I stumbled upon China Miéville’s (author of Perdido Street Station and Un Lun Dun) The City & the City while putting together a website of noir literature for my YA class. It was described by a reviewer for the L.A. Times as what would result “If Philip K. Dick and Raymond Chandler’s love child were raised by Franz Kafka.” I was highly intrigued. A quick look at Amazon showed an average of 4-star reviews for this surreal, semi-science fiction murder mystery. Then it popped up on NPR’s “Mysteries You Might Have Missed,” and I found myself growing more and more anxious about the fact that I had missed it. As soon as my classes were complete, I ran to the library and checked out Miéville’s novel, deeming it the first of my precious “vacation reading” and the book that would accompany me on my upcoming trip to Canada, despite the fact is was a bulky hardcover.
I didn’t like it.
I was crushed and a little bitter regarding this unexpected turn of events, as I now had to lug around a hardcover book that I
a) didn’t want to read
b) couldn’t abandon because it was from the library
c) couldn’t replace because all the bookstores in Montreal & Quebec City were French
So I soldiered on, finished the darn book, and here’s what I have to say about it.
Its premise is bizarre, as the story is set in the overlapping cities of Beszél and Ul Qoma, where residents maintain their borders by ignoring the buildings and citizens of the opposing city–an act referred to as “unseeing.” Otherwise, the world is as we know it today. A strange concept, but I was willing to suspend my disbelief and go with it. The story opens when a young woman’s body is found in Beszél but is believed to have been murdered in Ul Qoma. Furthermore, rumors of a powerful secret colony lying between Beszél and Ul Qoma in places “unseen” by both cities emerges as a possible player in the woman’s death. Inspector Tyador Borlú is put on the case and must conduct investigations in both known cities–a delicate business–and explore the dangerous possiblity of the unseen third.
Sounds trippy and cool, right? I thought so, but now I “unthink” it. Generally speaking, I don’t go in for high fantasy because I don’t like spending a ton of time learning new languages, geographies, and weird names in order to “get” that I’m entering an alternate world. City & the City starts off with a bang (murder!) but quickly veers off into a fairly dull and drawn-out description of Beszél–the city, the culture, the people, the complicated and nuanced act of unseeing: things I really didn’t care about on that level of detail. They overshadowed the investigation and it wasn’t until page 90 that things picked up again and my attention was engaged. Unfortunately, this only lasted for about 40 pages because at this point Borlú has to go over to Ul Qoma and the whole description/unseeing cycle starts again. I still don’t care and begin skimming and even skip a chapter. I never skip chapters. In this case, I’d say it was worth it because the story starts actually moving along and even contains a few interesting twists. They were too long in coming for this reader, however, and while City & the City was not a bad book, it just wasn’t for me.