Tuesday, June 02, 2009

New this Week: The City & the City by China Miéville

Having waited quite a while for the latest effort by China Miéville, the author of Perdido Street Station and Un Lun Dun, I’m disappointed in myself to have been disappointed by The City & the City (Del Rey), a book that I know is better than I think it is.

Let me explain.

Since he arrived on the scene under the splendid weight of King Rat in 1998, Miéville has been the one to watch. Just 25 at the time, King Rat announced this arrival with a force and passion that was undeniable.

After a book like that debut, there’s always the fear: will he be able to follow it up? And Miéville did, in wonderful style, with a book that is -- arguably -- already a classic: 2000’s majestic steampunk Perdido Street Station.

Other books followed, with Miéville seemingly pushing the boundaries of whatever form he opted to follow. Mark my words: he is a very real talent. And the joy of it: seven splendid books in, Miéville is still only 36 years old. He has time to push at every edge of form that he wishes.

He’s done that again in The City & the City, pushing at the boundaries of both speculative fiction and classic 20th-century noir. Set in a somewhat recognizable world with a starkly Eastern European feel, the two cities referred to are Beszel and Ul Qoma, two cities that happen to be in the same place at one time. Citizens of both places are forbidden to see each other or acknowledge each other’s presence, even though there are circumstances where denizens of both places can be seen. At those times, it is both law and etiquette to unsee the other party and never to say you’ve seen anything at all.

Now clearly, a murder investigation under such circumstances is going to be a challenge. For one thing, there’s a whole city of potential suspects right over there and you may not ask them where they were or what they’ve seen.

While the premise is deeply fascinating, it never quite works for me. The writing, once again, is fantastic. Miéville writes beautifully. Few can come close to his way with both meter and metaphor. He seems to hit the dark and gritty noir tone effortlessly and -- aside from the weird circumstances of the city -- his characters are believable and even pleasantly flawed. I felt distanced from the story in a way that I could not bridge but, as I suggested when I began, the writing is so good, the premise so well thought out, I can’t see how the fault could be Miéville’s and, certainly, other reviewers have liked it much better than I did.

I plan to read The City & the City again in a few years. I’m hoping it will all gel for me then because, as I said, I suspect this book is better than I thought it was. I can’t, after all, see any reason for the book to be less than the sum of its parts.

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