Mr H and Mr H Discuss The City & The City: Part Two

China Mieville’s The City and The City has just been published by Macmillan. It’s been getting some good press, yet I didn’t feel entirely convinced by it. Nor did Torque Control’s Niall Harrison, so we’ve been talking over the book and trying to get at why we weren’t as impressed as other reviewers. The first part of this conversation can be found over at Torque Control. The second starts here, though those intending to read it should avoid both these installments – unlike other reviews of the book, we couldn’t contrive in this format to avoid discussing the central conceit of the novel, which Mieville has been quietly encouraging critics to obscure. Anyway … onwards.

"The City and The City", UK cover
"The City and The City" in the UK


Thanks for that Encyclopedia quote — I think it’s clear that the uncomfortable slush of elements is part of the point, then. That makes the book interesting as a lark, but winds up being integral to its failure. Mieville’s love of the neologism and pun isn’t new to this book, though, is it? He’s used termplay to do some heavy lifting in each of his novels, and in fact I’d say it’s central to his technique. It seems to me that one of the ways he inspires that ol’ sensawunda is by keeping things so vague: his characters, his cities, his political structures very often seem to be at one remove from the reader. We never quite understand them, and that deliberate inscrutability is key to his art. It’s on show here, too — those clever wordplays hint at without expositing different ways of thinking and being, whilst all of the characters, even Borlu, remain just in one way or another undrawn, unknowable.

And, again, this is where the ‘In Our World’ stuff intrudes. You can’t make a world so similar to ours as to be exactly that unknowable, you can’t hold it at one remove from us for a long enough period of time for us to begin to believe in its impossibility. As we’re agreed, it is very difficult to imagine the ways in which the Cleavage was enacted and sustain because we do know how the world works, and the author cannot succeed in dangling that knowledge just a little out of reach. I think you summarise the ambivalence of the book’s political position well — the complexity of the issues are not underplayed, and the book allows even hardline nationalists to be simulatneously both right and wrong — but, again, much of it is too familiar to us to fit this radically different way of living. I know exactly what you mean about thinking Borlu a dolt, but as I said I can believe he has been conditioned — or as you put it, believe he believes — but despite that the concept, too, remains doltish. This is fatal: it makes the complex politics fall down, because the ‘nationalism’ on show is so obviously a false iteration, and the depiction of culture so gratingly artificial. The book tries hard to depict a difficult world which must be inter-connected to survive, but in which borders are crucial and cannot be ignored; yet that conceptual failure undermines the whole edifice.

So, sure, globalised business exists apart from both unity and division, of course, which is why the businessman appears hypocritical from both perspectives — but whether the nationalists criticise the ‘false consciousness’ of the twin cities, their nationalism is in turn equally false because of the novel’s own weaknesses. I’d like to think that all this falseness is some clever piece of cultural criticism, but I fear the novel is in fact just poorly conceived. The mystery stuff is a case in point: undoubtedly, this is an homage to noir and suchlike, and in particular its first chapter is very strained in its attempt to read like Chandler (a much harder effect to achieve than is often allowed). The twists and turns of the story are quintessential mystery novel, and the nearly comedic summary by the detective at the end a study in the form. But none of that part of the novel ever felt to me remotely as inventive as Mieville’s fantasy stuff — imagine the mystery without the fantasy setting, and you get something close to the masterfully over-cooked genre parody in Cloud Atlas.

Over on his blog, MJH is saying ‘read that book whatever you do’. I don’t get it.


Without wanting to put words in that other Mr Harrison’s mouth, my guess is that what he values about the book is that it challenges us to think about what we mean by “fantasy”: not in the taxonomic/lexicographic literary sense we’ve just been discussing, but in the real-world sense. Why do we choose to believe the narratives by which our day-to-day real-world lives are shaped — narratives, in the end, as virtual as any “fantasy novel”? What do we gain and lose by it? That sort of thing. You say that wordplay is not a new feature of Mieville’s works, and that’s true, but I’d say that in The City & The City the way in which words actively shape reality, rather than merely reflecting it, is more foregrounded than in anything else he’s written, precisely because it is a version of our world being shaped.

Of course, if you read it and remain un-shaped, it’s less impressive. Your point that we already know how the world works, and Mieville can’t hide it from us, is an excellent one, I think. I appreciated the extent to which Mieville added more and more exceptions to the rules, ultimately making it clear that everyone who believes in the separation does so because they choose to do so. I thought the Ul-Qoma ex-pat community in Beszel was really very well handled, nicely disorienting; and I appreciated that he acknowledged that unsmelling or unhearing would be rather more difficult than unseeing, to the point of it sometimes being impossible to know whether to un-sense something or not. But again, ultimately these are portrayed as temporary, resolvable confusions, whereas it seems to me they would quickly become catastrophic, peoples’ choice or no.

