The City and The City by China Mieville

city and the cityMieville takes a stab and grab at both the detective mystery genre and the allegorical locale by creating the twin cities of Ul Qoma and Beszel, located somewhere in central or eastern Europe and sitting literally on top of each other but with more strict and terrifying border control than the US/Mexican border. The cities are crosshatched — a building might be half in Ul Qoma and half in Beszel and construction crews would have to work specifically on their side without acknowledging the other. Pedestrians are trained to ‘unsee’ the opposing city, motorists to casually drive around their counterparts while actively not noticing them.

Why all this? The most general, cosmic ‘why’ is never answered but the personal ‘why’ is that if you’re a citizen of one of these city-countries and break the rules, cross over to the other side, then you’re at the mercy of a shadowy organization known only as Breach. People who breach the invisible line are nabbed by Breach and don’t tend to be seen again.

A woman from Ul Qoma turns up dead in an alley in Beszel. And the Extreme Crime Squad is on the case.

Our first-person protagonist, Detective Tyador Borlu, is a pastiche of gruff cop stereotypes. His clinical, largely unemotional demeanor even while the truly baffling is occurring is an anchor or counter to the setting and maybe-magical murder that is afoot. The book has an odd flow as it’s intriguing while we’re introduced to the mechanics of The City and The City, though a bit dry. The middle bits start to drag a bit, but then halfway through, the action picks up and the tale accelerates, not stopping until the murder is solved, the killer unmasked, the supernatural mystery explained.

The premise is excellent and not enough can be said about it. Usually I scoff at setting or ‘systems’ within sci-fi/fantasy as the reason to read it, while pining for great prose or character work. The City and The City has serviceable prose and forgettable characters but the setting is seriously compelling and fun. Mieville gets you to believe, really earnestly accept, something completely ridiculous. I think we’re supposed to laugh at the political drama of the ultra-nationalists or punky, idealistic unificationists of each city, since the boundary between them is so absurd, but it doesn’t take much thought to apply the same analysis on real life versions of the same. The political allegory is present but never laid on thick, and Mieville leaves you to make your conclusions on how these nonsense cities are reflected in the real world.

The actual identity of the killer is disappointing by way of his totally weak and unbelievable motive, but that’s almost a staple of detective fiction itself. The journey, not the destination. That’s what’s important. And for this particular book, the city you’re presently in. Whichever it is.

Rise of the Tomb Raider

tombraider

So. Tomb Raider. Check out the baffling news that the Writer’s Guild Awards gave it an outstanding achievement in video game writing. Not only that, it beat out The Witcher!

Now I thoroughly enjoyed this game but narrative is nowhere near the reason why. Let’s recap the plot: Lara Croft, following the legacy of her father, stumbles across some clues that the secret to immortality is somehow hidden in a lost Byzantine city located in Siberia. Why is Lara seeking this? To, uh, better humanity or something. Naturally and predictably, like hundreds of action heroes before her, she comes to learn that maybe humans shouldn’t live forever. But, I’m getting ahead of myself here. Opposed to Lara is a group called ‘Trinity’, a bunch of militant malcontents who have been seeking this divine source for millennia. They’ve been foiled repeatedly by a prophet and his followers, the architects of the aforementioned hidden city. This is not the only similarity RotTR will have with Assassin’s Creed.

The story is fun like a Godzilla movie is fun. I don’t mean the early Godzilla movies that legitimately were trying to grapple with the unthinkable destruction of the atom bomb, but all the later ones that were primarily about a man in a dragon/t-rex suit kicking down buildings. Tomb Raider’s ultimate set piece is a three way fight between immortal Byzantine warriors, black ops soldiers, and a cadre of Russian elves with trebuchets in the middle of a city buried under a glacier.

Shit explodes. And you run and jump through it. Thrilling? Yes. Outstanding writing? No.

I’m trying to think of specific line-by-line examples and very little of it is memorable enough to stick. It’s just a lot of Lara urgently exclaiming she needs to do this or that right now now now. Or the villain delivering soliloquies of how he needs to find the divine source to ‘please God’, which is banal and creatively timid, because the the game doesn’t even try to engage with which God or where his conviction comes from. Lara’s character arc, the titular ‘Rise’, is delivered in terms of gameplay, not narrative. From shivering cold in the wilderness and killing enemies one at a time, to casually wiping out full-on military squads single-handedly, to becoming the predator, and finally ascending to goddess-hood and slinging blue flame like a wizard. This game has better writing than The Witcher?? 

The gameplay and especially atmosphere does not cohere to a believable plot either. Lara can swim under frozen icy water and hop out and shake the water out of her hair and she’s good to go. Despite taking place in Siberia, with supposedly multi-national villains, and including a group of natives who have been living in isolation in the wilderness for a thousand years, every single character speaks american english. Except for Lara, whose dialect is british.

Play this game for the gorgeous vistas, the tight gameplay, and the explosions. Not the outstanding writing.

Chekhov: seven short novels

chekhovI had never read any Chekhov. This was grave misstep, a gap in my western canon. I’ve read Tolstoy and Dostoevsky but was missing the Russian who has a smoking literary gun named after him. He’s supposed to be the master of the short story. He’s so ubiquitous, this book doesn’t even have a title or an author but just says CHEKHOV on the front. How do I even index this? Chekhov by Chekhov?

