For anyone following the career of The Millions staff writer Emily St. John Mandel, her new novel Station Eleven is exceptionally satisfying.
Station Eleven jumps back and forth between the events leading up to a flu epidemic that wipes out 99 percent of the population and 20 years later in the post-apocalyptic world. One character, a famous actor, connects a large cast that at first seem disconnected. As time and events weave together, we start to understand the links between them. The result is a beautiful, dark, and gripping look at art and survival. The novel was recently shortlisted for the 2014 National Book Award. All that sounds satisfying, doesn’t it? For me, there is something more.
I loved St. John Mandel’s first three books, Last Night in Montreal, The Singer’s Gun and The Lola Quartet. Each share a unique feel that could perhaps be described as literary noir. Station Eleven has much of the same intrigue, but it also is a more developed work. It is spectacular in a way that can only come with years of practice.
And maybe, as a writer myself, that is what I find so satisfying. There are so many things that can get in the way of a writer and her career. It’s nice to think that it might be possible to work hard and arrive somewhere better, isn’t it?
Hopping from David Mitchell to story structure to Boyhood and an Excel spreadsheet, I interviewed St. John Mandel by email, while she crisscrossed the country on her book tour.
The Millions: In a recent article in The Atlantic, David Mitchell talked about how he makes the future feel immediate. His trick is to, “try to work out what people in that future point will be taking for granted.” Your future world feels fully realized and plausible. Did you think along similar lines to Mitchell for finding the right mindset?
ESJM: Thank you, I’m glad it feels plausible. I haven’t read that article in The Atlantic, but Mitchell’s formula rings true. When you’re writing a future that’s post-apocalyptic, creating a plausible world is largely a process of subtraction, i.e., what things that we take for granted now will have been lost in the future? And since so much has been lost, how will people in that future view the present day, if they think of it at all?
It’s interesting to think about what the artifacts of the present would look like to someone with little or no direct memory of the lost world. Knowing intellectually that the airplanes rusting on runways once flew is something very different from knowing what an airplane in flight would have looked like, for example. If what you knew of night airplanes was that they’d traveled high and very fast and that they were lit up, would you think they’d looked like shooting stars?
TM: Did you find the future more difficult to write than the sections that were set in our more immediate world?
ESJM: I actually found the sections set in our era more difficult, I think because the future in Station Eleven is a fairly pared-down place. The focus is on a group of people walking down the shore of a Great Lake. While that group struggles with the same things all of us struggle with — maintaining relationships, trying to be a good person, trying to find some meaning in life — the contours of their lives are fairly straightforward and, until they’re threatened by an apocalyptic religious group, fairly unchanging: they hunt constantly, they stop in towns where they give performances, they boil lake water for drinking, they continue onward. Those are the most focused and perhaps the simplest parts of the book.
I found the present day sections to be somewhat more complicated to write, perhaps because the action in those sections is somewhat more subtle — the nuances of depicting the way a marriage fails, or the generalized dissatisfaction that can come over a person in adulthood, or the way a friendship changes over decades — or perhaps just because life in the modern world is infinitely more complex than life in a world of horse-drawn caravans and candlelight. My characters in the present-day sections are forever hopping on airplanes and having conversations with people on the other side of the planet and receiving emails and such, all of these complicating things that are no longer possible in the post-apocalyptic world.
TM: In my review of Station Eleven in The Globe & Mail, I mentioned something that Lana Wachowski, who adapted David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas for the screen, said in The New Yorker that the novel “represents a midpoint between the future idea that everything is fragmented and the past idea that there is a beginning, a middle, and an end.” You connect themes across time, which allowed you to build an incredible emotional depth into your characters. Was this what you intended?
ESJM: Yes. The other reason is that I’m interested in memory. I’m fascinated by the phenomenon where three people will witness the same event and remember it in three completely different ways. Structuring a book in a non-linear fashion with multiple points of view allows me to revisit the same plot points from completely different angles.