"The City and The City" US Cover
"The City and The City" in the US

As to the book’s other advocates … I’m waiting on a review from Clute at the moment, and I gather he liked it; I’ll let you know what his arguments are. Gary Wolfe, in the April Locus, feels that it is Mieville’s “most disciplined and sharply focused novel to date” (I suppose it is), that “what’s most impressive … is not what amazes us about these imaginary cities, but what is familiar about them” (which I take to mean he bought into the conceit more than I did), that it’s “quite unlike anything [he’s] seen before” (to an extent, although there are books like Hav); and he’s pleased by “the manner in which [Mieville] respects and maintains the integrity of the police procedural”, even while unpacking the book’s mysteries. That last one I thought was a bit of a problem, actually. Borlu’s job requires him to be highly observant; but his life requires him to be highly selectively observant. Surely a deliberate contradiction, but also one that handicaps the novel a bit, since Mieville resolves it by having Borlu’s narrative be basically un-visual (until near the end, when he really does see both cities at once). Points for impressive technical achievement, somewhat fewer points for a believable detective protagonist.


I’m still not sure I was as impressed as you by the wordplay stuff: sure, the way the residents of the cities use language shapes their reality, but this isn’t restricted to fantasy novels, or even very good ones. That Mieville finds some useful ways to depict this common process is power to him, but I don’t find it that noteworthy, within his oeuvre or outside it. As for what we think might be MJH’s reasons for liking it … well, OK. The book certainly does that, but for all the reasons we’ve been discussing it does not manage to do it very well. Again, why give a book a pass because it merely tries to something? Likewise, Wolfe is right on all his counts in terms of what the book does but, as you say, whether it does those things well is a trickier question. I don’t at all find the detective fiction stuff particularly clever — in fact, I kept thinking that Martin Cruz Smith should have been in Mieville’s acknowledgements. At times, The City & the City reads so much like Gorky Park that I find it hard to believe Mieville is unfamiliar with it (though he may be). Gorky Park was a bestseller, but in terms of the genre of police procedural it is as by the numbers as Mieville.

This is less maintaining the integrity of a form to my mind, and more using it as a crutch as everything else falls down around you. What keeps the novel together is its tight crime focus — it could not work as a straight fantasy novel, because its elements do not cohere. Yes, the tension between the two forms (as personified in Borlu) is deliberate: but it sets up something for us to watch, to focus on, so that we pay attention to the world largely as background to the mystery. Canny. Mieville says here that he’s always seen something of the fantastic in detective novels, that they pretend to exist in our world but in truth do not. Going through all those Sherlock Holmes stories, it’s not difficult to accept what he’s saying. But if he’s right, then what detective fiction manages better than The City & the City is to convince us that the world of its fiction is very much ours, and that what happens in the story could happen in our lives. MJH may like the central questions of the novel, but Mieville’s attempt to write them large is to my mind what dooms the book to failure in this key generic regard.

I agree that Mieville is as clever as he can be with the conceit — I too enjoyed watching, as the book went on, all the imperfect ways in which unseeing and unsensing were at times negotiated — but ultimately you come back to that failure to hold our world in this world together. I’m glad others have been more convinced by the book — but I think we can agree that we weren’t, and that there are serious problems with the book that tell us why.


18 thoughts on “Mr H and Mr H Discuss The City & The City: Part Two

  1. Hav is right, I think: the book is to some extent a crime/noir narrativised Hav. But Hav keeps the real-actual-city/real-imaginary-city thing implicit in its project; we continually set Morris’s inventions against our knowledge of those actual cities that are Havesque. Havlike. Havvy. By promoting the conceit to the role of core metaphor of the novel, making the implicit explicit, Mieville runs the risk of a kind of conceptual crudity. That he staves this risk off, for the most part, is testament to his very great writerly skills; but I agree with you guys that there’s something not-quite-there about the book. Although I also agree with the reviewers you quote that in many ways it’s his most accomplished novel to date.

    I also found myself reminded a little of Glasgow/Unthank in Alisdair Gray.

    It’s a very good novel. It would have been a better novel if it hadn’t tried to be a crime story.

  2. Also: “he’s always seen something of the fantastic in detective novels, that they pretend to exist in our world but in truth do not.

    Strike out ‘detective’, there.

