Book Review: Psychogeography and ‘Topolgangers’: Palimpsest Cities in China Miéville’s The City & the City
by Tiffany Soga
"Unseeing, of course, but I could not fail to be aware of all the familiar places I passed grosstopically, the streets at home I regularly walked now a whole city away, particular cafés I frequented we passed but in another country. I had them in the background now, hardly any more present than Ul Qoma was when I was at home. I held my breath. I was unseeing Besźel . . . I was seeing Ul Qoma."
This review has been the most challenging to write (and I was a PhD student). I suppose it mainly has to do with the fact that this book is home to the most brilliantly complex and unimaginable setting(s), and I have trouble finding where to begin.
For those of you who have not yet read anything by China Miéville: welcome. This book, like all of his others, pushes the boundaries of your mind and the concepts of city and identity, but I promise you: it is the most rewarding. Father of strange fiction, Miéville has consistently churned out bestselling and multiple awards-winning books after books. His imagination knows no bounds, and The City & the City (2010) is no exception. So successful was the novel that it is being adapted to a four-part drama series on BBC Two later this spring! The novel, a blend of weird and detective fiction in a noir setting, follows Inspector Tyadore Borlú through a murder investigation which takes him through his city of Besźel into its neighboring city, Ul Qoma. The book comes with the promise of breathtaking and mind-bending urban planning (think ‘Inception’ and the altering of physics within imaginative city spaces). It teases the hope of a third magical city and bubbling conspiracies to tear/converge the cities apart/together. Not wanting to give away any of the plot (it is exceptional, obsessive, and mind-blowing), I’d like to focus this review more on the setting(s), specifically on the cities Besźel, Ul Qoma, and the space that may exist on top of or in between.
You’re confused. Let me try my best to explain. This review is titled ‘Psychogeography and “Topolgangers”’. I’ll begin with the first: psychogeography.
Humanistic geographer Yi-Fu Tuan writes about how people experience and understand the world in his book Space and Place: the Perspective of Experience, or what he calls ‘the affective bond between people and place.’ This bond is forged through intimate experience with space. A person gains intimate knowledge and shares this bond with his environment through ‘his senses of touch, taste, smell, hearing, and even vision.’ Psychogeography takes Tuan’s concepts to a more concentrated level.It is the study of specifically the urban space and its people. A combination of psychology and geography, psychogeography focuses on the mercurial nature of the city and how its designs and very identity shift and change according to the behaviours and actions of its inhabitants. It is quite simply ‘the study of specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organised or not, on the emotions and behaviours of individuals.’ It explores, therefore, how the city adopts and reflects the personalities of those who people it, and vice versa.
"You are psychologically conditioned from birth to focus specifically on what belongs to your city and to defocus and ignore what does not"
The City and the City plays off of that popular culture theory. A word of Miéville’s own creation, ‘topolgangers’ defines the relationship between the twin cities, Besźel and Ul Qoma. Both cities exist in entirely separate countries, function independently with separate economies, governments, and infrastructures, and yet, occupy the same geographical space. These two cities sit on the same, shared topography, and yet, depending on which city you belong to, you are trained to exist within only one of those overlapping yet invisible city boundaries. Unique to Miéville’s universe is the act of ‘unseeing,’ the psychological conditioning of both cities’ inhabitants to erase from or blur in their minds buildings, people, and so forth belonging to their ‘topolganger’.
You unsee, unhear, unsmell, and unfeel the citizens, buildings, animals, sounds, and scents of your neighboring city. You are psychologically conditioned from birth to focus specifically on what belongs to your city and to defocus and ignore what does not, regardless its juxtaposition; psychogeography brought to life. To breach is to commit a crime more severe than murder for both cities; it is to see, touch, feel, hear, or acknowledge in any way someone or something from the other city, and it is punishable by something much worse than death.
These are the palimpsestuous cities of Beszel and Ul Qoma. So when a murder takes place, begging you to cross from one city into another, from one psychological state into its complete antithesis, how do you bend your mind to the wills of the cities? How do you transgress those boundaries, cross that invisible membrane that separates one from the other without compromising both your identity and your cities? And do you or your cities survive?
Does your head hurt? Trust me: this summary is more difficult than the actual read. Miéville makes disorientation and confusion palatable. He has an unparalleled way of destabilizing your beliefs and whatever grip on reality you may have in the most thought-provoking and addicting way. The ending, which I won’t give away, is deliberately unknowing. Some have even claimed it is ‘deflating’. But it depends on how you read the novel and indeed, how you read between the wor(l)ds. As Miéville later states in an interview with Random House Reader’s Circle, ‘...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.’
And frustrate he did, as I did not want the book to end. The City and the City was a high I could not come down from, and it sits right near the top of my list of absolute favorites. I fell easily into the wandering footsteps of Borlú, stepped in rhythm to the police procedural/noir cadence, imagined myself strolling between cities in such a Miévillian fashion, and often found myself dreaming of a perfect world in which my beloved city, Bristol, crosshatched with Los Angeles so that I could find myself finally at home in a city of both, settled happily in the cracks somewhere between the two.
The City and The City is available to buy from Amazon.
Images courtesy of Simon Rowe and Amazon.
Simon Rowe's construction of Ul Qoma and Beszel. Rowe is an architectural association student, and this is work made for his Diploma. More images can be found here.