The sci-fi crime novel that’s a parable of American society

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A few weeks ago, a long conversation with a friend came to mind as I was trying to get my shelves in order. My friend had not yet reached a certain age, but he had, he admitted, crossed a threshold: he had passed from the stage of conservation to that of editing. He no longer collected; he gave in. I miss his wisdom and maturity, and rather than editing as I sorted, I instead paused to flick and scan. And then I came across a book that made me stop and read again: The town and the city (2009), by British writer China Miéville. It is a detective procedural novel with a background environment reminiscent of Philip K. Dick. A crime must be solved in a society where two different cities – two distinct polities, with distinct populations, customs, alphabets, religions and perspectives – coexist in the same small geographical area. The overlapping town names are Besźel and Ul Qoma.

When you commit to a book, personal circumstances are always your companion. by John Gunther Death don’t be proud is a knife in the heart of any parent. by James Joyce Portrait of the artist as a young man might as well be scripture if you’re 18. And not just with a book. My mother took me to see Tom Stoppard Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead when it opened in New York in the late 1960s – his idea. Part of the thrill was realizing that she knew me and understood that I would like that.

I first read The town and the city during the Obama era. The novel was always a parable, but it could be enjoyed simply as an intelligent, sometimes mind-bending fantasy, and as a fantasy it won numerous awards. When I re-read the book a few weeks ago, the fun was gone. The moment — my zeitgeist companion — was one of deep and well-founded concern about the cohesion of American society. “America is falling apart” (The New York Times). “2022 is the year America falls off a cliff” (Globe and Mail ). “79% of Americans say the United States is collapsing” (futurism). If the traditional commentary lifecycle continues, the next step will require a long view of history. And it’s true that perspective can provide dull comfort. There is a moment in Julian Barnes The meaning of an endwhen Marshall, a seemingly stupid student, is asked by his history teacher, “How would you describe the reign of Henry VIII?” Marshall, writes Barnes, “searched for possible complexities hidden in the question before finally finding an answer.

“‘There was trouble, sir.'”

Pressed to elaborate, Marshall uses his powers to the maximum: “I would say there has been great trouble, sir.”

But societies are collapsing, and there is no single reason for this. A historian years ago decided to collect and list all the scholarly explanations for the fall of Rome. He counted more than 210 specific theories. Sometimes the dissolution of a society is quick and surprising—think Yugoslavia after Tito. Sometimes it’s so slow — as in Imperial Rome — that entire lives pass without anyone noticing. Centuries may pass before someone gives the dissolution a name and a date.

To turn the lens around, one might wonder how cohesive some societies really were before they were seen as failing. The ‘United’ Kingdom of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland today shows signs of crumbling, but many Scots, Welsh and Irish people have opinions about how far it has crumbled . As for the United States, not all talk of exceptionalism makes us exceptional per se. The colonies that formed the original union protected their autonomy and distrusted federal power; in the 21st century, some of these states might just as well be considered nations and chart their own distinct directions. But separation isn’t just about the lines on a map. Michael Harrington titled his 1962 book on rural and urban poverty The other America, implicitly acknowledging that this was not the America occupied by most who would buy and read his book. The mountainous region of Texas known to Lyndon Johnson in the 1930s, as depicted in Robert Caro’s The path to powerhas almost nothing in common with the courtly, martini-drinking world of The thin man , but they are exactly contemporaneous. A rhetorical question: Do most black Americans and white Americans think the same way about American history and experience? Do the two feel like they are walking an equal distance towards each other to achieve a shared sense of belonging? Cohesion is easier to assert when questions like these are not asked, or even thought about.

Which brings me back to The City & the City. The novel never explains what caused the people of Besźel and Ul Qoma to live separately in the same place. Nor is the divide physically clear, as was the case between East Berlin and West Berlin. Some neighborhoods are entirely one entity or the other, but large areas known as “cross hatches” are mixed together, and citizens of both entities are taught from an early age to “not see each other” even though their paths can meet in a hatched park or public square. The most serious offense that one can commit in one of these cities is not to see, that is, to notice, to observe, to associate with a member of the other city . The slightest look is a transgression. If a figure of authority – a police officer, for example – needs to move from one city to another for an official reason, there is a bureaucratic procedure for doing so. Apart from this procedure, the interaction between members of the two populations results in a condition called “violation”. Retribution is quick and summary.

As I sorted through my books and put them back on the shelves, I had a decision to make. Should The town and the city rub shoulders with Kafka and Borges or rub shoulders with Frederick Douglass and Eric Foner and other writers who have made America their subject? I put it with the Americans. I have no idea if the book is a parable of where we were, where we are, or where we are going. Maybe it’s all three. But I’m pretty sure the value we need is violation.


This post appears courtesy ofThe American Scholar.

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