I like that Wachowski quote a great deal. As a reader, I often love stories with very uncomplicated, very linear structures and a clear beginning, middle, and end. I’d like to write one someday. I often find myself thinking about John Williams’s Stoner — one of my favorite novels — as a perfect example of this kind of storytelling. As a writer, I’m drawn to fractured narrative structures.
TM: Why did you structure the novel as you did, rather than following a more linear plot?
ESJM: It’s just the structure that I find myself drawn to most strongly. I’ve structured all of my books in this fashion, starting with my first novel, Last Night in Montreal. My thinking with that book was that a non-linear structure would be helpful in terms of creating and maintaining tension throughout the novel. I liked the idea of moving the novel toward the moments of greatest tension in the plot, even if those points of tension were two moments that took place, say, 10 years apart in the timeline of the novel.
I’ve been working with that structure and trying to push it further with each successive book. I think it’s an interesting way to tell a story, and I truly enjoy the challenge of putting together a non-linear book; it’s something like putting together a complicated puzzle.
TM: To me, Station Eleven captures a feeling that is similar to Richard Linklater’s film Boyhood. Both show how small moments in time link together and add up to make a life. Does the comparison to Boyhood resonate for you?
ESJM: I loved that movie and am flattered by the comparison. The comparison resonates in the sense that, as you say, I’m trying to convey how small moments add up to a life, but the structure of Boyhood is relentlessly linear, and the focus is so much tighter, the way the film concentrates almost entirely on one character. I think for those reasons I might be more inclined to compare Boyhood to a book like Stoner, personally.
TM: Did you carefully plot to achieve the effect of time passing?
ESJM: Yes. It was important to me to try to show the way people change over time, the way our personalities and outlooks are altered by experience and circumstance. This was most explicit in the case of Arthur, I think, the actor who dies on stage in the first chapter. I was trying to show how a kind and talented and insecure 19-year-old might become a kind, talented, and also somewhat vain and self-absorbed man in his 50s.
There are also a lot of places where I just tell the reader that time has passed, because it was important to me that readers not be confused by the jumps around in time. This is why I have a few chapters that begin with lines like “Twenty years after the end of air travel,” for instance.
TM: How did you manage so many strands of the story while writing?
ESJM: I took a lot of notes as I was writing the book, and wrote out a detailed timeline. Later that wasn’t enough, so during the later revisions I put together a map of the book in Excel. This was in the final stretch, when I had the basic components of the novel and I was just rewriting and moving pieces around to try to find the best possible structure. The Excel map had notes on what was happening in each chapter, who had the point of view, the page count of each major section, etc. The book has an awful lot of moving parts, so I found the map invaluable in keeping track of everything. I was changing the order of chapters and sections right up until the end.
TM: Was your process for writing this book very different from or similar to how you wrote your previous three novels?
ESJM: The process was almost identical. I think it’s fair to say that Station Eleven is more complex and has a larger scope than my previous novels, but I set about writing it in the same way as the previous books. I never know how the story’s going to end, and I don’t work from an outline; I just start writing various scenes and figure out how they go together later. After a year or so, I have a colossally messy first draft, and then there’s another 18 months or so of revisions until it’s coherent enough to send out to early readers.
Image Credit: Emily St. John Mandel
If you’re like me, you keep a list of books you read, and at this time of year, you may run your finger back over it, remembering not just the plots, the soul-lifting favorites, and the drudges cast aside in frustration. You also remember the when and where of each book. This one on a plane to somewhere cold, that one in bed on a warm summer night. That list, even if it is just titles and authors and nothing more, is a diary in layers. Your days, other plots, imaginary people.
And so when, in preparing our annual Year in Reading series, we ask our esteemed guests to tell us about the “best” book(s) they read all year, we do it not just because we want a great book recommendation from someone we admire (we do) and certainly not because we want to cobble together some unwieldy Top 100 of 2011 list (we don’t). We do it because we want a peek into that diary. And in the responses we learn how anything from a 300-year-old work to last summer’s bestseller reached out and insinuated itself into a life outside those pages.
