Mind Your Zs and Qs

In spite of a pretty fervent dislike of the idea of book groups, I recently decided to participate in one. In February, each of us read a different “elastic realism” book, and then we all got together to talk about the different books we read. It was great fun. My elastic realism choice was China Miéville’s The City and the City, which is essentially a murder mystery set in two fictitious cities, Besźel and Ul Qoma.

These two cities occupy the same geographical space, but are very separate and distinct places: to live in Besźel is to speak Besź, to see only Besźel, and to unsee and unhear everything and everyone living in Ul Qoma, who might be passing by on the street. Besź people dress differently than Ul Qomans, they have different postures, they walk differently, and they speak different languages. The separation between the cities is maintained by this strict code of unseeing, and for those who violate? Breach is watching, and waiting.

For a Besź citizen to visit an Ul Qoman neighbor – who might even live in the same apartment building – he would have to travel to the center of Besźel, seeing only Besź people and buildings and speaking only Besź, all the way to Copula Hall, the only official border crossing between the cities. After passing through the border into Ul Qoma, he would return over many of the same streets, differently named, seeing only Ul Qoman people, all the way back to perhaps the same building he was in before leaving Besźel to visit his neighbor. Of course, such a visit would be highly unlikely, given the tension between the two cities.

While reading this book, I found myself driving home from work and trying to “unsee” someone passing on the street, because the whole idea was so curious to me. (It didn’t really work out. The amount of thought that went into the process served rather to cement the image in my mind.) (I also found myself thinking how great it was that there were Zs and Qs on practically every page!)

When a body is found, disfigured and abandoned, on an estate in the outer reaches of Besźel, the investigating officer, Tyador, can’t find a single lead in Besźel. One day an anonymous phone call leads the investigation to Ul Qoma, and Tyador must cross into Ul Qoma to assist their police. What begins as a murder investigation soon becomes an investigation into the urban myths surrounding the beginnings of Besźel and Ul Qoma, and into the places that fall between the city and the city.

One of the things I love most about fantasy and science fiction is that it gives us a way of examining parts of our world outside the boundaries of what’s accepted and taken for granted, so expertly described in this article from the Guardian.

So, in the whole of my reading of Mr. Miéville’s book, I was thinking about what he was trying to say. I always think readers’ guides at the backs of book are kind of dorky – like you’re being told what to think about something. But I skimmed through the readers’ guide for this book to see if there were any clues, and the interviewer asked Mr. Miéville whether or not he intended the novel as an allegory. And, essentially, Miéville said no.

But I’ve been thinking about it a lot, and I think it must be, at least partly, about the power we give to others – whether governments, or invisible cities living in the interstice, the space between; and also why we do – whether out of fear, or from an innate need for order, we sacrifice freedom.

The wonderful and generous leader of our book group, who I greatly admire, gets to interview Mr. Miéville about his new book (Embassytown, coming out in May), and she said she would ask him about this allegory question.

In the meantime, I’m still pondering.


3 thoughts on “Mind Your Zs and Qs

  1. wenzer

    following up: having just finished the book, i have to say, i was quite surprised at how much of a hardboiled story it was! pleasantly surprised. i then went to amazon to read a few reviews (i always enjoy doing that after reading a book for some odd reason) and realized that if i’d read the reviews earlier, rather than just buying it off whispernet on a whim, i wouldn’t have been so surprised!

    a good read for sure, but i too read the reader’s guide at the end. or more factually, skimmed the reader’s guide at the end. CM says that he prefers to think of the story as a metaphor. and i suppose i would agree; i didn’t feel like there was an over-arching ‘purpose’ to the book, other than the story, and the conceit of two countries sharing the same geographical locations. and while we can see elements of that idea in our own lives (i can think of quite a few things i ‘unsee’ throughout the day) i didn’t feel the author was trying to make a case for something. and really, it would be quite possible to enjoy the novel entirely on the merits of the plot itself, without acknowledging that this could, and perhaps, does happen, in some form, in the real world.

    so that would be my uneducated opinion, just in case you were interested… thoughts? :)

    1. slwenz20 Post author

      The most common blurb I’ve read is that it could have been the love child of Raymond Chandler and Philip K. Dick, raised by Franz Kafka. Chandler you know and I love, and Philip K. Dick wrote “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep”, the story which inspired that lovely film “Blade Runner”. So, hardboiled, yes. I thought he was basically saying he preferred the idea of a metaphor (versus an allegory) — but that he wouldn’t really say what metaphors he had intended, rather to leave that to each reader. While the story definitely “works” all on its own, I felt like there were certain statements he was trying to make.

      I couldn’t help but think, also, as you did, of the thousand things we simply prefer not to see — especially when I lived in a bigger city and it was almost like a game of not making eye contact with strangers on the street…not to mention the things that you purposefully turn away from (although I think this is distinctly different from consciously “unseeing” as described in the book).

      But it was thought-provoking, wasn’t it? An engrossing, thought-provoking story?


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