Plot-Driven Fiction in China Miéville’s The City & The City
Updated: Aug 15, 2021
The City & The City is tightly a structured narrative formed from weaving a few preexisting structures together. The author pulls from familiar narrative styles—namely detective and science fiction—integrating them with four other concepts, three of them very familiar, a fourth arguably less familiar. Together these five concepts formed the structure of the narrative.
• The detective and science fiction genres
• The idea of two objects occupying the same space
• The murder of a young woman
• A conspiracy [to keep knowledge of the two cities sharing the same environment a secret]
• An authority [Breach, which deals with mediating the travel of individuals between those places]
It seems straight forward to put a work together around these elements. They’re not only comparable and interesting, [hence the popularity and intrigue they hold for the potentiality of philosophical investigations] there’s one clear leading element among them: conversation.
The City & The City is a story of discovery told through dialogue and internal monologues. Ultimately Borlú’s revelation at the end of the novel end asks more questions.
There are ready-made structural laws laid out for the detective genre. This novel embraces them very matter-of-factly. The City & The City is a plot driven novel. It is distinctly not a character focused work. I’ll touch on that later. First, let’s consider the structure of the novel.
Since this is a detective story firmly rooted in the traditions of the genre, as opposed to a contemporary use of the concept found in Paul Auster’s The Book of Illusions. The introduction and expansion of the elements are dependent upon the novel’s brisk pacing in order for the mystery to be solved without the formula for how it is solved rendered ineffective.
The reader is introduced to the detective whose experiences we will follow from learning of the case to the solving or attempted solving of the case, before we learn about the case. Although we meet Borlú first, and get a clear impression of his personality before the action starts, this is a plot driven novel.
What is the difference between a plot driven and a character driven work of fiction?
A plot driven story will be primarily plot concerned. The characters will focus on external conflict, be engaged in complex plots where reveals and or plot twists are factored in along the way. Characters in such narratives can be complex, but they will not have deep internal conflict. None of the suspense or tension lies within them, rather it’s their actions that build tension. Many plot driven stories are filled with flat characters, an archetype serving a single purpose figure, and not feature a wellspring of philosophical/psychological complexities found in round characters.
Character-driven stories will have strong backstory, and deeply investigate the thoughts of its characters as they navigate inner conflict. These elements are the spine of a character-driven story. Often there is significant description, compelling language, complex relationships between characters and a plot. Plot however is not always present. Character-driven stories will deliver a point of view or philosophy of the protagonist, and or other characters in the story.
All of the characters in The City & The City function to solve a mystery. Without the mystery there is no need for the characters to interact. Indeed many of them would not meet, there would be no reason for them to. There is plenty of internal dialogue within four loose narration but the focus is on solving the murder of a young woman rather than an internal battle rearing inside of him.
In Shakespeare you have richly define characters who are more important than the story they are in. Hamlet’s tone could be different and the characters would still be the only integral element of the play.
Instead of a forlorn man deliberating whether or not to avenge his father's murder, Hamlet could be a wild sex comedy, where he and Ophelia are engaged in the repartee of lustful chasing and foreplay/rejection. Not because the plot of Hamlet doesn't matter, but because the characters involved in the plot are stronger than the plot itself.
After being introduced to Borlú, the reader meets the case. This is the problem that will occupy the protagonist Borlú for the duration of the book. Following the case, the reader will identify the nature of the case, the people involved in it, and so forth. The City & The City could not instead be a sex comedy. It could not be anything than the sci-fi/detective work that it is.
To complicate things, this last claim is absolutely refutable. It would be easy to exercise a successful refutation, but the characters would become unrecognizable to those in The City & The City.With their reality changed, they would no longer be the same characters. This is because the characters are not fleshed out enough in the novel to make them round. Believable sure, but they're still character-types rather than fully realized characters. They simply serve a function to achieve an expected end.
A mystery leads to developments advancing the protagonist until it is solved. The story will increase in complexity until the mystery is solved and the protagonist is somehow vitally changed from the experience of undergoing the obstacles met during the active case.
