Monday, July 27, 2009

The City & The City: breaching gender, race, and duality

Spoiler Alert: While I do not give a full plot summary, some of the topics I discuss in this essay will undoubtedly be revealing; if you're currently reading the novel or plan to (and you should all plan to!), turn away now, because I'd hate to ruin it for you, especially since I give away the murderer.

What can I say about China Miéville's latest novel, The City & The City, that would do a justice to its utter magnificence? I don't know if one word will do it. Please enjoy my review/analysis/praise of this novel.

I: Borlú and the dead woman
Miéville's determination to write a book in every genre (while still keeping one foot in the realm of fantasy) is pretty damn awesome. The City & The City is his epic crime drama. The story opens at the crime scene, where the body of a woman is discovered, dumped near some buildings underneath a filthy mattress (I'm not sure if this was intended to reflect Poe at all, but it's certainly interesting that the novel just happens to be centered on the death of a beautiful (and really really smart!!) woman--which Poe asserted was the most poetic subject--the beautiful part that is--he apparently didn't give a shit about her intelligence so long as she was gorgeous).

Inevitably there is issue with this. Why does the novel have to begin with the discovery of a woman's body, complete with face slashes, head wounds, and chest stabbings--clear results of violence against a woman whom we never meet in the novel. She's dead throughout, and the novel follows the first-person narrative of the male detective, Tyador Borlú, trying to solve her murder.

But Miéville does his best to treat the victim with respect, and even awe. As Borlú continues his investigation of this strange and impossible murder, we discover more and more that this woman, Mahalia Geary, was a driven, intelligent woman--so smart in fact, that in her investigations into Orciny (the mythical city between the title cities Beszel* and Ul Qoma) lead her to figure out that she's been part of an elaborate hoax; she's so smart that it dooms her.

In this, we have a problem. We're presented with a victim who is intelligent: professors admire her, though her studies cause them to worry since Orciny is a subject not believed to be scholarly. That we only see her as a corpse speaks volumes--she's ultimately punished for her intelligence. She knew too much; she was dangerous to a male professor, Bowden, who once believed in Orciny, and wrote a book on it titled Between the City and the City, and Buric, a man on the Chamber of Commerce, who had enlisted Bowden's help to acquire artifacts from the Ul Qoman dig, Bol Ye'an, where Mahalia worked and had access to. Mahalia's intellect is used to convince her that Orciny is real to get her to effectively steal back the artifacts she thought belonged to Orciny; her intelligence is also an agent of her murder. The people responsible for her use and murder are all men. She is used for the acquisition of rare objects, and is summarily punished for her exceptional intelligence following her discovery that she'd been tricked.

II: The women
There's no shortage of female characters in this novel. To keep it simple, I've prepared a list with a brief description of them, in no particular order.

  • Mrs. Geary: Mahalia's mother, who arrives in Beszel shortly after Mahalia's body is identified. She's hardly more than a devastated mother, and rightly so, yet I'm struck by the presentation of her. Comparatively, she's passive, while her husband's active. He's found a list of his own suspects, and even sneaks out of their hotel to track some people down. But he and his wife are foreigners who do not know the boundaries, and he breaches (more on this later). At any rate, he's unconscious during our final seen with the couple, leaving Mrs. Geary with the voice . She tells Borlú " 'My husband was going to investigate' "(96). In fact, the reader does not see a conscious Mr. Geary again, leaving only Mrs. Geary (the woman) to interact with Borlú.
  • Biszaya and Sariska: I've lumped these two women together because they're so similar--in fact, any mention of one, and you have the other in the same sentence; there is rarely an instance where Borlú only thinks of one. Technically they're not in the novel at all except filtered through Borlú to us. He reflects on his simultaneous relationships with both women, stating "An economic historian at Beszel University; a writer for an art magazine. They did not know of each other but would not have minded" (25). Once in a while Borlú will miss one or the other, but they seem interchangeable to him. We only "see" them near the end of the novel in recorded interviews which are played to Borlú. This occurs in a four-sentence paragraph on page 250--brief but still strikes me. They exist in the book, they're mentioned by our narrator, and yet the reader never officially meets them--hell, we don't even get to see how Borlú interacts with them.
  • Lizbyet Corwi: Constable in the Beszel Extreme Crime Squad. Borlú sort of requisitions her at the beginning, noting "she wasn't much older than the dead woman" and acknowledging her experience on previous cases (9). By page 10, he tells her he wants her on the case. It's refreshing that he needs her throughout the novel. Even when the investigation takes Borlú to Ul Qoma, he frequently calls her to keep her updated on what he's found out. When he tries to get Yolanda across the border into Beszel, he again recruits Corwi to help him (" 'Come on. Corwi, I need you' " (219)), and again when he tries to get Bowden (294).
  • Yolanda: Mahalia's best friend. She is not as good a student as Mahalia, but she was working on a PhD, which she called "Representing Gender and the Other in Precursor Age Artefacts" (170), which makes her awesome. However, she is murdered on the way to Beszel. Her murder leads to Borlú's breach.
  • Yallya: Dhatt's wife. She seems to exist in a way that is counter to Borlú's relationships: a traditional, monogomous relationship, which gives Borlu pause: "Watching Yallya and Dhatt made me think of Sariska and Biszaya" (197). We only see her as the host (Miéville has made a point not to use the feminine "hostess," for which I commend him (197)), and chatty wife.
Miéville presents us with a group of women who are independent and intelligent, the majority of which get an independent voice in the novel. Yet two out of seven of them are murdered, both for that oh-so-troubling crime of "knowing too much."

