to the pilot and strapped himself in. "Not that I think you could, but I strongly suggest you and your colleagues don't try to stop this vehicle. 'Grounded.' What do you think would happen if you provoked my government? It's funny enough the idea of either Besźel of Ul Qoma going to war against a real country. Let alone you, Breach."The emotional arc of someone reading The City & The City should be a transition from the anticipation of fantasy to the recognition of mundaneness, culminating in this scene, which thoroughly skewers the genre and irrefutably places the two cities in the real world. Which means that a core flaw in the novel is that a reader who approaches it as a mimetic novel, or who takes the novel's real-world setting and mostly mundane trappings as an indication that it should be read as metaphor or an allegory, will circumvent that arc, which may result in an entirely flat reading experience. It's one of the pitfalls of novels that subvert genre tropes that they rely on readers having the expectation of those tropes to begin with, which is not a very safe assumption in the case of a novel that veers as far from the outer trappings of a traditional fantasy novel as The City & The City does.
I suspect that Niall and Dan's difficulties with the novel stem from this kind of expectation mismatch, but I also wonder whether they approached The City & The City as they did because they expected it to be a political novel. It's telling, I think, that their discussion touches on politics, whereas my reading leaves no room for it. And yet, given the novel's emphasis on borders, its obvious real-world parallels, and the fact that the man at the wheel is China Miéville, the expectation of a political subtext is by no means unreasonable. It's hard to imagine, though, what the novel's message might be unless it is this: that real-world communities often divide along lines of culture, religion, or ethnicity which seem as immutable as the Besźel-Ul Qoma split, and whose enforcers seem almost as difficult to gainsay as Breach, but that these divisions are often primarily in the mind. As Niall and Dan note, however, boundaries are necessary for maintaining a culture's integrity, and the novel itself seems to be aware of this, most particularly in the character of the American executive, whose above-quoted speech hints at the cities' future as wholly-owned subsidiaries of more powerful, more dominant cultures should they ever surrender their collective illusion that there is a force that sets them apart from the world. Certainly the novel's ending, in which Borlú joins Breach, suggests that he sees the value of the organization despite, or perhaps even because, he comprehends its mundaneness.
Getting back to my review of The Yiddish Policemen's Union, one of my reservations about that book is that for all the novelty of combining a noir-tinged detective story with an alternate history, the two elements, when considered on their own, were rather predictably drawn. "Chabon seems to feel," I wrote, "that the act of piling genre on top of genre forces him to color within the lines of both." A similar conservatism can be observed in The City & The City, and very much to its detriment. By this point in his career it's possible to argue that for China Miéville to dismantle fantasy tropes is coloring within the lines. He does so more brashly in The City & The City, however, than in his previous novels, and his execution is fine enough to make up for any predictability in theme. Sadly, no similar excellence characterizes the mystery aspect of the novel, which is slack and unengaging. Surprisingly for an author who has in the past written incredibly tense chase and action scenes, there are few pulse-pounding moments in The City & The City, and the closest thing to a chase scene, Borlú's pursuit of a man who is in a different city than him, is more concerned with establishing the weirdness of what is happening that with accelerating the readers' heart rate, though it could be that the novel is by its nature, and because of its focus on Borlú's narrow point of view, too muted and airless to sustain much excitement.
Even worse, however, is the absence of tension in the mystery itself. The plot is drawn along predictable lines: young, female victim in whom the detective becomes invested, political interference in the investigation, dastardly secret uncovered by the victim, which leads back to a conspiracy of the rich and powerful. It's pretty easy to guess the beats of such a story, which means that the pleasure of it is found in the execution, which in Miéville's hands is clumsy. In the first, Besźel-set segment the investigation is mostly concerned with finding out who the victim was and who she associated with, with Borlú and his officer, Lizbyet Corwi, pounding the pavement and chasing down leads. Miéville doesn't do a good enough job of filtering out the drudgery that makes up most of actual police work--probably because he uses that drudgery as a delivery method for Borlú's lectures about Besźel and the mechanics of unsight. Similarly, when Borlú and Corwi do come across a new piece of information, it's often buried beneath the exposition Miéville needs to establish the nature of the Besźel-Ul Qoma split--when the two interview a unificationist who knew Mahalia, he gives them a lot of concrete information about his movement, but only hints and insinuations about her. With no emotional hook to the investigation--Mahalia's parents don't show up until relatively late in this segment--the only thrill comes when Borlú makes a neat deduction about how Mahalia's body was transported from Ul Qoma to Besźel.
There a few more neat deductions of this type when Borlú continues his investigation in Ul Qoma, and the investigation does pick up the pace in this segment. What's still missing, however, is the very crux of a detective novel--a sense of urgency, the readers' need to know who, where, how and most especially why. In The City & The City, all that blood is flowing to the fantasy aspect, the question of what the cities are and why they are separated. Miéville does very little to invest readers in Mahalia or the injustice of her murder (the closest he comes is when her devastated father commits Breach in order to investigate the murder himself, but the Gearys are soon shuffled off the page), and even less to build up to the revelation of her murderer. The man in charge in the conspiracy is a faceless politician whom we meet once, very nearly in passing, before Borlú identifies him as the ringleader, and who is killed soon after. When this solution is revealed as a false bottom, with Borlú concluding that the dead man wasn't smart enough to have fooled Mahalia, we have to take his word for it. The actual murderer is revealed in an excruciatingly slow scene in which Borlú narrates every single detail of the crime to the person who committed it. For most of the novel, the weakness of the mystery is a minor concern because we're too busy figuring out the nature of Borlú's world, but Miéville wraps up the fantasy aspect twenty pages before he wraps up the mystery, and these leave a bad taste in the reader's mouth.
Like Iron Council, I find The City & The City easier to admire than enjoy. Its thorough dismantling of fantasy tropes is an impressive technical achievement, but there's not much satisfaction to be wrung out of the revelation that there is no revelation. Though the weakness of the detective story isn't enough to scuttle the novel, it may be what's keeping it from true greatness--if the inventive, challenging premise had been matched with a genuinely rollicking plot, the latter might have compensated for Miéville's deliberate failure to pay off the expectations he himself raises. Miéville's adult novels have been moving towards a more reflective, solipsistic attitude towards fantasy, and there's a growing sense that he views subverting fantasy as a goal in its own right rather than a means to an end--as it was in King Rat, Perdido Street Station, and The Scar. The results have been impressive but chilly. One hopes, therefore, that even if The City & The City represents Miéville's definitive statement on fantasy and its cities, it isn't his definitive statement on storytelling.