With this in mind, for an eighth year, we asked some of our favorite writers, thinkers, and readers to look back, reflect, and share. Their charge was to name, from all the books they read this year, the one(s) that meant the most to them, regardless of publication date. Grouped together, these ruminations, cheers, squibs, and essays will be a chronicle of reading and good books from every era. We hope you find in them seeds that will help make your year in reading in 2012 a fruitful one.
As we have in prior years, the names of our 2011 “Year in Reading” contributors will be unveiled one at a time throughout the month as we post their contributions. You can bookmark this post and follow the series from here, or load up the main page for more new Year in Reading posts appearing at the top every day, or you can subscribe to our RSS feed and follow along in your favorite feed reader.
Stephen Dodson, coauthor of Uglier Than a Monkey’s Armpit, proprietor of Languagehat.
Jennifer Egan, author of A Visit from the Goon Squad.
Ben Marcus, author of The Flame Aphabet.
Eleanor Henderson, author of Ten Thousand Saints.
Colum McCann, author of Let the Great World Spin.
Nick Moran, The Millions intern.
Dan Kois, senior editor at Slate.
John Williams, founding editor of The Second Pass.
Michael Bourne, staff writer at The Millions.
Michael Schaub, book critic for NPR.org.
Scott Esposito, coauthor of Lady Chatterley’s Brother, proprietor of Conversational Reading.
Hannah Pittard, author of The Fates Will Find Their Way.
Benjamin Hale, author of The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore.
Geoff Dyer, author of Otherwise Known as the Human Condition.
Chad Harbach, author of The Art of Fielding.
Deborah Eisenberg, author of Collected Stories.
Duff McKagan, author of It’s So Easy: And Other Lies, former bassist for Guns N’ Roses.
Nathan Englander, author of For the Relief of Unbearable Urges.
Amy Waldman, author of The Submission.
Charles Baxter, author of Gryphon: New and Selected Stories.
David Bezmozgis, author of The Free World.
Emma Straub, author of Other People We Married.
Adam Ross, author of Ladies and Gentlemen.
Philip Levine, Poet Laureate of the United States.
Mayim Bialik, actress, author of Beyond the Sling.
Hamilton Leithauser, lead singer of The Walkmen.
Chris Baio, bassist for Vampire Weekend.
Bill Morris, staff writer at The Millions.
Rosecrans Baldwin, author of You Lost Me There.
Carolyn Kellogg, staff writer at the LA Times.
Mark O’Connell, staff writer at The Millions.
Emily M. Keeler, Tumblrer at The Millions, books editor at The New Inquiry.
Edan Lepucki, staff writer at The Millions, author of If You’re Not Yet Like Me.
Jami Attenberg, author of The Melting Season.
Dennis Cooper, author of The Marbled Swarm.
Alex Ross, author of Listen to This, New Yorker music critic.
Mona Simpson, author of My Hollywood.
Yaşar Kemal, author of They Burn the Thistles.
Siddhartha Deb, author of The Beautiful and The Damned: A Portrait of the New India.
David Vann, author of Legend of a Suicide.
Jonathan Safran Foer, author of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.
Edie Meidav, author of Lola, California.
Ward Farnsworth, author of Farnsworth’s Classical English Rhetoric.
Daniel Orozco, author of Orientation and Other Stories.
Hannah Nordhaus, author of The Beekeeper’s Lament.
Brad Listi, founder of The Nervous Breakdown.
Alex Shakar, author of Luminarium.
Denise Mina, author of The End of the Wasp Season.
Christopher Boucher, author of How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive.
Parul Sehgal, books editor at NPR.org.
Patrick Brown, staff writer at The Millions.
Jacob Lambert, freelance writer, columnist, contributor to The Millions.
Emily St. John Mandel, author of Last Night in Montreal, staff writer at The Millions.
Kevin Hartnett, staff writer for The Millions.
Garth Risk Hallberg, author of A Field Guide to the North American Family, staff writer at The Millions.
Jeff Martin, author of The Late American Novel.
