This article is being published jointly with The Atlantic.
A few weeks ago, a long-ago conversation with a friend came to mind as I tried to bring some order to my bookshelves. My friend was not yet of a certain age, but he had, he confessed, crossed a line: he had made a transition from the curating stage of life to the editing stage. He was no longer collecting; he was deaccessioning. I lack his wisdom and maturity, and rather than editing as I sorted, I instead paused to thumb through and scan. And then I came across a book that made me stop and reread: The City & the City (2009), by the British writer China Miéville. It is a police procedural novel with a background environment that recalls Philip K. Dick. A crime needs to be solved in a society where two different cities—two separate polities, with separate populations, customs, alphabets, religions, and outlooks—coexist within the same small patch of geography. The names of the overlapping cities are Besźel and Ul Qoma.
When you engage with a book, personal circumstance is always your companion. John Gunther’s Death Be Not Proud is a knife to the heart of any parent. James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man might as well be scripture if you’re 18. And not just with a book. My mother took me to see Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead when it opened in New York in the late 1960s—her idea. Part of the thrill was realizing that she knew me and understood I would like it.
I first read The City & the City during the time of Obama. The novel was always a parable, but it could be enjoyed simply as a clever, at times mind-bending fantasy, and as a fantasy it earned many awards. When I reread the book a few weeks ago, the fun was gone. The moment—my Zeitgeist companion—was one of deepening and well-founded worry over the cohesion of American society. “America Is Falling Apart at the Seams” (The New York Times). “2022 Is the Year America Falls Off a Cliff” (Globe and Mail ). “79 Percent of Americans Say U.S. Is Falling Apart” (Futurism). If the traditional life cycle of commentary holds, the next stage will urge a long view of history. And it is true that perspective can provide a dulling comfort. There is a moment in Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending when Marshall, an apparently dimwitted student, is asked by his history teacher, “How would you describe Henry the Eighth’s reign?” Marshall, Barnes writes, “searched for possible hidden complexities in the question before eventually locating a response.
“ ‘There was unrest, sir.’ ”
Pressed to elaborate, Marshall summons his powers to the maximum: “I’d say there was great unrest, sir.”
But societies do fall apart, and there is no single reason why. One historian, years ago, decided to collect and enumerate all the scholarly explanations for the fall of Rome. He counted upward of 210 specific theories. Sometimes the dissolution of a society is rapid and startling—think of Yugoslavia after Tito. Sometimes it is so slow—as with imperial Rome—that entire lifetimes go by without anyone’s being aware. Centuries may elapse before someone gives dissolution a name and a date.
To turn the lens around, one can ask how cohesive some societies really were before they were seen to fail. The “United” Kingdom of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland today shows signs of unraveling, but many Scots, Welsh, and Irish have opinions about how raveled it ever was. As for the United States, all the talk about exceptionalism doesn’t in itself make us exceptional. The colonies that formed the original union were protective of their autonomy and suspicious of federal power; in the 21st century, some of these states might as well be thought of as nations and are charting their own distinct directions. But separation isn’t only about lines on a map. Michael Harrington called his 1962 book about rural and urban poverty The Other America, implicitly acknowledging that it wasn’t about the America occupied by most of those who would buy and read his book. The Texas hill country known to Lyndon Johnson in the 1930s, as described in Robert Caro’s The Path to Power, has almost nothing in common with the urbane, martini-swilling world of The Thin Man, but they are exactly contemporaneous. A rhetorical question: Do most Black Americans and white Americans think of American history and experience in the same way? Do both feel they walk an equal distance toward one another to achieve a shared sense of ownership? Cohesion is easier to assert when questions like these are not asked, or even thought of.
Which brings me back to The City & the City. The novel never explains what caused the people of Besźel and Ul Qoma to live separately in the same place. Nor is the cleavage physically sharp, as it was with East and West Berlin. Some precincts are fully one entity or the other, but vast areas known as “crosshatch” are mixed, and citizens of the two entities are taught from an early age to “unsee” one another even as their paths may intersect in a crosshatched park or public square. The gravest offense one can commit in one of these cities is to fail to unsee—that is, to notice, to observe, to connect with a member of the other city. The merest glance is a transgression. If a figure of authority—a police officer, say—must move from one city to the other for some official purpose, there is a bureaucratic procedure for doing so. Outside that procedure, interaction between members of the two populations results in a condition called “breach.” Retribution is swift and summary.
As I sorted my books and returned them to the shelves, I had a decision to make. Should The City & the City go alongside Kafka and Borges or alongside Frederick Douglass and Eric Foner and other writers who made America their subject? I put it with the Americans. I have no idea whether the book is a parable of where we were, where we are, or where we’re heading. Maybe it’s all three. But I’m pretty sure that the value we need is breach.
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