Uncanny detective story

James Turley reviews China Miéville’s The city and the city London 2009, pp312, £17.99

China Miéville is one of the foremost writers in contemporary genre fiction. He is somewhat unique in that, unlike many others, his crossover success has not involved disavowing the generic in favour of the more conventionally ‘literary’ - on the contrary, he is perhaps genre fiction’s most articulate exponent. He is also a member of the Socialist Workers Party, a modestly significant organisation of Trotskyist extraction, and well-versed in Marxist theory.

His breakthrough novels - Perdido Street station (2000), The scar (2002) and Iron council (2004) - are all stand-alone stories set in the same secondary world, Bas-Lag. This world is unabashedly revisionist with regard to its antecedents in fantasy literature - the metropolis at its narrative centre, New Crobuzon, is ripe with oppression and exploitation, and simmers with racial tensions; the periphery is home to monstrous and incomprehensible horrors picking up on Lovecraft and Clive Barker, as well as unlikely and properly fantastic social spaces.

On one axis, then, the novels represent an antithesis to the Toryish inclinations of a Tolkien or Robert Jordan - unsurprisingly, given the author’s plebeian sympathies, Middle Earth it ain’t. Yet on the level of narrative, Miéville is almost conventional. For him, the total ‘surrender to spectacle’ has ruined science fiction and fantasy films; the consequent denigration of narrative is actually an attempt to delete the traces of history on the film. The Bas-Lag novels are densely plotted; they borrow everything from fantasy quest-narratives to western set pieces. They are unashamedly (and, in a period with more than enough contrived pastiche novels, unironically) historical.

Miéville’s latest book is The city and the city - his second since parking Bas-Lag with Iron council. It, too, is unabashedly a genre novel, as is obvious from the opening, in which the narrator relates his arrival at a crime scene. A young woman has been murdered, and the core of the plot is in the whodunit mould. The narrator is Tyador Borlú, a literate and deadpan police inspector clearly indebted to the noir gumshoe - he lives in an eastern European city-state, Beszel, which happens to occupy the exact same location as a second city, Ul-Qoma. Some areas are entirely in one city or the other; others are in both, called “crosshatched”, and still others are in neither. Citizens of one city are trained and expected to carefully ignore those of the other. Violations of this code are punished harshly by an enigmatic apparatus called Breach. The murder soon appears to have been committed in Ul-Qoma - yet someone is obviously keen to stop the case being handed over to Breach, and so Borlú has to cross the border to solve the crime.

Miéville has apparently strayed far from his previous work - but many of the most interesting aspects of the book are contiguous with the rest of his oeuvre. Perhaps the central category to Miéville’s reflections on fantasy and science fiction is ‘the uncanny’, a concept first elaborated in this sense by Sigmund Freud (following cues from an earlier psychologist, Ernst Jentsch). The German word he uses - unheimlich - literally translates as ‘unhomely’ or ‘unfamiliar’, and is a simple negation of heimlich (homely). The latter, however, has two major related meanings in German - firstly the conventional one, denoting familiarity, comfort, safety and the rest; and secondly, denoting something hidden away, secret, suspicious. Freud uses this quirk of German to describe experiences in which a phenomenon is both familiar and unfamiliar, and the emergence of the terrifying unknown out of the mundane.1

The relevance of this category has to be particularly emphasised in the case of ‘pure’ secondary-world novels, of the Bas-Lag type. It is often assumed that, as opposed to mainstream literary fiction as well as science fiction, fantasy novels are the work of ‘pure’ imagination - the realist mode of writing implies reference to the world outside the text, and science fiction implies an extrapolation from the really existing universe, but fantasy is simply ‘made up’. Concomitant with this prejudice is the widely held view that fantasy is simply inferior, a canon of mere ‘escapism’, or a ‘literature of mystification’. Yet it is not true on either side.

In the first place, fantasy novels do not and cannot oppose themselves completely to the real world - if they did, they would simply be unintelligible to any imaginable readership, whose points of reference are necessarily from the ‘outside’. However bizarre the secondary world, there are invariably large communities of fairly ordinary humans in it. The fantasy effect is a product of the opposition between the familiar and the alien, dramatised within the text itself. Conversely, the science in most science fiction is precisely fictional, no more compatible with our universe than elves and unicorns; and the narrative spaces of contemporary literary fiction are overwhelmingly focused on an abstracted middle class milieu (the literary and SF author Iain Banks calls such works “Hampstead novels”), whose partiality excludes any real correspondence with social reality. The distinction between the three is not some kind of epistemological privilege, but down to the complex interactions that produce different genres, establishing a series of codes through which this epistemological tension between narrative and history can be differently approached.

The category of ‘the uncanny’ is one form that this tension can take, and its relevance to fantasy is obvious. One of the first sequences in Miéville’s Perdido Street station finds the protagonist having breakfast and then sex with his girlfriend, who has an enormous scarab beetle instead of a head. Miéville dives with relish into the surreal, with a gleefully perverse eroticism pervading both the meal and the coitus. The ecstatic weirdness grows out of the domestic.