III: The Ultimate Crime
There is one crime in Beszel and Ul Qoma that is above all others, and that is breach, which invokes Breach. Breach (captital B) is the beings that investigate breach, that reinforce the existence of the borders between the cities. Citizens of both cities live in fear of Breach, breach being an act which allows the guilty person to experience part of one city while being legally in the other (though in many places, one could technically be in both cities, as in the crosshatched areas). Breach (lowercase) is the act of crossing the border. These acts can even be as seemingly innocent as looking at something across the borders, which is why all citizens have learned to "unsee" the other city. Outsiders are only admitted into either city after rigorous training and testing, as they have not had the life-long experience with unseeing.

In typical Miéville fashion, there is never great rationalization. He never answers why. Everything just is. These are the cities that share almost the same space; you do not breach, or Breach will come for you. The only way to legally cross the borders is to go through that no-man's land of Copula Hall. This is what it is. This is what it does. There is no why.

Though these things exist (at least as far as the world in the novel is concerned), is the reader all that convinced that these borders are real? What's to say that it's all some conspiracy? That these two cities are really just one and the citizens of both are needlessly ignoring one another? Certainly Breach exists, but they're former breachers who enforce not-breaching. So then, if the two cities are really one, why enforce borders at all? Why is the ultimate crime breaching? Unfortunately, the narrator is a citizen of one of the cities, not some omniscent all-knowing outsider.

That breaching is a crime even more heinous than murder speaks volumes of what Breach enforces. Breach is only concerned about breach. Mahalia's murder case was not handed over to Breach when it was discovered that the van that transported her body did so legally by crossing through Copula Hall. Borlú was taken in by Breach when he shot Yolanda's murderer across borders, from Ul Qoma when his victim stood in Beszel. But this is all from a legal standpoint. Legally they're in one city or another. But physically they were standing right in front of one another when Borlú pulled the trigger. The only law that Breach is interested in enforcing is the separation of the cities.

IV: Duality (again).
What's highly intriguing about Borlú's character is that he seems to need things in pairs: two women, two partners, two cities (though this one isn't really in his control). This is classic Miéville duality, where we are presented with pairs of people or things that basically represent something similar. What I love most is how Borlú needs more women than men: Dhatt is the minority of Borlú's relationships.

The two cities themselves represent an obvious duality, being in roughly the same space, yet both have separate borders and people and cultures and languages, with Copula Hall being the sole connecting point.

Perhaps the best demonstration of these pairings is the scene where Borlú is hunting down Bowden (post-Borlú's breach). The Beszel policzai and the Ul Qoma militsya are both unable to touch him, as one character laters states, " 'Maybe it took an outsider to really see how citizens mark themselves, so as to walk between it' " (308). Borlú calls Corwi and Dhatt to follow him, though he knows neither can touch him without knowing what city he's in (fearing Breach). At any rate, Borlú, while in Breach (between the cities), walks near them:

I held out my hand as I walked, and I did not slow down, but Corwi gripped it and we met each other's gaze a moment. Looking back I saw her and Dhatt, metres apart in different cities, staring at me (296-7).
Then you have Breach and breach--two different aspects of border control: one, the thing that enforces the borders, and the act that invokes it.

V: Race and stereotyping
There's only a few mentions of race in the novel: "The blackface character on my French drinking chocolate smiled at me" (42), and a mention of north African refugees going through Ul Qoma (280). Though there is no overt mention of race of most of the characters beyond what can be assumed (as in Yolanda), most of the characters are understood to be white (though this might just be my whitewashed interpretation--I try to figure out whether the author is guilty of the "white as standard" or if I am. Given many of the strange names in this novel, I acknowledge that it could be all me).

There's also stereotyping in the novel, in ways that distinguish who's in what city. Borlú acknowledges that in the past these stereotypes would not only include behaviors and clothing, but whose "physiognomies [were] Ul Qoman, Besz, or 'Other' (Jewish, Muslim, Russian, Greek, whatever, depending on the ethnic anxieties of the time)" (134).

VI: Miscellaneous
This novel is another example of Miéville's techniques. He's a frequent user of fragments, but they exist in a compelling sort of human disconnect that makes them lovely and poetic. He's learned the rules, and learned how to effectively break them.

There's also his starting a chapter by jumping ahead a bit, then a few paragraphs later the narrator takes a few steps back to fill the reader in, which establishes a flash-forward present.

One last semi-random thought that has been in my mind for the past month since reading it: How utterly enraged must Bowden have been to strike Mahalia with a priceless artifact? He almost strikes me as deeply sympathetic character, and for a minute I actually believed he was remorseful he utters the simple " 'It broke. When I' " (297). The most concise phrases are often the most powerful for me. Yet still, he was enraged, enough to justify his brutal murder of Mahalia, leaving me torn between "serves you right, asshole," and "damn, that's irreplaceable."


*The spelling for this is not accurate in my analysis. There's a coding issue where I was unable to get the accent over the "z," and so I wrote it without one.


Works Cited
Miéville, China. The City & The City. New York: Ballatine Books, 2009.


Patrick said...

I just started reading this, and I am hooked... so I'm afraid i can't read your post right now! Looking forward to it. :)