  3. Adam, to the extent that Mieville’s previous novels have always seemed uninterested in “novelistic” cohesion, then clearly ‘The City and The City’ is his ‘most complete’ work: that is, it is tightly focussed, clearly plotted and economically written. But that absence you too have identified in it hobbles any ambitions its superficial craft may have held.

    I think you and Niall are spot-on about ‘Hav’: my memory of reading it was very much one of frequent allusion, of the keying of association, whilst Mieville is far more explicit in his placing of Beszel. Unthank, I think is another decent example – unlike Gray, MIeville never comes out and admits that was he’s up to is a literary game, even when it is most obvious. I agree with you on the striking out detective point, too – but the specifity of the novel as it is written resists that sort of ‘meta’ reading…

  4. I wasn’t clear, I think, about the ‘striking out detective’ thing. My point was just the very obvious one: CM says there’s something distinctively ‘fantastic’ about detective fiction because ‘they pretend to exist in our world but in truth do not.’ But that’s a statement that applies to all novels, detective or not.

  5. Yes, but isn’t there something comparably — and oh god, I can feel myself turning into Graham as I prepare this word — positivist about the detective novel and the sf novel, that isn’t necessarily the case for other novels? That is, all novels create a fictive world, fine; not all novels pretend that their world can be decoded — in the case of a detective novel, solved, in the case of an sf novel, understood. Maybe?

  6. That’s exactly the point I took you to be making, Adam – my response was simply that, if CM wants to make a literary point, he should do more, a la Gray, to emphasise the constructedness of his novel. Niall takes the positivist stuff too far, I think, but ‘The City and The City’ is a novel which does indeed work very hard pretending to be solvable and understandable on our terms. This is not something either ‘Hav’ or ‘Lanark’ try to do, and it is in his choice to do otherwise that Mieville starts to get into trouble…

  7. Dan: my mistake.

    Niall: you prepare words before deploying them? I salute you, sir. I salute you.

    You’re bang-on: one of the major threads running through debates about postmodern fiction (and although Mieville has a healthy Trotskyite disdain for much of postmodernism, he certainly knows all this stuff) is that detective fiction is the classic paradigm of epistemological fiction (finding stuff out) where SF is the the classic paradigm of ontological fiction (about, roughly, reality/being … worldbuilding, for instance). The former is, very broadly, seen as Modernist and the latter as Postmodernist. One celebrated iteration of this is Brian McHale’s Postmodernist Fiction (2001); although McHale’s interest there, really, is in texts that are simultaneously modernist and postmodernist. He’d have a field day with The City and the City.

    So, yes; I suppose part of CM’s point is the creation of a world cognate and simultaneous with ours that doesn’t exist until you notice it, until you actively go looking for it: the deliberate fusing of epistemological and ontological. Which ought to be more interesting than, in this case, it somehow is. That may be because the book is so thoroughly Marxist: the doubling of the core conceit is ideology itself, both in its false consciousness sense and in the way ideology involves sustained doublethink. But I’m not sure these three items are as compatible as all that.

    Personally, I’d say that the process of decoding and understanding that are reified, as it were, in detective and SFnal texts are the strategies of reading themselves: all texts are ultimately about themselves, or about their own textuality. But that’s a larger can of worms.

    [Apologies for haste and doubtless incoherence of this; got to dash … children to be bathed, etc]

  8. the doubling of the core conceit is ideology itself, both in its false consciousness sense and in the way ideology involves sustained doublethink.

    Yes. And I suppose what Niall and I – and now you (!) – are saying is that the book fails to create a believable fantasy which can encompass both this and its play with forms. The whole thing collapses because its conceit cannot hold all these elements in tension.

    Also, I’d like to see that can of worms opened – not least because I reckon I’m on your side.

  9. How disappointing. I somehow managed not to notice that China Miéville had a new book out until I saw the title of this post in the Torque Control feed, and having just re-read The Scar, I was terribly excited!

    In the fascinating Crooked Timber Miéville Seminar, CM ruefully responds to the criticism that he never mentions the ‘nice part of town’ of New Crobuzon, and speaks quite a bit about the ‘unseeing’ phenomenon.

    It’s difficult to believe that Besźel and Ul Qoma are not metaphors. CM is, after all, strongly exercised about “unseeing” and the ignorance of socio-economic differences that it perpetuates. But that may be irrelevant. Obviously I haven’t read this book, but how can such a concept fail to make readers think of communities that live side by side and resolutely refuse to acknowledge one another?

    (I can imagine such a concept being a pointed critique of New Labour’s project of multiculturalism. But now my free association is running away with me.)

    Mr H and Mr H, you’ve forestalled the dash to the bookshop. I just can’t see Ryanair flying to Ul Qoma.