Jane Alison, author of The Sisters Antipodes.
Matthew Gallaway, author of The Metropolis Case.
Nuruddin Farah, author of Crossbones.
Natasha Wimmer, translator of The Third Reich.
Jean-Christophe Vatlat, author of Aurorarama.
Kevin Brockmeier, author of The Illumination.
Brooke Hauser, author of The New Kids: Big Dreams and Brave Journeys at a High School for Immigrant Teens.
Belinda McKeon, author of Solace.
Ellis Avery, author of The Teahouse Fire.
Buzz Poole, author of Madonna of the Toast.
A.N. Devers, editor of Writers’ Houses.
Mark Bibbins, author of The Dance of No Hard Feelings.
Elissa Schappell, author of Blueprints for Building Better Girls.
Rachel Syme, NPR contributor.
The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles
The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews
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There are many ways to measure a year, but the reader is likely to measure it in books. There was the novel that felt as fresh and full of promise as the new year in January, the memoir read on the bus to and from work through the grey days of March, the creased paperback fished from a pocket in the park in May, the stacks of books thumbed through and sandy-paged, passed around at the beach in August, the old favorite read by light coming in the window in October, and the many books in between. And when we each look back at our own years in reading, we are almost sure to find that ours was exactly like no other reader’s.
The end of another year brings the usual frothy and arbitrary accounting of the “best” this and the “most” that. But might it also be an opportunity to look back, reflect, and share? We hope so, and so, for a seventh year, The Millions has reached out to some of our favorite writers, thinkers, and readers to name, from all the books they read this year, the one(s) that meant the most to them, regardless of publication date. Grouped together, these ruminations, cheers, squibs, and essays will be a chronicle of reading and good books from every era. We hope you find in them seeds that will help make your year in reading in 2011 a fruitful one.
As we have in prior years, the names of our 2010 “Year in Reading” contributors will be unveiled one at a time throughout the month as we post their contributions. You can bookmark this post and follow the series from here, or load up the main page for more new Year in Reading posts appearing at the top every day, or you can subscribe to our RSS feed and follow along in your favorite feed reader.
Stephen Dodson, coauthor of Uglier Than a Monkey’s Armpit, proprietor of Languagehat.
Fiona Maazel, author of Last Last Chance.
John Banville, author of The Sea, The Infinities, and many other books.
Al Jaffee, legendary Mad Magazine writer and cartoonist.
Lionel Shriver, author of So Much for That and several other books.
Emma Rathbone, author of The Patterns of Paper Monsters.
Joshua Cohen, author of Witz.
Jonathan Dee, author of The Privileges and several other books.
Jennifer Gilmore, author of Something Red.
Stephen Elliott, editor of The Rumpus and author of The Adderall Diaries.
Dan Kois, author of Facing Future.
Bill Morris, Millions staff writer and author of Motor City.
Mark Sarvas, author of Harry, Revised, proprietor of The Elegant Variation.
Emma Donoghue, author of Room and several other books.
Margaret Atwood, author of Year of the Flood and many other books.
Lynne Tillman, author of American Genius and several other books.
Hamilton Leithauser, of The Walkmen.
Padgett Powell, author of The Interrogative Mood and other books.
Anthony Doerr, author of Memory Wall and other books.
Paul Murray, author of Skippy Dies.
Tom Rachman, author of The Imperfectionists.
Aimee Bender, author of The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake and several other books.
Philip Lopate, author of Notes on Sontag and several other books.
Sam Lipsyte, author of The Ask and other books.
Julie Orringer, author of The Invisible Bridge.
Joseph McElroy, author of Women and Men and several other books.
Alexander Theroux, author of Laura Warholic and several other books.
Laura van den Berg, author of What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us.
Emily St. John Mandel, Millions staff writer and author of Last Night In Montreal and The Singer’s Gun.
John Williams, founding editor of The Second Pass.
Edan Lepucki, Millions staff writer, author of If You’re Not Yet Like Me.
