Thursday, October 3, 2013

A literary cure for what ails the land use scholar

A good friend of mine, Susan Elderkin, has just published The Novel Cure: From Abandonment to Zestlessness: 751 Books to Cure What Ails You, in which she prescribes literature for ailments of all types.  I asked her if she had anything for land use scholars looking for a little levity at the end of a long week.  She told me she had just the thing.  Her prescription, based upon a diagnosis of “city fatigue,” is below:

City fatigue.  Life in the city can grind you down.  The community, the hoards, the rush, the anonymity.  The drab dreariness of unending concrete, the flashing billboards, the littler, the crime.  If your city is making you sick, we implore you:  do not step foot outside your door again without first medicating yourself with The City & The City by China Mieville.  Quite simply the best novel we know of that deals with living in a city, Mieville’s deeply unsettling yet wholly familiar tale will put a 3-D lens on what you had only before seen in 2-D.

Because when you walk down the streets of the fictional city Beszel, you must “unsee” those people who are walking next to you on the street but are in a different city==a second city, called Ul Qoma, which occupies the same geographical space.  To inhabit these overlapping cities successfully, you must study the architectural quirks, the clothing, and even the gait and mannerisms of those living in your city, and how they differ from those living in the parallel city.  If you cross from one city to another, you are “in breach”; if you commit breach, you disappear.

Inspector Tyador Borlu has been called to investigate the murder of a female student named Mahalia, which takes place in Beszel.  A thoughtful and intelligent man, Borlu soon realizes that the murder breaches all the rules of living in either city.  An academic named Bowden is summoned; he once claimed there was a third, unseen city—Orciny—between Beszel and Ul Qoma.  Mahalia seems to have stumbled upon this third city and was conducting her own investigations into it when she was sucked into a dangerous underworld. 

The brilliance of this gripping novel—part detective story, part conceptual thriller—rests on the chilling familiarity of a subconscious state of “unnoticing.”  How many times have we, too, ignored people in our own city because we think interacting with them may be unsafe?  Mieville messes with your brain so immeasurably that you will never be able to look at your own urban sprawl in the same way again.  The metropolis you thought you knew will take on a completely new sense of space, reality, and possibility.  And you might find yourself seeing a lot of people you somehow missed before.

Thank you for the prescription, Ms. Elderkin.  The weekend is looking up!

You can check out more about this fun project at the book's website

Stephen R. Miller

 

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