Thursday, 10 May 2018

The City & The City | review by Rafe McGregor

Detecting the New Weird.

By curious coincidence, cinematic adaptations of works by both of the best-known practitioners of the New Weird have reached the small screen in the UK within a month of each other. In my review of Alex Garland’s Annihilation in March, I introduced the New Weird and noted that the term either referred to a new subcategory of speculative fiction that explored humanity’s place in the world in the era that sociologists are fond of calling ‘late modernity’ or a deconstructive take on the weird fiction of H.P. Lovecraft that became so influential after his death. The genre was established with the publication of The New Weird, a collection of short fiction published by Jeff and Ann VanderMeer in 2008, and consists of two main strands, one in the US and the other in the UK. In the former, VanderMeer himself published the Southern Reach Trilogy, which begins with Annihilation, in 2014. In the latter, China Miéville published King Rat much earlier, in 1998, and The City & the City constituted one of his distinctively urban contributions to the genre, published in 2009. While the New Weird has existed for at least two decades and been an established genre for a decade, none of either VanderMeer or Miéville’s work has to my knowledge appeared on either the big or small screen – until now, when we have a Netflix film released in March and a BBC television mini-series released in April. This is of course great news for New Weird enthusiasts and I’ll return to the question of whether the New Weird is about to reach an audience the (Old) Weird never did in my conclusion.

The City & the City is an intriguing, sophisticated, thoughtful, and important novel that requires either a series of films or a television series for adaptation. The need for an extended representation is largely due to the complexity of the setting, which is very difficult to grasp conceptually. The city and the city are probably most concisely introduced by a short passage in the book, where Inspector Tyador Borlú of the Besźel polizei is explaining a previous visit to Berlin. He says:

“I was young. It was a conference. ‘Policing Split Cities.’ They had sessions on Budapest and Jerusalem and Berlin, and Besźel and Ul Qoma.”

He might have added any of South Africa’s cities during the apartheid era or the many global cities divided by polarities of wealth and poverty in the neoliberal era. The main difference between Besźel/Ul Qoma and, for example, West Berlin/East Berlin is that there are no physical barriers between the city and the city. Berlin had its famous wall complete with bunkers, observation towers, and dog runs, but Besźel and Ul Qoma are two city states without a wall, a little like Rome and the Vatican City. Unlike its Italian counterparts, however, the two states are sworn enemies, similar in size and population, and crosshatched. ‘Crosshatched’ means that the border between the two cities has not been established in a symmetrical shape (like Berlin and Rome) so there are areas where one side of the same street is in Besźel and the other in Ul Qoma or, even worse, where public squares and terraced houses are divided between the two cities. These apparently porous borders are maintained by the combination of two forms of control, one informal, the other formal. First, rigorous education by parents and in schools trains children to ‘unsee’ rather than see the other city. Second, both cities cede their sovereignty to an organisation called Breach, which exists solely for the purpose of maintaining the border and dealing with those who commit the crime of breach, i.e. cross the border, talk to someone across the border, or even see (rather than unsee) someone across the border. Breach is the most serious of all crimes in Besźel/Ul Qoma and anyone who breaches is subject to immediate and extrajudicial arrest and punishment by Breach. What exactly happens to breachers is not made clear, but it is something nasty – execution, life imprisonment, or exile – for they are never seen (or unseen) again in either city.

