Sunday, June 14, 2009

The City and the City

I spent the week during and around the big book show reading this great book by China Mieville, The City and The City. There's nothing like reading a book that is echoed by the world outside. The City and The City is a mystery set in two apparently Eastern European cities which just happen to occupy the same physical space. The people who live in Beszel, a poor, crumbling city, must walk and drive while unseeing the people who live in Ul Qoma, a glittering metropolis, who are also walking and driving down the same streets with different names, unseeing those who live in Beszel.

It was a little eerie to be sitting on the train in the subway, with Mieville's book in my hands, watching another train passing us and sliding below while the people on both trains were studiously avoiding any eye contact. Walking along the streets, skirting protuberances, crossing the street, weaving between people, missing each other by inches without meeting anyone's eyes; all way too easy to imagine two cities, two cities where you need a passport to visit the other.

I had dinner in a really packed restaurant on one of those nights at Union Square. I sat by myself along a wall lined with two people tables, with The City and The City as company. It was interesting to be reading this book, surrounded by young, hip, cell-phone connected people drinking a lot and talking at the tops of their voices, unnoticed by all except for the waiter who was part of my own private Beszel (or Ul Qoma, depending on who you talk to). So weird to see (or unsee) Manhattan in this way! It's the power of the written word, baby!

Here is a little bit about the book: The City and the City is a mystery. Tyador Borlu is a detective in Beszel's Extreme Crime department. A young woman is killed and ends up as his case. In talking to her friends and reviewing the few clues in the case, Tyador begins to suspect that she was killed one place and moved to another. This isn't good, not that murder ever is, but because she may have been killed in Ul Qoma and moved to Beszel. Tyador now must work with the Ul Qoma police force which means passports, borders, and radical politicians who either want to destroy one of the cities or the other, or meld them both into a single city.

The story is really good, the characters are well-drawn and I would love to meet them again, but the Cities are my favorite character. China Mieville has made an amazing world in these two cities, creating an entire mythology, sociology, and culture to allow the people sharing the space to live together separately. The idea of having two cities in the same place, in the same physical footprint, that you have to leave one and apply to go to the other as if you were going overseas, even while you are standing in that other city, is a brilliant one. This is a book worth reading twice. This is not a children's book, although older teens will enjoy it. (Del Rey, $26.00)

And when you have closed this book, you should give Un Lun Dun, also by China Mieville, a read. This is China's book about two kids who find a secret entrance into a city filled with broken and cast off things and people, "worthless" things thrown away by London residents. The girls are there because it was prophesied that one of them is to save Un Lun Dun from certain evil. This is another wonderful story also about two cities and how the residents of both live together. It is newly out in paperback and would be good for everyone 11 and older. (Del Rey, $9.00.)

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