READER BEWARE! Spoilers follow in this interview with China Miéville, and those who wish to fully enjoy The City and the City—and indeed this interview, as well—are strongly advised to read no further until they have finished the novel.
PW: In many ways, The City and the City represents a departure for you in subject and style, but before we get to that, I'd like to focus on a central element of this book that has been a consistent and characteristic component of your fiction right from the start: that is, the city . . . and more, the fantastic city. Why this intense engagement with cityscapes both real and imaginary, and how has that engagement evolved over time, from the London of your first novel, King Rat, to New Crobuzon, UnLondon, and, finally, the cities of Besźel and Ul Qoma?
CM: It's a bit of a lame answer, but truthfully I just don't know. I've always lived in cities and always found them tremendously exciting places to live, but also loved how they get refracted through art. There's such a long, powerful and brilliant tradition it would be more surprising if I wasn't pulled that way, I think.
The evolution is probably something other people are better placed than me to judge. But it feels like after the unrestrained splurge—and I don't say that as a self-diss; I know it certainly doesn't work for all readers, but I do think there are things you can do with a lack of self-discipline that you can't do with more discipline—of Perdido, which was a kind of chaotic homage to cities in a very rococo way, I've got, relatively suddenly with The City and the City, more interested in something of a more restrained, maybe even melancholic urban sense. Of course, as soon as the next book comes out, that might change again.
PW: The use of language in this novel is notably sparer than in any of your previous books. How much of that is due to the demands of the story and perhaps even of the genre of the police procedural, which provides a certain structure to the novel, and how much is a natural progression of your style?
CM: Each book demands a particular voice—I don't think this is a "progression" in the sense of an ineluctable movement in this direction. I think it's enormously possible I'll move back and forward between more and less baroque prose. But i) there are things you can do with a restrained prose that you can't with lusher (and vice versa); ii) it was a first-person narrative, and if you have an interior monologue of that kind of verbal indulgence you immediately create a rather unlikely, or mediated, or foppish, or something, narrator. Nothing wrong with that in principle, but that wasn't what I wanted to do. Because yes, iii) this was to do with wanting to be completely faithful to certain noir-esque, police procedural protocols.
PW: The City and the City is certainly not a traditional fantasy novel. It's also very different from your own previous fantasies. In fact, apart from the central conceit, the argument could be made that it's not fantasy at all. And that conceit—of the two cities, Besźel and Ul Qoma, sharing physical but not legal or social space—can be interpreted both in fantastic or science fictional terms and in realistic, psychological terms. Did you set out to write a novel that was itself crosshatched—a term you've adopted from the graphic arts—in terms of genre? Would you consider this an example of slipstream or interstitial fiction?
CM: I consider it a crime novel, above all. The question of whether or not it's fantasy doesn't have a stable answer; it's to do with how it's read, what people get out of it, and so on. Certainly I was very aware of genre, and of the fantastic, and there's a certain kind of (I hope good-natured) teasing of readers about the whether-or-not-ness of a fantastic "explanation" for the setting. And other issues, I think, about the drive to world-creation, and the hankering for a certain kind of hermetic totality that you see in fantasy, and so on. Not I hope that that stuff is heavy-handed, but it's there in my mind. I don't mind whether other people think the book's "splipstream," or "interstitial," or whatever. I think of it as within the fantastic tradition, but for me that's always been a very broad church. Whether it's "fantasy" in the narrower sense, I don't much mind. Certainly I'm not abjuring the term—it would be ungrateful and ridiculous for me to distance myself from a set of reading and writing traditions, and a set of aesthetics and thematics that have furnished my mind since forever.
PW: Lately I've been thinking a lot about the idea that noir fiction and the fiction of the fantastic spring from common roots, and however far they may seemingly have diverged from each other, that commonality is still there, waiting to be evoked. That certainly seems true of The City and the City.
CM: I wholeheartedly agree. I've said before that I'm interested in the incredibly creative and fecund disingenuity of the "realist" crime novel, that pretended realism of what is, I think, at its best, a kind of dream fiction masquerading as a logic puzzle. All the best noir—or at least I should say the stuff I like most—reads oneirically. Chandler and Kafka seem to me to have a lot more shared terrain that Chandler and a "true-crime" book. There's a bunch of books that are more explicitly exploring the shared terrain of the fantastic and the noir around at the moment, but I think that's a kind of uncovering as much as anything.