Ed Champion, proprietor of edrants.com and The Bat Segundo Show.
Maud Newton, proprietor of maudnewton.com.
Lorin Stein, editor of The Paris Review.
Tom McCarthy, author of C and Remainder.
Keith Gessen, author of All the Sad Young Literary Men and founding editor of n+1.
Rosecrans Baldwin, author of You Lost Me There and co-founder of The Morning News.
Paul Harding, author of Tinkers.
Sigrid Nunez, author of Salvation City and several other books.
Matt Weiland, editor of The Thinking Fan’s Guide to the World Cup and State by State.
Allegra Goodman, author of The Cookbook Collector and several other books.
Adam Levin, author of The Instructions and several other books.
Michael Cunningham, author of By Nightfall, The Hours and several other books.
Sam Anderson, book critic, New York magazine.
Richard Nash, of Cursor and Red Lemonade.
Seth Mnookin, author of Hard News and The Panic Virus.
Joanna Smith Rakoff, author of A Fortunate Age.
Marisa Silver, author of The God of War and other books.
David Gutowski, of Largehearted Boy.
Emily Colette Wilkinson, Millions staff writer.
Jenny Davidson, author of Invisible Things and other books.
Scott Esposito, proprietor of Conversational Reading and editor of The Quarterly Conversation.
Carolyn Kellogg, LA Times staff writer.
Anne K. Yoder of The Millions.
Marjorie Kehe, book editor at the Christian Science Monitor.
Neal Pollack, author of Stretch: The Unlikely Making Of A Yoga Dude and other books.
Danielle Evans, author of Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self.
Allen Barra writes for the Wall Street Journal and the Daily Beast.
Dorothea Lasky, author of Black Life and AWE.
Avi Steinberg, author of Running the Books, The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian.
Stephanie Deutsch, critic and historian.
Lydia Kiesling, Millions staff writer.
Lorraine Adams, author of The Room and the Chair.
Rachel Syme, NPR.com books editor.
Garth Risk Hallberg, Millions staff writer and author of A Field Guide to the North American Family.
The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles
The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews
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Year in Reading logo and graphics by Michael Barbetta
I envy the way my oldest son reads, stretched out on the living room couch, all of a sudden this year taking up most of three cushions. Watch his face: his lips move, his eyebrows raise and lower in drastic measures, he smiles, winces, gapes and falls still all in a mere breath.
He practices the cliché—he devours books. But, even better, the books devour him.
I used to be the same way. When I was about ten a pen pal came to visit from all the way across the country and I didn’t notice her for a few days after discovering a copy of Madeleine L’Engle’s Meet the Austins in her suitcase.
“Want to go swimming?” she would ask. “Want to ride bikes? Want to watch TV?”
No. I was reading. I was busy becoming an Austin. There were four kids in that family and in my family there was only me, but for the duration of the book and all subsequent readings, I owned those brothers and sisters. I had to make sure Vicki recovered from her fall off her bike, that Maggie didn’t get Suzie into too much trouble, that nobody froze during the ice storm. A beloved pen pal paled in comparison.
That’s what reading used to feel like: changing into something better, or at least different, for a short time. Becoming the characters. Changing forever. Emily of New Moon, Ramona Cleary, any of Lois Duncan’s savvy heroines, sad Davey from Tiger Eyes, clever kids from Paula Danziger—the list is long. I wasn’t picky.
I’m not one of those creative types who has dark, damp memories of teenage loneliness and long-lasting existential horror, though I have tried at different times to cultivate that image. I was pretty happy. I had friends. I had a horse, a job I loved, parents who were wise enough to let me go most of the time. And I had books, though not quite in the same way I had them in my first decade. Camus and Shakespeare often jostled elbows in my backpack, they also shared space with Christopher Pike and whoever it was wrote the Sweet Valley High series—educational reading. I was a busy kid; I had only a few empty afternoons waiting like warm pools to slide into with a book. I read between the cracks of my daily life and didn’t mind, didn’t notice.