  10. but how can such a concept fail to make readers think of communities that live side by side and resolutely refuse to acknowledge one another?

    Maybe I’m misunderstanding you here, but — that’s exactly what they make you think of, because to an extent that’s exactly what the relationship between them is; Beszel, at the start of the book, is in a slow decay, Ul Qoma is thrustingly modern. The problem is when the book tries to convince you they work literally, as well as metaphorically. Andrew McKie commented that it didn’t bother him, because he just slotted it in with Kafka, as fantasy; but while I think that’s a possible reading, ultimately I don’t think it’s a full reading, for the reasons discussed above. Per Adam, the fusing of various different things should be more interesting than it is, somehow.

    Adam: with a word like that, if you didn’t prep it, who knows what trouble you might get into? As for the can of worms: mmm, worms.

  11. I’ve been thinking about this a bit more, and wondering to what extent the problem does or doesn’t have to do with Miéville’s specific emulsion of crime and Fantasy here.

    Crimes is a very interesting mode, and at its best it is always more than just an epistemological game. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a better detective novel than Roger Ackroyd not just because Le Carré creates a more believable and interesting world than Christie (though he does) but precisely because uncovering the mystery in Le Carré’s novel means getting behind the way the world seems, and getting to the bottom of the way the world really is. Its epistemology parses its ontology, if you see what I mean. I’d argue that the best detective novels do precisely that: Oedipus Tyrannus, Great Expectations, The Man Who Was Thursday; the best Simenon (by no means all of them). Some crime novels generate a kind of pastiche or imitation effect along these lines without actually hitting the nail on the head: you read Lindsey Davis (say) and find out a whole bunch of stuff about early Rome and think ‘I’m learning a world!’. As you are. But what you’re learning isn’t radically connected to the process of finding out who’s behind the crime. With Golden Age the emphasis is often so wholly on the epistemology that the ontology is just pasteboard. Quite a lot of noir is this way too.

    Now, as Dan notes here, I got a strong whiff of Gorky Park reading The City and the City (in the atmosphere, but also in some of the details … the attempt to cut off the victim’s face, for instance; plus the various hierarchies of police (militia, KGB etc). By the same token I got also got a strong whiff of The Wire ( “’sup policemen?” etc).

    Now both of those seem to me examples of really good crime narratives. In both cases, the (as it were epistemological) investigation of one secret—who committed a particular crime—leads to the uncovering of a far wider, systemic, ontological secret: in Gorky Park the state-within-a-state actually pulling the strings in Communist Russia and its various corruptions, and in The Wire you start with the platitudes of the ‘good guys versus bad guys’ cartoon notion of the war on drugs, and you end with a sense that things are really much more complex than that. Maybe that doesn’t sound like much, but the thing that makes The Wire so extraordinary is the complete conviction with which learning the world of Baltimore, evolves into a process of ontological discovery: this is how capitalist society operates in toto. There is a getting beneath the surface of things.

    The City and the City doesn’t really work like that. The novel is built around a secret that it is at pains to point out, from early on, is in plain view all the time; a ‘secret’ that people have to go to enormous lengths to avoid seeing. It’s not that that’s not an interesting fictional conceit, in its own terms; it’s that it doesn’t work as the ground of a crime story. (There’s ‘Orsiny’, of course; which tries to fill the slot of ‘genuinely hidden mystery’; but doesn’t really manage to, I’d say).

    So in the end what I’m saying is that the novel purports to be epistemological and isn’t, in the end, epistemological enough. We don’t care enough about who murdered the woman; we care about the details of how these worlds coexist. Which is fine, and in the end enough on its own; but Miéville’s rather hamstrung by the conventions of the form he’s writing in.

  12. Adam – I like a lot of what you say, particularly in relation to how Gorky Park and The Wire do things differently (and more successfully). The Wire, of course, is also about the parts of the modern city we do not see – and it is far more eloquent, subtle and comprehensive on the subject than The City and The City. I’m not sure it’s a massive influence on the book, but David Simon’s achievement looms large over its subject matter. (I’m pretty glad, too, that I wasn’t the only one who though GP was being chanelled more than subtly at times.)

    So yes, I like you keep coming back to CM’s choice to make this a fantasy novel as well as a detective book. CM is obviously a very supple writer – the mechanics of the novel such as they are get handled very well, and the prose itself is some of his best. Yet he can’t resist that fantasy setting (indeed, he’s obviously having a grand old time throwing together all the various generic assumptions at play) , and in trying to push the two together in such a way that the novel is set between the two stools, he finds that the very things that could make his crime novel successful and his fantasy world believable are impossible to achieve.

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