China Mieville’s The City & The City: slightly spoilery thoughts below…
The City & The City wasn’t what I expected. I was expecting something more supernatural or paranormal — portals between worlds, and all that. What I got was a smart, layered treatment of two cities that highlights the invisibility existing in our world. It was fascinating and brilliant. The separate languages, speech patterns, histories, businesses — all made the two cities seem absolutely real and possible. Two fully realized worlds existing in one space, captured within a book.
While the city construct was interesting, the larger idea, for me, was that of invisibility: the ways in which we “unsee” things around us every day. If you think about it, you do it; we see people every day, people we shouldn’t stare at and so we “unsee” them. The homeless, the disabled, the different. I’ve thought about this so much more since finishing the book, reminding me of similar experiences after reading Invisible Man and Notes from the Underground. (In fact, I had a professor who talked about this very experience while teaching Notes. He worked as a janitor while in college and said that he routinely felt invisible to those people whose rooms and toilets he cleaned. He would walk by and they would “unsee” him.) While those two books focused more on individuals in society whom we choose not to see, Mieville seems to be making more of a political statement. What happens when a group of people is divided along ethnic and cultural lines? What happens in places where two groups have to share a space even though they do not share a government? Israel and Palestine. East and West Germany. The Sunni, Shia and Kurds in Iraq. In what ways are those groups invisible to each other? In places of our world, forces of history and geography have created a present that is fractured. The City & The City boils this cultural and political disconnect to its essence.
This is far more than a noir-ish detective story. It’s a remarkable work of fiction.