College was where I discovered other people liked books, too. I never got around to sniffing out the sororities, but within the first few weeks of my first semester I became an ardent member of the English Club. People in the English Club read aloud by candlelight and sipped red wine and walked to town to hear Martin Espada and Kurt Vonnegut. In that cramped, dusty office on the second floor of Bartlett Hall I was introduced to e.e.cummings (I know! So late!), James Merrill and Philip Roth in the form of Portnoy’s Complaint.
Who proved to be useful during my sophomore year when I had time to kill while visiting my boyfriend in Atlanta. Portnoy was a keen distraction from curious thoughts about the wineglasses I found on a high shelf in my boyfriend’s kitchen, suspicions about a certain girl he drove home from campus nearly every day, sinking alarm at his obvious comfort in her apartment when we went to visit. Portnoy kept me oddly sane during a tumultuous three-week visit. By the time I boarded a plane heading back to the frozen north, the book was a battered companion after having been read a few dozen times. No human friend could have withstood my needy attentions like that.
Reading as self-defense—a technique I’ve used often. Whenever I travel, I bring a familiar book to keep invasive home sickness at bay. A death in the family? I escape grieving guests to read upstairs in my bed. Marital eruptions? When the dust settles I can be found behind a book. Better than drugs or alcohol for numbing the occasional pain of daily life.
But the way I read in college was different from the way I read as a child. I read from afar. I noticed technique, I could sift through the narrative and explain why a book worked. I loved Roth, Garcia Marquez, Ford and O’Brien, but they were never able to maintain the spell that L’Engle could cast over the whole of me. Not that L’Engle is a better writer. But I was a different reader.
Graduate school was where I met writers and read their books and realized that real people wrote the books I loved. Not that I thought books arrived from some celestial source, but I’d never had a conversation with a writer whose name appeared on a book jacket or two. Before this, my wish to be a writer had shared characteristics with my wish to be a ballerina. Never mind I hadn’t had a dance class since I was three. But Francois Camoin, Abby Frucht, Victoria Redel—they had written books, and they were sitting across the lunch table from me.
Knowing the authors did nothing to decrease the distance I felt from the books I held in my hands. Instead, as I learned better how to decipher the coded technique in any text, that highway between me and the book grew longer. As I became a better writer, I became a more distant reader.
When my first child was born I prepared by reading Carol Shields’s Unless. Other expectant moms read thick how-to manuals. I dove headfirst into a story about a mother who acutely misses her daughter, about a daughter who confronts a harshness that alters the way she enters the world. I credit the book for getting me through 24 hours of hard labor. Not towards the end when there were so many people with me. But in the beginning of birth pains, at home while my husband snored in the other room, I escaped the so-far minimal disruption by kneeling on the floor and hovering over the book, rocking my body back and forth. Pain in my belly, pain in the book.
Babies arrive and yes, you might spend a bizarre amount of time watching them sleep, but you also might get a tiny bit bored and long for something normal to do. Like finish one of your favorite books. With my second baby I read Paula Fox’s first memoir, Borrowed Finery, and with my third – well, don’t tell him, but I can’t remember. There were two other children who still needed my reassurance and advice, and brains can be foggy after giving birth. I know I read something, though. Perhaps it was self-defense again; perhaps I look to books to protect me from life’s ultimate highs and lows; maybe I am addicted to the parallel highs and lows books have to offer. I see the world through book-colored glasses.
Now I am a professional reader. Reviewing books is one of several profit-driven jobs I do in between the tasks related to the care of three little boys and a house and a husband and a plethora of chickens. And reviewing has perhaps changed the way I read more than any other life shift. I read faster. I could, if I weren’t so inconveniently honest, write a comprehensive and accurate review of most of the (bad) books after only 20 pages. But I keep going. I read with an ear open to possible quotes, I look for mistakes, patterns of textual mayhem, suggestions on how to improve the next book. Some days, reading all these bad books is enough to make me turn to television.
But there are good things about bad books. I read over my own fiction with an ear bent precisely toward what can go wrong. I read like a reader instead of a writer.
