Urban Shadows

Posted by Lobke Minter on September 25, 2013 in Guest Blog, Lobke Minter tagged with

Cover of "The City & The City" by China Mieville

The use of spaces to comment on human experiences or as mood setting devices is a literary tradition that is present even at the beginning of the Gothic tradition. Castles with turrets, gargoyles and a forbidding exterior that holds silk hangings buffeted by the wind, dribbled candles that flicker in the gusts of an ever present wind, and grand doors that squeal on rusty hinges – these are all aspects that could be argued to be classic Gothic ambience. The terror of not knowing what hides in the shadows, the knowing that there is something lurking, the setting is always of great importance when dealing with the Gothic. However, it is interesting to note, that the setting has changed over time. China Mieville’s The City & The City is in many ways an urban exploration of this Gothic ambience. Even though his fiction is mostly classified as “weird fiction” or “soft science fiction”, or in the case of The City & The City which is predominantly seen by the mainstream as an existential thriller, there is much to be said about Mieville’s invocation of an urban Gothic sentiment.

The epigraph to this novel is significant in establishing its Gothic undertone, as Mieville chooses to use an extract from Bruno Schulz, “Deep inside the town there open up, so to speak, double streets, doppelganger streets, mendacious and delusive streets.” This opening up of a liminal space within an urban setting, with an emphasis on “double streets” and more interestingly “doppelganger streets” forms the basis of Mieville’s exploration of an urban shadow that lives in the overlap of two cities that are overlaid in an intricate narrative that constantly reiterates what is seen and what the characters have to “unsee”.

Even though primarily concerned with a brutal murder, The City & The City is concerned mostly with Breach, a shadowy power that polices the boundaries between Bes?el and Ul Qoma. Even though there is a consideration that the each city is in a way a “split” of the other, the overarching emphasis is that there are weak points, called crosshatches, in which the cities visually overlap or bleed into each other. Breach therefore is concerned with dealing directly and sometimes violently with people who are found to be breaching or transgressing against the social expectation to ignore the crosshatch.  In other word there is a strict enforcement of the boundaries between the cities, where citizens on both sides are assiduously taught to unsee, as Tyador highlights “the ostentation with which we and our Ul Qoman contemporaries used to unnoticed each other when we were grossotopically close was impressive” (p.86).

The citizens therefore, visible to citizens on the other side, are ignored as if they were not there or ghosts, acknowledgement of these ghosts, invoke Breach, and Breach is described continuously as shadowy forms that swoop in and take control of a situation in which a social transgression across these boundaries has occurred. In that sense there is much to be said for the inclusion of “doppelganger streets” right at the start. Every street has its double, and between those identical, but slightly different streets, there is the shadow of Breach that is constantly watching, constantly alert – a very real presence in the dark interstitial spaces.

A scene from "Dark City" by Alex Proyas

Even the structure of The City & The City mirrors this differentiation. Part One is entitled Bes?el, where the protagonist Tyador Borlu lives, and it is here that one is introduced to the geography of the layered cities. Part Two transitions to Ul Qoma, as Tyador moves across the only legal link between the cities, namely Copula Hall. Even in the “other city” there is constant mention of the layered nature of the cities, the doubling is shown from the “other” perspective. Then, finally, Part Three is entitled Breach, where Tyador finally gets to see the shadowy presence known only as Breach, or rather he is allowed to exist in the spatial shadow that is found between the two cities. In Gothic terms it is obviously Breach that is the most important as it is both the shadowy enforcer of social mores as well as a geographical liminal space. Mieville introduces this section with an almost dreamlike imprecision, very different to the clinical, factual tone that has been the norm throughout the text:

It was not a soundless dark. It was not without intrusions. There were presences within it that asked me questions I could not answer, questions I was aware of as urgencies at which I failed. Those voices again and again said to me, Breach. What had touched me sent me not into mindless silence but into a dream arena where I was quarry (p. 289).

The use of phrases such as “soundless dark”, “presences”, disembodied voices and a dream like space where the protagonist feels like he is hunted, invokes Gothic horror almost at its most classical rendering. The vague nature of the description increases the tension which has been built up throughout the novel. The protagonist, from the beginning, is drawn into an investigation of Breach, what it is, and how it functions. Although there are several theories that explain it, Tyador is finally in a space where he will know, and yet Mieville in the first instance does not resolve that tension. It is almost as if Breach is the monster hiding in the dark, but more distressingly, it is that dark shadow, “he was a cutout of darkness, a lack” (p. 290). With his introduction into that liminal space, Tyador realises that the menacing presence he has felt throughout his investigation is real, and that he is in danger of being pulled into it.

Ultimately, the fear of losing the self, or one’s identity to the Breach is what drives the climax of The City & The City. Mieville dissipates some of the built up tension by splitting the Breach into a multitude of individual shadows. Each shadow used to be someone living in either Bes?el or Ul Qoma. However, these individuals transgress by not respecting the boundary between the two cities. Therefore, they have no choice but to give up their individual identity, their citizenship of one or the other city, and become integrated into Breach.

The menacing presence that is constantly watching, literally lurking in the shadows, punishes transgression by eliminating the individual, people who “breach”, exist only as the force that regulates and controls those that remain as individuals, divided between two cities. It is interesting precisely because the science fictional element in The City & The City recedes almost completely into the background. There is no overt manifestation of science as an explanation for the existence of these layered cities, or even Breach. Throughout, there are oblique hints at a scientific explanation for this organisation, it is however never directly invoked or explained. It therefore leaves the Gothic elements of the text as unchallenged and in many ways more pronounced.

The transference of Gothic elements into an urban space means that Mieville interrogates questions of identity as well as highlighting the effective use of the Gothic setting as the conduit for that exploration. Identity in this context is inherently formed by which city someone is living in. All characters that are from “normal” places outside of Bes?el or Ul Qoma are seen as blundering, or insensitive to the complexity of the social construct that exist in these two cities. Those that live on either side of Bes?el or Ul Qoma are consistently aware of being watched from the shadows, while at the same time feeling some sense of accomplishment in living “correctly”, seeing and unseeing according to what is considered socially acceptable. In this scenario, to live between cities means to lose all attributes that are considered individual, both psychologically as well as physically. Even though there is not a complete loss of body, as the shadows still move about in an almost corporeal manifestation, the overarching emphasis is on the loss of all human features, to be seen always as a “lack”. The urban shadow then, is a loss of the individual into a shadowy unity, which often seems to be eerily related to an Orwellian notion of government. To be without individuality, is therefore according to Mieville, far worse than being “unseen” as the “other”.

As archaic as the system of seeing and unseeing seems in this novel, it mirrors any system of socially constructed behaviour in an urban setting. This differentiation draws a distinction between what is real and can be acknowledged and what is real but cannot be acknowledged. Not knowing which reality to acknowledge leads to a complete loss of identity into the darkness, where identity becomes a “lack”. The social construct therefore is law, and it is the transgression of seeing what should not be seen that is ultimately punished. Therefore, the urban shadow exists to castigate those that violate a social taboo, a monster created ultimately by a society’s need to know how to behave in an urban setting.

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