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.