Teaching Notes: The City & the City

China Miéville states in an interview included in the trade paperback version of his 2009 the-city-and-the-citynovel The City & the City that he considers the book “a crime novel, above all” (316)—which makes it sound fairly straightforward, despite its other generic designation as weird fiction. The two intertwined cities of Beszel and Ul Qoma in which the book is set, however, wrap this crime novel in layers of thematic complexity, reader disorientation, and generic twists. Although they “grosstopically” share much of the same physical space, Beszel and Ul Qoma are two politically and culturally distinct city-states that require their respective citizens to “unsee” each other and enforce this system through a shadowy governing group known as Breach. In the course of solving the book’s murder mystery, Detective Tyador Borlú must travel from his native Beszel to Ul Qoma and ultimately to the space between the cities, Breach itself, while trying to solve the secondary mystery of whether or not a third city, Orciny, is just an elaborate hoax.

Some thoughts and ideas for teaching:

  • The citizens of the two cities know which people and buildings to unsee based on constant semiotic readings of clothing, architecture, body language, sounds, colors, and smells. There are several ways to take up this aspect of the book with students: ask them to draw maps of their hometowns or of the college campus and see what areas they forget or leave out, and then investigate why. Ask them to read the clothing and body language of other students and professors, and the semiotics of buildings and classrooms. Ask them who they “unsee” on a daily basis, how, why, and how they feel about that unseeing.
  • When I taught this novel I showed clips from The Big Sleep and The Maltese Falcon and ran down some of the characteristics of detective fiction, crime fiction, film noir, etc. I think this genre work mainly enhanced our discussions of character (In what ways is Borlú a hard-boiled detective? Are any of the women femme fatales?) but also tone and some plot elements (Is Orciny a MacGuffin?).
  • The City & the City also powerfully engages questions of embodiment, identity, mobility, and belonging. Like detectives in other crime novels, Borlú is granted privileges of mobility that most characters do not have, but in this case not only can he investigate across various social strata, he can also take on different national and cultural identities by changing his clothing, name, language, and movement, and even by shifting his gaze. When he first learns to walk through both cities simultaneously as an agent of Breach, Borlú narrates, “My sight seemed to untether with a lurching Hitchcock shot, some trickery of dolly and depth of field, so the street lengthened and its focus changed. Everything I had been unseeing now jostled into sudden close-up” (254). Borlú’s vertigo is caused not only by suddenly learning to resee or reread all the physical markers around him but also by feeling his own body belonging to its surroundings in a new way, occupying two spaces or states simultaneously, like “Schrödinger’s pedestrian” (295). What are the connections in The City & the City between embodiment and perception, between the mind and the world?