The City & The City is a cerebral novel, meticulously constructed with the loving attention of a miniaturist. Gone is China’s previously baroque excesses in both language and content, replaced instead with a somber, surrealistic style that is both spare and nuanced. Where Perdido was written in lush crimsons, azures and the deepest of chocolate browns, The City & The City is painted in slate, in chalky whites and deep midnight blues.
A murder mystery, a dream disguised as a logic puzzle, The City & The City has more in common with Kafka and Bruno Shultz than with CSI and modern crime thrillers. We follow the torturous tracks of Inspector Borlu as he tries to track down a murderer through the Byzantine customs and tabboos that seperate Beszel from Ul Quoma, two cities that are ‘cross hatched’, geographically interlaced but seperated by pyschological and social boundaries that none dare cross. As a result, citizens of both cities are masters of ‘unseeing’ each other, of ignoring the realities that exist across the street. This impossible setup forms the maze that Borlu must navigate in order to solve his crime, and it’s this ride that provides the thrill in reading The City & The City.
[[Spoilers to follow. Don’t read on if you’ve not read the novel!]]
However, the novel doesn’t quite work for me. The very underpinnings that make it such an ambitious and impressive undertaking are what provide the fatal flaw, in that I never quite believed in the powers of the agency that maintain the seperation between the two cities. Called ‘Breach’, this shadowy organization materializes whenever the boundaries are crossed, and whisk away the perpertrator with terrifying efficiency. This level of oversight requires a panopticon to be realistic, as is now setup in Central London, but even so, the level at which these customs are followed (not even looking across the boundaries, for example), are such that Breach would have to have supernatural powers to enforce.
But China purposefully deflates every moment where such powers could be described or revealed; Breach is revealed to be a bureaucratic entity that relies on telephones and guns, on cameras and informants, on wiretaps and such to detect infractions. Which leaves me asking: how thus do they effect their oversight? And what really kills it for me is when I wonder how they managed to appear so omnipotent during the centuries before technology made this even remotely feasible?
China does blur the boundaries between genre in his revelation that both cities are built on a mysterious heritage site where objects that might defy our laws of physics are found, but this heritage, these objects, are purposefully left vague, and don’t seem to be connected to Breach’s operations. So while there is the potential for science fiction or magic, it’s not employed in what must be considered the most science fiction-like element of the novel: Breach’s ability to maintain two distinct cities with only mundane means.
This, ultimately, colors my whole reading of the novel, so that China’s language, vision of the two cities, even the breathtaking audacity of the idea itself fell by the wayside as I searched for some logical or coherent explanation of how this entire system worked. When China failed to provide one, my expectations for the novel deflated, and I was left with the impression that this was rather a marvelously constructed thought experiment than a coherent imagining of another reality.
So, The City & The City. Marked by China’s distinctive mastery of language and imaginings of the urban landscape, but undone by the very premise it seeks to explore. Worth reading for the pleasure of the language and exploring this bizarre and intriguing city-scape, but disappointing in that its resolution is dependent on a system that ultimately fails to convince.