Jodie at http://bookgazing.blogspot.com/ and I recently read China Mieville’s The City & The City, and had a very interesting discussion via email about the book.
Our back-and-forth is here. Warning for spoilers for the book, although I don’t think they’re too bad:
J: 'The City and The City' is a book that combines the crime genre with sci-fi. Did you enjoy the mix and di you think it felt like a natural partnership?
M: Yes; I did. Although on the surface they're not genres you would expect to fuse well, I thought Mieville did an excellent job.
M: I found the book a little hard to get into in the first chapter, but was glad I persisted. How did you find it in the early going?
J: I found the opening chapters easy to get into, but struggled later on. I think because the first few chapters are about easing you into sci-fi, via what at first feels like a setting in our ordinary world. It even felt kind of familiar as a piece of sci-fi, because I've read a couple of books where bits of the crime genre mix with sci-fi.
Once we got into the depths of unseeing and what that means I had to concentrate really hard to keep up with the logic and then at the end I was totally lost for at least a chapter.
M: I could see that. I had to really focus in the early going until I got into the swing of it with the seeing/unseeing. Once I had a handle on that, I was away.
J: Q.) Did you feel an emotional connection to any of the characters?
M: Hmmm ... I'm not sure that I did. It's a very cold book in a way. I liked the main character (lol I've forgotten his name) but I'm not sure how much he engaged with me. I felt sorry for the parents of the murdered girl, coming into a world with very different rules to their own, but even then I felt a slight remove. If anything, I felt the most empathy for the member of Breach that the main character interacted with the most. I'm not sure why.
J: No I had a very similar reaction (and what was that main character's name? - Googles...) Oh right Borlu! I kept thinking Blomkvist and then Wallander (but I knew that wasn't right) - kind of think that shows that the main detective was really just your standard detective, interchangeable with many others, although he wasn't a drinker,smoker type - more a heavy thinker, emotionally unattached type. And I think you're right that his not having a family and his relationships with two women not being given much significance contributes to the emotional distance between him and the reader.
I had more of an emotional reaction to Corwi and Dhatt. I wondered how their lives would be changed by this whole event. When we started out wondering if Corwi would turn out to be evil I kept hoping she wouldn't, because she was pretty much the best character.
OKAY. SLIGHT SPOILER WARNING FOR THE NEXT PART ....
J: Ok can we address the crazy ending again (obsessed). How 'believable' did you find the solutions to the crime in terms of the world Melville had set up?
M: I was glad that Corwi didn't turn out to be a baddie, too.
In terms of the world Mieville set up - I don't know that he could have ended it any other way. Borlu had basically worked himself into a corner with the case, and with Breach. It's like that's the ending the book was working towards the whole time, but I did get confused with the sudden entrance of big business after no mention of them at all. Like there were conspiracies on top of conspiracies, and then bam! It was almost a deux ex machina. Almost, but I think Mieville handled it well.
Borlu was slightly ... unreal to me? No family to speak of; he's almost a cipher in a way.
M: What did you think of the splinter groups, or terrorist cells, or ... freedom fighters? I have to admit, I got a little confused with them as well, and it took me a chapter or two to settle into it. Hmmm ... my overriding feeling seems to be of confusion. I wonder if that was intentional on Mieville's part? You certainly have to work for the story.
J: Yep I think you're right, not much else he could have done. He sort of worked it to its logical conclusion and nothing but a 'surprise, this is a stupid twist, but it let's me do something different' moment would have been able to change it.
So much confusion. I must have read that bit with the business involvement five times and I still don't get it totally. Maybe that was his 'surprise - nonsensical twist' moment actually, but he did mostly carry it off well (probably because the evil business goes away and the storyline switches back to a more personal, small scale evil doer). I think the book could have reached the same conclusion without the business involvement if Melville had tweaked some of the details a little bit, but I'd really like that so I could feel smart for understanding everything ;)
In the end I settled on the terrorist groups/freedom fighters being kind of satirical and a comment on our world. Like the crazy Ul Quoma nationalists who wanted to claim everything for Ul Quoma, reminded me of some racist groups. I'm not sure though, because Melville is so adamant that his cities do not symbolise split cities like Berlin, but instead exist in the same world as such cities (and are seperate places, not one split location, but that's another matter). I actually wonder if he's satirising the world he's constructed? Like the views of the more extreme groups, show how ridiculous the unseeing situation of Besz and Ul Quoma is? Thoughts?
And yes they were so hard to understand. You just get your head around unseeing and two seperate cities existing around each other, then you have to accomodate the views of people who see it all differently (the Besz group who sort of wanted breaching to be legal, because they don't believe in seperatism). Agree Melville makes you work hard for what you get. Worth it do you think? Can I just ask if you think there's more Melville in your future?
M: Yeah - I still don't understand the big business thing entirely either. I'm all for clever books that make me think, but I like to be able to understand what I'm reading - lol.
I agree - the case could have been resolved without the sudden introduction of big business into the world, which really just muddied the waters even more for me.
The nationalists were extreme, and their enterprise (that's not the right word, but I can't think of it) is basically futile. Turning it around on himself? Like ... 'yes I know this construct is ridiculous, but this is what I have to work with so I'm going to play with it a little' ... hmmm ... maybe. Or he's going 'okay, I created these worlds and now I have to make this overlapping cities/seeing/unseeing thing work, and make it believable. OKAY. PAY ATTENTION.' And then somehow he pulls it off.
I think, ultimately - ridiculous insertion of big business aside - the payoff of The City & The City was worth it. It's a smart read, and I like books that don't assume the reader is an idiot from the outset.
I've read Un Lun Dun by Mieville, which I LOVED and I always recommend to everyone, so he's definitely on my want-to-read list. I'm also very excited for Kraken - his next novel. How about you? More Mieville?
J: I have Kraken, but I'm a bit discouraged now because I've seen some really unhappy reviews from people who really like sci-fi. But it sounds like such a good premise (giant squids, awesome). Also it's huuuuuge. Maybe I'll try it in a couple of months.
I keep hearing such good things about Un Lun Dun and it plays with language right? Love that. Wonder if the library has it.