PW: The practical geography of Besźel and Ul Qoma, as a shared terrain with various available and unavailable modes of navigation, reminded me of the black and white squares of a chessboard, whose use is moderated by an essentially arbitrary but nevertheless strictly enforced set of rules. I know you have a longstanding interest in games and gaming, and I wonder how much that interest influenced the development of this book.
CM: Not so much at a conscious level. Consciously the organizing metaphor at a cartographic level was, as you've said, pen-and-ink artwork—crosshatching. Draw lines one way—you have a shadow. Draw them the other way—you have another shadow. Overlay them—you have a deeper shadow. I think of Besźel and Ul Qoma as distinct layers of a shaded totality. At the social/political/juridical/etc. level, the organizing principle was less to do with games and more to do with the nature of taboos—enormously powerful, often enormously arbitrary, and (crucially) regularly quietly broken, without undermining the fact of the taboo itself. That last element, I think, is sometimes underestimated in the discussions of cultural norms, where they are both asserted and breached. Both those elements are foundational.
PW: As I began to catch on to the unique nature of Besźel and Ul Qoma, I was reminded of the short story "Reports of Certain Events in London," which appeared in your collection Looking for Jake. Was that in an any way a starting point for The City and the City? Was there a particular moment in which the idea for this book took form, or did it evolve slowly, over time?
CM: Several people have made that connection. It wasn't something that occurred to me, but I can certainly see why people would think so, and they—you—may have a point. Though you could make a case that it's a kind of negative influence—in some ways, in its stress on fluid, predatory, unknowable geography, the short story is the anti-this. The City and the City is as much about bureaucracy as anything. The basic idea for the setting of the cities is something I'd been chewing over for several years. I kind of mentally auditioned various stories to see which would suit it best, which would showcase it but not heavy-handedly, not at the expense of narrative. That was the idea.
PW: Your work has always had a strong element of the surreal to it, but it struck me that in this novel you are veering away from the Daliesque—hybrids of insect and human, or a man with an occupied birdcage for a head—toward a less extravagant brand of surrealism, one rooted less in the exotic imagery of dreams and nightmares than in quotidian images from the waking world—here I'm thinking of the influence of Bruno Schulz, whom you cite in your acknowledgments. What accounts for this shift?
CM: I don't like Dali, though of course you can't ever escape his visual influence. I like Andre Breton's dismissive nickname for him—Avida Dollars. But in terms of the sort of vaguely post-decadent curlicued baroque of his images, as compared to the subtler dreams of Schulz or Kafka, yes, I see that shift. What accounts for the shift, however, is an impossible question to answer. I've loved Schulz for a long time—like lots of people of my generation I came to him via the Quay Brothers' film Street of Crocodiles—and Kafka, and a whole tradition of (very broadly) eastern European fantastic fiction and art, as well as a great love of the landscape of Prague, for example, and I wanted to write something inspired by that. Why the shift? I'm less breathless than I used to be. I'm older. I wanted to try something new. I wanted to write a homage to those traditions (and to the extraordinary prose of high noir). I wanted to write a book that my mother would have loved.
PW: In addition to Schulz, you acknowledge Raymond Chandler, Franz Kafka, Alfred Kubin, and Jan Morris. The first two I'm familiar with, and their influence here seems plain, but I'm not familiar with either Kubin or Morris, and I daresay that will be true for many of your American readers as well. What is your debt to them?
CM: Kubin was an Austrian writer and artist, and his book The Other Side, as a kind of Expressionist investigation of urban anxiety and the compulsions to create and populate cities of the mind, whatever dangers that brings, the fallacious safety of a transplanted metropolitan state in a kind of remote hinterland, was a big influence. Jan Morris is more of an argumentative influence. She wrote a book called Hav, which is the revisiting several years on of her book Las Letters from Hav, about a journey to an imagined country. I admired the book but had a very frustrated argument with it. Books are always obviously having conversations with other books, and some times they're amiable and sometimes not. The City and the City is having a respectful but pretty argumentative conversation with Hav. In part, I never felt Hav had enough of an identity, because she so stressed its nature as a syncretic port—and I greatly admired her abjuring of a kind of essentialist "indiginousism"—that in fact it felt mostly like a group of minorities meeting against an opaque and colorless backdrop. They never seemed to gestalt into anything bigger. I seem to be in a minority in this feeling, but when I realized that I'd been thinking about the book a lot as I wrote The City and the City, even thinking about it in frustration, it seemed only appropriate to give it a shout-out.
