What Are You Reading?on April 4, 2012 at 12:00 am
On the recommendation of a good friend, I recently read China Mieville’s Kraken, a novel set in the apocalyptic underbelly of present-day London, a sewer-and-subway landscape crazy with cultists and associated End-of-the-World’ers, hell (or-heaven) bent to hasten (or halt) the End of All Things. All very dramatic, I know, but I should mention how very funny it is, to say nothing of the depth of imaginative power that Mieville brings to the story. The Big Bad is a talking tattoo, a burglar gets paid with a real-deal Star Trek phaser and everybody who’s anybody has their own personal apocalypse.
After reading Kraken, I turned to Mieville’s The City & The City, a detective story with the flavor of Cold War espionage set in a city that—oh, lord, how can I explain this? The City & The City refers to the two cities, taciturn, vaguely post-Soviet Beszel and Ul Qoma, a modernizing republic that brings to mind Istanbul after Ataturk.
Here’s the thing though—Beszel and Ul Qoma both occupy the same physical space. The two cities are a pair of interlaced hands where the boundaries of Beszel abut Ul Qoma’s in the middle of a boulevard. But that’s just half of it. After long years of conflict, to say nothing of nationalism, racism, jingoism or any other “ism” you can care to think of, the citizens of the two cities “unsee” not only their fellow travelers, but the very architecture of the “foreign” (and enemy) world. I had some trouble grasping the “unseeing” bit, but one morning, getting on the subway, I had the misfortune of choosing a car with, well, a crazy person who was engaged in a howling argument with whatever moody angel was perched on his shoulder. Like the rest of the straphangers, I sunk into my book (The City & The City) and promptly “unsaw” him. Which is all to say that more than just a detective story, The City and the City is about the strange animal of social interaction and what it means to be a walker in the city.
Right now, I’m hip-deep in Mieville’s second book, Perdido Street Station. Now, I have problems with it. The book’s awash in adverbs and every character, when they speak, does so “lazily” or “pompously” or “angrily”—it’s a bit much (but it was his second book and who among has not sinned?). Plus, so I learned after doing a little googling, the book is something of an attack by Mieville on what he sees a a constriction of imagination when it comes to the fantasy writing, something you could call the Tolkien Schema—that is, an elf, a dwarf and a dude fightfightfight against a Dark Lord for possession of the MacGuffin of Power. Toss in a feudal setting and ignore the finer points of characterizations and there you go, a novel, which is not particular novel. Perdio is something of sledgehammer—the setting, the city of New Crobuzon, has an early 19th-century feel and there’s nary an elf in sight—instead, Mieville offers up a wild array of races that run from the grotesque to the nauseating. And let me assure you, Dear Reader, there is most certainly NOT a happy ending at the end of this story.
Which is all to say—? What attracts me to Mieville’s work is how he writes about cities—be they imaginary, impossible or strange reflections, the man loves cities and write about them with extraordinary skill, making them vivid and present and real (regardless of their un-reality). As E.B. White teaches us in “Here is New York,” we come to cities in search of “some greater or lesser grail,” and in Mieville’s work, that truth is always self-evident.
Oh, and What? The drama kid can’t be a badass?
Happy Wednesday and see you Friday!