Miéville is effective in creating a world to facilitate the action. Using the fictitious cities Besźel and Ul Qoma of Eastern Europe lay a strong backdrop for Borlú’s continental wisdom to be explored. He does this by being savvy with language, knowing all three—Besź, Ul Qoman, and English—present in the story. He’s great at his job but he’s got an assistant, also skilled, to parley on facts and possibilities with. When that assistant can not continue in the story’s development, she is replaced by an equal of Borlú’s from another city and the parley for truth continues. These characters work together give the book its spry feel and quick moving tempo.
Dialogue is critically important to this work, as it seems to be for the detective genre, but to use dialogue heavily in a work of detective fiction isn’t always done, the author’s focus of interest could be explored through epistolary or heavier narrative probings to get at the story’s resolution, and either of those two latter choices would be a novel while not being original in the strict sense of the word—what is ‘original’? The author’s decision to use dialogue to unfold the story is sound. The book is set in classic story-telling frames to engage the reader in its particular tale. It’s ingenious to do this because it gives definition to the world that Miéville invents. In giving us the cities of Besźel, Ul Qoma, the concepts of Orciny, Breach, True Citizens, The Temple of Light, he’s created a world that the reader can identify as both fantastical and contemporary. It’s easily relatable while introducing may unreal elements.
Another structural feature I found to be effective in this work was that some of the chapters have shorter final sections or a paragraph which summarize content and present a leader into the next section. They occur a few times, at the end of chapter one, four, five, eight, twenty-one. This is a good way to carry suspense and it’s consistent in its construction of original elements built into a longstanding structure. Within these sections the protagonist clues the reader into his findings and sets us up for the chapter to follow.
Near the end of chapter eight Borlú gets a phone call from Agim Ceczoria from the hotel the Geary’s are staying, who tells him that Mr Geary has committed breach when he tries to leave the hotel to make his own investigation. Then Borlú goes to the hotel where he attempts to comfort Mrs. Geary while she is upset. The last paragraph brings us back to Borlú’s interest with Mr Geary, wherein he tells us he’s going to follow up on the investigation Geary set out to make on his own—in tracking down the True Citizens, and he has something pulled from Geary that will lead him to them—an address.
The leader sections are subtle components of the book and they aren’t limited to the end of chapters, sometimes their given in the middle of a chapter, but they are part of the structure of the book in that they’re a significant way information is carried through the novel and compliment another way significant information is issued throughout this story; through dialogue.
The dialogue often presents a problem that creates a switch in the action. Someone tells Borlú of a development which turns his attention to that development which is then investigated. Again in eight, when Ceczoria informs Borlú over the phone that Geary has breached Borlú goes to the hotel where he tries to comfort Mrs Geary. Geary’s breach leads to Borlú’s acquiring the address he had in his possession which leads him to the True Citizens. The developments fit like pieces of a puzzle to create a clear picture of what’s happened. They’re consistently given and all of them are accepted into the narrative driving the story to its conclusion.
The dialogue also carries the world of the story. Breach for instance is explained in dialogue throughout the story so the fullest understanding arrives near the middle of the novel, though it retains mysterious elements after the story is over. It’s introduced in the form of a question in chapter two when Borlú asks Corwi, “is there any change we’re looking at breach?”, added to in chapter five where it’s compared to wrath found in the Old Testament, exampled by Mr Geary’s attempted investigation in eight, and used as a comparison of power, in the individual to breach, breach to the individual, and breach to the guarders of the secrets of Orciny, for the rest of the novel.
Nothing within The City & The City is either a thing of that world which does not contribute to the finality of the story or the personality of its narrator. This makes that world artificial and inherently unbelievable though it upholds the logic of its universe. If it failed to uphold the logic of its universe it would be in danger of slipping into the convenience of dues ex machina. This would render an artificial world that does not work because it is not appealing. It would not appeal to readers because such a stories use fictive elements to strip a story of its tension and logic. The book’s success comes from the author’s use of preexisting structures to invent the world of his story and following the logic therein.