The most intriguing part of the cinematic adaptation for me was how this strange situation would be represented visually and it was achieved, like much else, with great finesse. The protagonist of both the book and the mini-series is Borlú (played by David Morrissey) and the audience sees most of the latter from his perspective (mirroring the first person narrative of the former). Borlú lives in a crosshatched part of Besźel and if he looks out of the wrong window of his flat or walks to work, the Ul Qoma side of the street simply appears as a blur. If he surreptitiously commits breach by seeing Ul Qoma, the people, buildings, and vehicles across the border come into focus. Typical of both the Weird and the New Weird, The City & The City combines at least two genres – police procedural (of the hardboiled variety) and fantasy (of the urban variety) – and the story begins with the discovery of the body of an American university student enrolled at university in Ul Qoma in a crosshatched area of Besźel/Ul Qoma that is part of Besźel. Borlú is assigned the case and allocated an able if unorthodox assistant in Constable Corwi (played by Mandeep Dhillon). The first point he must establish is whether breach has taken place because breach takes precedence over murder and falls under the jurisdiction of Breach rather than the polizei (or Ul Qoma’s militsya). The circumstances of the case take Borlú to Ul Qoma (which can only be entered legally at a single border post), where he is provided with another able (albeit more orthodox) assistant in Senior Detective Dhatt (played by Maria Schrader). The murder is linked to the disappearance of another student and both students are connected to Professor David Bowden (played by Christian Camargo), a public intellectual notorious for his theory that there is a third city, called Orciny, that exists in spaces between the other two. The notion is perfectly suited to Miéville’s internal logic: if training and habit can cause citizens to unsee one city, how can they be sure that they are not also unseeing a second? The plot is thickened by the fact that Borlú’s wife, Katrynia (played by Lara Pulver) – who disappeared at the hands of Breach – was one of Bowden’s many student-lovers prior to her marriage. The introduction of Katrynia as a major character (by means of both Borlú’s memory and imagination) is the only alteration in an otherwise almost entirely faithful adaptation of the novel. The change makes for an innovative interpretation and Miéville must have been happy with the result as he has a brief, non-speaking cameo in episode 2 (at precisely the halfway point).

I wasn’t sure whether Morrissey had the screen presence to carry the lead in a story told almost exclusively from his point of view, but he is supported by such a strong cast of able women – Dhillon, Schrader, and Pulver – that my fears were soon allayed. As such, I have only two criticisms of the mini-series. First, although it follows Miéville’s form almost exactly, the emphasis of the content quickly becomes the conspiracy theories surrounding the existence (or not) of Orciny and there is a sense in which the police procedure and murder mystery is lost in the ensuing intrigue. This is somewhat remedied in the surprising, understated, and effective close of the narrative, but I found the conspiracy less compelling than the murder, in consequence of which episodes 2 and 3 dragged a little. Second, and this may be related to the dominance of fantastic conspiracy over realistic murder, the mini-series fails to plumb the philosophical depths of the novel. Miéville seems to be saying something significant about the very concept of national borders in the twenty-first century – perhaps something along the lines of the absence of moral justification for sustaining internecine and even international conflicts in the age of globalisation, an age characterised by refugee crises, a return to the extremism of the previous century, and an ever-widening gap between rich and poor. These deeper questions are largely lost in the mini-series, with the exception of the briefest allusion when Bowden’s infamous treatise, Between the City and the City, is discussed. In the same way that Between the City and the City proposes the existence of a third city that threatens to undermine the house of cards upon which Besźel/Ul Qoma is built, so The City & The City proposes a situation in which borders have been pushed to their hyperbolic and farcical limit, undermining a concept that is crucial to the way in which we understand the world and construct our own identities.

I’ll conclude by returning to the subject with which I began, the New Weird and whether or not 2018 will be the year in which it reaches a mainstream audience. At the time of writing, Annihilation has received much critical acclaim, with 87% on Rotten Tomatoes, but has failed to earn the $40 million-odd it cost to make. The consensus opinion in print and online media is that Authority and Acceptance (the second and third parts of the Southern Reach Trilogy) are unlikely to appear onscreen. There is no Tomatometer available for The City & The City, but a scan of UK newspaper reviews would place it at about the 75% mark, i.e. mostly but not overwhelmingly positive. So far, the mini-series will have reached far less of an audience than Annihilation, and although Dhillon has been much-praised for her role, the absence of internationally-recognisable stars such as Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Tessa Thompson will probably maintain this imbalance. The answer is thus no, the New Weird isn’t in any more danger of reaching a global audience than the Weird was in the nineteen-thirties, but for anyone who wants to know what the genre is all about, The City & The City is a very good place to start. ****

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