Anyway. I’ve read Chekhov now. I probably should have read his better known short stories, but I started with novellas. And let me tell you, I now know just how miserable it is to be a 19th century Russian peasant. I can feel the cockroaches crawling in my sleep, taste the stale black bread and porridge.

 

The Duel

The Duel is my favorite novella in this collection. It’s the first story and unlike all the others, it’s not about the class divide of declining Tsarist Russia nor the impact of the Industrial Revolution on village life.

A bunch of Russian immigrants — the deacon, the zoologist, the government official and his wife, and other archetypes — live their lazy lives in a hazy desert outpost in the Caucasus. It’s so hot outside, you can’t do much more than swim in the warm sea or sit in the shade. Laevsky, the official, came out here to start a new life with his married lover, but has had enough. The plot revolves around him trying to borrow enough money to skip town, while lying to himself and everyone else that he’ll pay for his woman to come along later.

Much of the story is these characters having conversations while completely misunderstanding each other. The blurb on this book declares Chekhov’s interest in mutual unintelligibility. This is an excellent term that encapsulates the human problem of The Duel. None of the characters are bad people, though some are quite weak, they’re just locked into their own narrow vision of the world and cannot see themselves in anyone else’s shoes. Sound familiar? This story feels it. You could meet these people in your modern day to day.

 

Ward No. 6, A Woman’s Kingdom, Three Years

I’m lumping these three together because they’re similar in theme and also the least interesting to me. Ward No. 6 is about a doctor at a mental asylum, A Woman’s Kingdom is about an unhappy woman who inherits a booming factory business. They’re both about the divide between the people on the inside (wealth, class, etc) and the people on the outside (the poor, the workers, the mentally ill) and the various philosophies and personalities involved. I found them sort of interesting but mostly tedious.

Three Years, while still somewhat tedious, earns its tedium. Because it’s a story about tedium. A man marries a woman who does not love him. They move to Moscow. Both of them are miserable. There’s not much to look forward to when even romantic love has failed. They try to convince themselves love doesn’t matter but little else stimulates them. Yeah. Even the version I know was objectively good I found difficult to actually like. 

 

My Life

This one is great. A twenty something good-for-nothing from a formerly aristocratic family decides to become a working man and is promptly disowned by his father. As the title says, this is the first person story of his life. It’s meandering and melancholy. Life can be unfulfilling and unhappy no matter how hard you try to attach principles and meaning to it. But unlike the other stories, there are moments of joy, however fleeting. It’s almost like Chekhov arguing with himself here. The pointless tedium of life that he fears and portrays in other stories is present here but is shown as possible to combat. Maybe. 

 

Peasants and The Ravine

Peasants is an excellent depiction of living life poor in a village in the late 19th century. It was terrible. You cannot read this story without feeling honestly glad you live in the modern day and have at least some means that these poor sods didn’t.  It also has the best quotes:

The lamp went out. And the darkness, the two little windows, sharply lit by the moon, the silence, and the creak of the cradle for some reason called to mind only that life had already slipped by, that you can’t turn it back . . . You doze, lose consciousness, then suddenly someone touches your shoulder, breathes on your cheek– and there’s no sleep. Your body seems numbed as if circulation had stopped, and all the thoughts of death creep into your head; you turn on the other side– death already forgotten, but through your head drift the old, tiresome, tedious thoughts about want, about food, about flour becoming dearer, and shortly thereafter, you remember again that life has already slipped by, that you can’t turn it back…

The Ravine is more of the same but not as effective as Peasants, though it does include the most shocking and horrifying scene in the whole collection.

The Swan Whisperer by Marlene Van Niekerk

swan whispererI usually try and avoid books about writers. Or specifically works of fiction about writers of fiction. They can easily run dangerously self-aggrandizing or saccharine. You get this combo of O, my struggle! combined with something about the grand importance and essential nature of fiction — something I agree with completely but find suspect when delivered in the form of a writer constructing a clay model of themself.

(By contrast, I do love many books about books, from If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler to The Princess Bride to The Satanic Verses)

If you hadn’t guessed by now, The Swan Whisperer is a book about writing. Not just about writing, but formal creative writing classes. And not actually a book, but more a short story posing as one, about forty pages and illustrated.

The conceit here is that the narrator of the story is a South African creative writing teacher giving a lecture to her colleagues about an erstwhile student of hers who, on a trip to Amsterdam to snap his writer’s block, befriends the mysterious Swan Whisperer, an old man who descends to the canals every morning to commune with a legion of swans. The narrator goes on to explain that the student, Kasper, has been sending her cryptic letters, cassettes, and packages and excerpts of each are printed verbatim in the text.

It’s beautiful. The Swan Whisperer overcame any prejudices I had about books about writing. I’m usually not the type to sigh and wish if only this short tale were longer… but I did here. I wanted to continue, to hear more of Kasper’s secrets.

On the first page, Van Niekerk asks:

“What does one teach when one is a teacher of Creative Writing? The true? The good? The beautiful? Should one teach criticism, fantasy, or faith? What is the use of literature? What is its place on the greater canvas of human endeavours? And perhaps I should also ask: Can a story offer consolation?”

By the end of the story, I feel like maybe the answer is “Who knows?” or “Maybe it can’t possible do those things.” Maybe writing must instead be taught by winters abroad on frozen canals, falling in love with mute homeless men, savage history, love of fables, the sound of mountain rivers at midday.