When I find myself audience to a good review book the sensation is akin to that felt while watching my middle boy learn to ride his bike. With fewer moments of sheer fear. I slow down, I bite my tongue to keep from cheering out loud, and I type very, very fast after I put the book down. I swoon over these books—The Dark Side of Love, Last Night in Montreal, The Cold Earth. And sometimes, even when the youngest son shrieks for cookies and the oldest laments the lack of toilet paper in the downstairs bathroom and the middle child begs loudly for a new bike, I don’t quite hear them. I have been devoured.
Am I a happier reader now than I was when I was eight? Is today’s generation happier than our cavemen ancestors? Evolution both solves problems and creates new ones; as plenty of recent books explain: happiness is relative. I still love to read. Reading might be sweeter now that I fall in love with fewer books. And sometimes knowing why I love a certain book is a sweetness in itself.
On my way to bed these days I pass my oldest boy still awake, eyes roaming the page in ever-widening sweeps. He’s tired. “But I can’t stop reading,” he whispers.
I know the feeling.
Image credit: Pexels/Pixabay.
I read China Miéville’s The City & The City recently. It’s one of the best and most inventive books I’ve read in a while, and I’ve read some good ones lately. It’s a police procedural set in a fictional European city state, but that’s not quite accurate: it’s set in a city state and also in the other city state that overlaps the first one. The story begins when Tyador Borlú, a detective in the City of Beszel’s Extreme Crime Squad, is called one morning to a crime scene in a decrepit neighborhood.
A woman has been killed. But what at first seems like a straightforward murder of a prostitute rapidly becomes much more complicated, when it begins to seem that the crime may have transpired in the parallel and not particularly friendly city state of Ul Qoma. Beszel and Ul Qoma occupy precisely the same geographical territory, but moving between them requires a passport. Citizens of Beszel are trained from birth to see only the citizens and structures of their own city, and to “unsee” the citizens and structures of Ul Qoma that exist all around them. On a given street, the first three houses might be Ul Qoman, while the fourth might be Besz; a citizen of Beszel, trained from birth to pick up on the most subtle visual cues, will see only the fourth house. The set-up is absurd and yet eerily plausible: how often, in your movements through your daily life, have you chosen not to see something?
The novel moves well. The plotting is intricate. But what fascinated me most about this story was the setting. It reminded me a little of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, with its shadowy undercity (London Below) existing as a mirror of the more familiar London (London Above.) But whereas Neverwhere involves an element of magic—the workings of London Below are not bound to earthly logic—the fracturing of Miéville’s landscape is entirely psychic.
I’ve been thinking lately about the ways in which our cities are layered, the way different versions of a given city exist as shadows of one another, and coming across a story wherein the layering was so explicit delighted me.
I attended a literary festival in Canada last year. It involved being far away from home for well over a week, and I spent hours on end drinking free tea in the writer’s lounge at the hotel and talking to my fellow writers, several of whom were from Quebec. One evening a fellow novelist—let’s call her Dominique—began talking about the city of Montreal. I find this to be a delicate topic, but I like listening to other peoples’ impressions of the cities I know.
“Montreal now is like Paris in the 1920s,” she said. She went on to describe a vibrant metropolis of art and light, a bohemian intellectual paradise of writers and painters and sidewalk cafes, more European than North American. Dominique’s love for her city shone through everything she said. She asked me if I’d been there. I said that I’d lived there some years ago, and managed to change the subject.
In truth, I could just as easily and just as accurately have said no, no I haven’t, I’ve never been to the city you’re describing. I did live in Montreal for a while, but the Montreal I inhabited was very different from hers. I blame myself for my failure to build a viable life there. In retrospect, I was appallingly naïve. I’d thought that as a native speaker of one of the city’s two official languages, I’d be able to live there without too much trouble, but I was worn down over time by what I perceived as blatant xenophobia, by the daily small insults and the anti-English graffiti on my street. I met some kind people, but it isn’t, to put it very mildly, a place you want to move to if you’ve never studied French before. I couldn’t find language classes that I could afford, and my efforts to teach myself the language seemed hopeless. The winter cold was breathtaking. I felt adrift in a hostile city, and I fled after eight months.