PW: Some readers and critics will no doubt be tempted to see this novel as an allegory of the relations between the West and the Muslim world, due to the resemblance between the city name of Ul Qoma and the terrorist group Al Qaeda. And many other allegorical readings are possible based on various political, social, and sexual divisions and/or crosshatchings. Do you have any sympathy with such readings?
CM: Personally I make a big distinction between allegorical and metaphoric readings (though I'm not too bothered about terminology, once we've established what we're talking about). To me, the point of allegorical readings is the search for what Fredric Jameson calls a "master code" to "solve" the story, to work out what it's "about," or, worse, what it's "really about." And that approach I have very little sympathy with. In this I'm a follower of Tolkien, who stressed his "cordial dislike" of allegory. I dislike it because I think it renders fiction pretty pointless, if a story really is written to "mean" something else—and I'm not suggesting there's no place for polemical or satirical or whatever fiction, just that if it's totally reducible in a very straight way, then why not just say that thing? Fiction is always more interesting to the extent that there's an evasive surplus and/or a specificity. So it's not saying there are no meanings, but that there are more than "just" those meanings. The problem with allegorical decoding as a method isn't that it reads too much into a story, but that it reads too little into it. Allegories are always more interesting when they overspill their own levees. Metaphor, for me, is much more determinedly like that. Metaphor is always fractally fecund, and there's always more and less to it. So I guess what I'm trying to say is that in no way do I say some of those readings aren't valid (though I must say I have very little sympathy for the "East" versus "West" one, which is explicitly denied in the text more than once), but that I hope people don't think the book is "solved" by that. I don't think any book can be so solved.
PW: Of course, you go much further than simple crosshatching and actually enter into the spaces between Besźel and Ul Qoma, as well as the spaces disputed by them, into what I'm going to call "territories of superposition," after the principle of quantum superposition. Here we're in the realm of the Breach and also of the "invisible city" of Orciny, which may or may not be a myth. Were the Breach and Orciny always part of the novel, or did you only become aware of their existence, so to speak, through circumstantial evidence as you were writing about the two "visible" cities?
CM: Breach was always part of it, because the two main cities presumed their borders, which presumed the policing. Orciny sort of emerged later. There was no reason to stop there. Once you've realized you can do a schtick about more and more hidden cities in more and more interestices, you're into a potential mis-en-abyme, and I could have had fourth, fifth, sixth rumored cities, etc., at ever decreasing scales.
PW: The Breach and Orciny are similar in many ways—indeed, at one point, the possibility is raised that they are the same thing—but in the end, readers are taken into the Breach, while Orciny remains unknown. What's striking to me about this process is that the revelation is a bit deflating. And not only here: again and again in this novel, when you come to a revelatory moment, at which a more traditional fantasy would open outward, into the unreal or the supernatural, you bring things back to the real, in all its harsh particularity. In that sense, couldn't this novel be considered an anti-fantasy?
CM: By all means. There's a long and honorable tradition of antifantasies, of which some of the most invigorating, to me, are by M. John Harrison. And yes, I think you're absolutely right that this is part of that lineage. And I don't even mind the term "deflating." I think it's fair and it was, so far as it goes, quite deliberate. Now obviously I know that won't work for all readers, and I know, in fact, that some readers have disliked the book for precisely that point. That's fair enough. But to me, that hankering for the opening-out, the secrets behind the everyday, can sometimes be question-begging. Of course I have it too—I'm a fantasy reader, I love that uncanny fracture and whatever's behind it—but surely it's legitimate and maybe even interesting not merely to indulge that drive but to investigate it, to prod at it, and yes, maybe precisely as part of that to frustrate it.
PW: Yet at the same time, you also encourage speculation in the fantastic—most notably, I think, in the archeological artifacts recovered from the Ul Qoman dig, a bizarre mix of primitive objects and what seems to be the remnants of an advanced technology.
CM: Well it's certainly the case that the book never forecloses the possibility of any fantastic elements. The strange properties of the archeological physics, for example—it's not proven, but nor is it falsified. I was interested not so much in the aspects of possible "magic"—though certainly that question mark is there—but in the question of opaque logic. There is clearly, to the investigators, a logic to this seemingly impossible coagulum of material culture; that's why they're investigating it. But it's a logic that escapes them; it's something they can't parse. Even if you have no way into it, that seems to me importantly different from something having no logic at all.