What of The city and the city? The latter is obviously not a generic fantasy novel - there are never any comfortable indicators to confirm that something ‘magical’ is going on with the two cities’ strange coexistence. On top of that, there are the fingerprints of the detective story all over it: in the thematic material, of course, but also - and more significantly - in the narrative form. The city clocks in at about half the length of the shortest Bas Lag novel. It uses first-person narration - uniquely among Miéville’s novels, but typical of hard-boiled fiction. The plotting is extraordinarily dense, as the mystery unfolds around the protagonists, politicians, fascist gangs, archaeological digs and ultimately the enigmatic Breach itself. In fact, there is almost nothing other than plot - the principal characters are for the most part barely more than sketched out, plot-objects rather than subjects. There is, necessarily, some incidental detail about the double-city, but nothing like as much as (to take a classic of the gumshoe tradition) Raymond Chandler’s The long goodbye ruminates about the social spaces of late-40s southern California.

The unapologetically generic narrative core is undermined in the first instance by the ‘gimmick’ - a detective story set in two cities that occupy the same space. In The long goodbye, Marlowe first meets the drunk veteran, Terry Lennox, at a bar where “they get the sort of people that disillusion you about what a lot of golfing money can do for the personality”.2 Later they go to “a drive-in where they made hamburgers that didn’t taste like something the dog wouldn’t eat”3 - and so on, ad infinitum. The detective in this narrative system is, as the cliché goes, ‘streetwise’ - he knows the clientele of every bar and the burgers in every drive-in. He instinctively understands and negotiates the murky dealings of the criminal underworld and police force (and, in the case of The long goodbye, the haute bourgeoisie). He is able to solve the mystery because he knows how the world ‘really works’ (a very different sort of knowledge to a Sherlock Holmes or Dupin, of course).

Tyador Borlú does not have an easy ride in this regard. Every casual hint at erudition (namedrops for Slavoj Zizek, dates with urbane historians), every cynical remark about Beszel’s political class is undermined by the great chasm in his quotidian existence - Ul-Qoma, the city which he and all his compatriots are forbidden to notice. The detective is an observer (in Chandler and Hammett, the private eye). The obstacles to the resolution of the mystery amount to attempts by other agents in the narrative to conceal the traces of the crime, which must then be uncovered.

Borlú, however, and every other cop in Beszel, has another agent frustrating his quest - himself. One of the first visits to ‘crosshatched’ parts of the cities is typical of such encounters: “Most of those around us were in Beszel, so we saw them ... Of the exceptions, some we realised when we glanced were elsewhere, so unsaw” (p18). By an increasingly elaborate series of subconscious clues - particular shades of colour and designs of car - the citizens of each city are carefully trained to delete the traces of the other on sight. The obvious reference here is Michel Foucault, in particular his use of Bentham’s Panopticon prison design as a figure for the internalised repression of contemporary society4.

Yet it is not that simple. Miéville insists on this ‘deletion’ - the very clunkiness of the neologism ‘unsee’ actually testifies to the incompleteness of the process, a dialectic in which the unseen appears as the shadow of the seen.5 The alien irrupts into the familiar. This flickering at the edges of the familiar is, of course, outdone in the most dramatic fashion when Borlú, inevitably, encounters Breach, in a passage worth quoting at length:



“I thought it was the shocked declaration by those who had witnessed the crime. But unclear figures emerged where there had been no purposeful motion instants before, only the milling of no-ones, the aimless and confused, and those suddenly appeared newcomers with faces so motionless I hardly recognised them as faces were saying the word ... a grim-featured something gripped me so that there was no way I could break out had I wanted to. I glimpsed dark shapes draped over the body of the killer I had killed. A voice close to my ear. ‘Breach.’ A force shoving me effortlessly out of my place, fast, fast past candles of Beszel and the neon of Ul-Qoma, in directions that made sense in neither city” (pp237-38).

What I want to say about the uncanny-effect here is that it underwrites the political content of the novel. Miéville is at pains to distinguish his own view of ‘political fiction’ from the narrowly didactic. He argues, following the Hegelian tradition in Marxism, that “the lived reality of capitalism is commodity fetishism ... ‘Real’ life under capitalism is a fantasy”.6 Beszel and Ul-Qoma are different cities as much as they are the same - Ul-Qoma appears to be the main beneficiary of western patronage, and is lit in the above passage in neon in contrast to Beszel’s candles. It is Breach which organises the internal and external antagonisms of two societies such that their interactions can be controlled and diffused through labyrinthine official political and bureaucratic structures - it makes the ridiculous seem ‘natural’. Breach is obviously a repressive apparatus within the narrative - but the use of the uncanny register gives it metaphorical resonance in terms of the ideological (whether we conceive of this as fetishism or something else).

I have treated this work as a ‘test specimen’ from the point of view of Marxist literary theory - yet I feel obliged to indicate The city and the city is probably Miéville’s best book yet. Its combination of different generic tropes is subtle, and never tips into pastiche - in this respect it is comparable to the excellent 2006 neo-noir film Brick, which spliced the gumshoe narrative into an affluent American high school in similar fashion. It is certainly worth a read for any Marxist as an imaginative approach to politically engaged fiction.