Bookclub: “The Carhullan Army”

Sarah Hall was on Radio 4’s Bookclub programme this afternoon, discussing her novel The Carhullan Army. I rather agree with Niall over at Torque Control on the matter of that novel’s quality, although I’m not sure that the readers asking Hall questions were quite so bowled over – at least one just came out and said that they were frustrated by it. Her criticism was one which was made at the time of the book’s publication: The Carhullan Army is a short novel, and refuses to paint in very much of its background detail. It instead focuses, as Hall explains in the programme, on the emotional journey of its nameless point-of-view character, Sister, and on a gritty, earthy sense of place.

At least in part, this unconventional approach to speculative worldbuilding is explained by a slightly surprising admission Hall makes in conversation with James Naughtie: she has never read 1984. Everyone should read the book for purely political reasons, of course; but when Niall writes about the force of the novel’s “entry into the discourse of feminist utopia/dystopia”, he chooses his modifier wisely: Hall has read The Handmaid’s Tale, not George Orwell. Hall makes reference to the ‘dialogue’ of science fiction, but is vaguer on her own place within it.

The programme’s well worth a listen.

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

Dan:

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.

Niall:

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.

Dan:

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.

The Ant King and Other Genres

The Ant King and Other Stories
The Ant King and Other Stories

My review of Benjamin Rosenbaum’s The Ant King and Other Stories is up today at Strange Horizons. I am in rather more stident form in a four-way discussion with Niall Harrison, Abigail Nussbaum and Martin Lewis, over at Torque Control.

One of the things I’ve been thinking about – or at least have had sat grumpily at the back of my head – is (whisper it now) genre reception. What surprised me in my reaction to Rosenbaum’s collection is that I preferred the more obviously generic of the stories. This isn’t normally the case with me – great SF is as great as any other fine literature, but by and large I find staple genre pieces of all kinds unable to make that leap. Clearly this generalisation doesn’t hold in a collection in which the staple genre stuff is just better written than the mixed stuff, and this might suggest that the quality of the writing has no bearing on whether something can be said to belong wholly to a given genre.

And yet.

It was recently reading Blindness which kicked off this quibbling. Jose Saramago’s haunting parable of society and order is surely science fictional in concept: a mysterious, unexplainable virus cuts a swathe through civilisation. As in PD James’s The Children of Men, this virus remains more or less an unexplored McGuffin, and this is what separates such works from the hard SF whose instinct it would be to delve into the facts and figures of the condition. This lack of interest in science doesn’t render the work divorced entirely from the genre, of course, since all sorts of soft SF, fantasy, and slipstream works make a similar choice. Yet the book – andmany others like it – is not widely or materially associated with the genre (the flipside of this is that some of Rosenbaum’s considerably less SFnal stories are). The standard answer to this condundrum is to blame the publishing industry: we follow the tag on the book’s shelf in the store, which exists only to market it, not as a tool for its criticism. And yet it’s hard not to identify an unconscious assumption that, if a book is luminously written, it cannot really belong to something as potentially limiting as a genre.

This may be true – great writers are also great synthesisers, fusing together many genres and modes. The very act of writing well may also be one of transcending protocols of genre. But what of those great writers – a Bester or a Miéville – who choose not to eschew genre? Do we limit our appreciation of their works with this vague (and easily disproven) rule of thumb, or do they limit their writing by placing it in a single (and easily limiting) box?

Nothing new to the debate here, genre veterans. Move along, move along …