PW: Your narrator and main character, Tyador Borlú, is rational, a skeptic, but also enough of a romantic to be seduced by mysteries—in other words, a familiar type from noir fiction. But he's also very much a product of his peculiar environment. Even before this case, and his close encounter with the Breach, his life abounds in interstitiality, from his relationships with women to his preference for the wonderfully named DöplirCaffés, where Jews and Muslims sit side by side in a microcosm of the two surrounding cities. Geography really is destiny, isn't it?
CM: A familiar type from noir, and also from a thousand other things, including the real world. Interstitiality is a tremendous buzzword, and it can be quite easy to locate it at all levels. One of the reasons for the kind of microcosmic foreshadowing of the relationship between the cities in the DöplirCaffés, etc., was precisely to undercut any seeming portent about them. Sure, they're rather extraordinarily doubled, meaning there'll be interstices and gray areas, etc., etc., but that's just an unusually extrapolated version of the kind of thing that goes on all the time, at all levels. That was the idea. Interstitiality is a theme which is simultaneously genuinely interesting and potentially quite useful, and also a terrible cliché, so if you're going to use it, it helps to be at least respectfully skeptical about the wilder claims of some of its theoretical partisans, I think.
PW: The Cleavage, the event that separated Besźel and Ul Qoma in a past all but lost to history, remains, like Orciny itself, shrouded in mystery. Was it a science fictional event, a catastrophic phenomenon of quantum physics that sent parts of a single, ur-city into congruent and occasionally intersecting dimensions? Or is the Cleavage to be understood purely in psychological terms? Does it matter how readers interpret this aspect of the book?
CM: The event that separated Beszel and Ul Qoma or possibly joined them together. "Cleave" being one of those magic, camply semiotically rich words which means two exactly opposite things. And of course I'm not going to answer the question! If it even has an answer—on which I couldn't possibly comment. I know what I think, and you've mentioned it before, in terms of the generic status of the book, but it would be quite unhelpful I think for me to dictate terms for the reader. All the information the story requires is there.
PW: Orciny first seems like a myth, then real, then a hoax—and yet it's never really disproved. Indeed, Bowden's extraordinary attempt to walk out of the cities, at once utterly mundane and thoroughly uncanny, seems to show that Orciny does exist, at least in potential.
CM: Yes. This I guess is all part of that teasing thing I was talking about before. They "disprove" nothing in the absolute, only that a prime suspect for the commission of these crimes (a city), turns out not to be guilty of these crimes in this case. Of course, that said, there's also been a poking around with the ideas of why that might be such an appealing possible solution, why the drive to that kind of explanation.
PW: Do you have any plans to return to Besźel and Ul Qoma, perhaps to explore their shared prehistory?
CM: Possibly. The conceit of the book, at least for me, was that there are indeed several other stories set in Besźel—and possibly involving Ul Qoma—featuring Tyador Borlu, and that they'd come before this. That this particular book was the last of his adventures. The novel was originally subtitled "The Last Inspector Borlu Mystery." But I was told in vigorous terms by everyone involved in producing the book that it would confuse readers, who would see it, decide to start with the first of the series, and leave the shop without anything when they couldn't find that earlier volume. So I took the subtitle off. But for me, it's still there, invisible.
PW: It must have been hard, as you were writing the novel, to avoid moments of inadvertent breaching. How did you train yourself to unsee and unhear? And what was the personal impact of that? Did your perceptions of London change?
CM: My perceptions didn't really change: the whole of the book was predicated on me thinking about those urban perceptions, so while I might have been slightly more conscious of them, they were still as they had been. However, part of the thing about the setup is that it is, precisely, very hard, indeed impossible, to avoid moments of breach. You cannot train yourself to successfully and sustainedly unsee and unheard—you do them all the time, but they also fail, repeatedly, and you cheat, repeatedly, in all sorts of small ways. The book mentions that several times. It is absolutely about absolute fidelity to these particular urban protocols, exaggerations or extrapolations of the ones that I think are all around us all the time in the real world: but it's also about cheating them, and failing them, and playing a little fast and lose, which I think is an inextricable part of such norms.