My first novel took place largely in Montreal. I began writing it while I was living there. I’ve been criticized by two or three people for my depiction of the city, most regularly by a particular blogger who pops up to accuse me of inaccuracy every now and again. I don’t hold it against her. I get it: she read my book and she didn’t recognize her city. It’s not unreasonable of her to think I got it wrong, but I described the city that I knew. (I in fact made a conscious effort, when writing the book, to lighten things up a bit; the place in Last Night in Montreal is frankly a milder city than the one I experienced.)
Which, then, is the real Montreal? Dominique’s, or mine? Both. Montreal is a spectacular bohemian paradise filled with color and light; it’s also a dark city infected with bigotry and marred by Quebec’s honest-to-God entirely-non-metaphorical language police. This duality isn’t, of course, limited to Montreal, and it isn’t merely a duality: what I’ve come to believe is that there are as many versions of a given city as there are people who’ve been there. My New York City is a brilliant, exciting kind of a place, full of books and music and culture and good friends, similar in spirit to Dominique’s Montreal, but I know people for whom it’s a grinding filthy hellhole that eats people alive. I always found the Toronto that I lived in to be an interesting and vibrant city, but I know people for whom it’s soulless and grey.
“No two persons ever read the same book,” the writer and critic Edmund Wilson said. Let me expand that sentiment outward into the geography of experience: it seems increasingly clear to me that no two persons live in the same city.
Other types of urban shadows: I return every so often to Rem Koolhaas’ Delirious New York. I don’t love the writing, but it’s a fascinating book. Of the island of Manhattan, Koolhaas writes:
Not only are large parts of its surface occupied by architectural mutations (Central Park, the Skyscraper), utopian fragments (Rockefeller Center, the UN Building) and irrational phenomena (Radio City Music Hall), but in addition each block is covered with several layers of phantom architecture in the form of past occupancies, aborted projects and popular fantasies that provide alternative images to the New York that exists.
There are places where past versions of the city blocks seem almost still to exist. Not just in the obvious architectural shadows—the midtown theatre with an enormous bank vault door in the lobby, the grocery store downtown with the grand staircase and marble pillars—but in our memories. The Korean deli at Columbus and West 81st, for example, where for four and a half years I bought my vegetables: it’s gone now, replaced—the last time I was there, at least—by a stunningly beautiful sushi restaurant. Walk in and I see the restaurant’s cool lines, the gray slate and the orchids by the sushi bar, but I also almost still see the afterimages of plastic buckets filled with potatoes and ginger, the lines of teaboxes on the shelf, the counter where an old man in an elegantly patched cardigan and his long-haired son bagged and accepted money for groceries.
Or The Thinking Man’s Jeweler, a tiny store a few blocks from there, where the stone from my mother-in-law’s engagement ring was set into the band that I wear on my finger. The business collapsed and was replaced by a cupcake shop and then a sandwich place, and I can almost see all three businesses every time I walk by.
No version of a city is permanent. I went back to Montreal a few months ago. A last-minute email from the publisher that distributes and markets my books in Canada: they were sorry for the short notice, they said, and they knew I’d only just returned from that literary festival in Calgary, but another author had dropped out of a lecture series, and would I like to fill in? I boarded a plane and flew north.
It was October, the heat of summer long gone but the snow not yet falling, a bright windy day. I landed in the late afternoon and my event wasn’t until the following morning, so I spent some time wandering; up Rue McGill to Paragraphe Bookstore, where I’d spent a great deal of time browsing when I’d lived there. Down to the massive Chapters and Indigo stores on St. Catherine. Back up McGill to the edge of the university campus. It was the end of the afternoon, wind moving in the trees. The city was beautiful and the air was bright all around me. This wasn’t the grim city of my memories: I was walking, I realized, through Dominique’s Montreal.