the city and the city

For some reason, my book love has grown huge again of late. It may simply be a symptom of my gradual return to decent health after a few years of battling with various conditions that left me depressed, depleted and utterly exhausted. My brain has started to work a bit, my neurons are getting sparky, something is going on… and I have more excitement and enthusiasm about reading than I’ve had for years.

At the same time, some of the authors I’ve clung to with fierce loyalty over the years now seem a little… well… Dull. Jejune. Unoriginal. I’ve always read widely and in all genres, but it’s still been difficult at times to find books I really care about. Books that I want to live in and eat and make clothes out of. But right now (thanks to your recommendations) I’ve got a stack of eight new books in front of me and I’m excited about all of them.

One of them isĀ  Un Lun Dun by China Mieville. I have high hopes for this novel, mainly because I just finished reading The City and the City. Which blew my mind. Talk about a book I want to live in! I found it such a startling and remarkable idea, such an extraordinary metaphor for what it is to be human. How we unsee and unhear and unsense that which doesn’t fit comfortably with our understanding. How we live in fear of ‘breaching’ the standards of normal behaviour, going too far. And how almost everything interesting and meaningful in life happens in the interstices, the places inbetween. The setting is the story in this novel, in a very direct way, and if you haven’t read it, I don’t want to give too much away. But you must read it. It is wildly brilliant.

It made me think a lot about setting in story, something I’ve blogged about before. In The City and the City, the story could only happen in that particular setting. In other words, the setting is integral to the plot, characters and narrative, and provides much of the imagery and language of the novel. A genuinely well thought out setting can do all that and more. In this case, it delivers a profoundly satisfying and coherent narrative. Although I felt the novel had some faults, some boundaries it wouldn’t breach, so to speak, it still worked beautifully, meaningfully, on every level. I found myself thinking about it for days, captivated by the oddness of the ideas, and wondering how on earth it would unravel. That was all because of the extraordinary setting (and, of course, Mieville’s great skill and talent at putting it to work.)

I think that setting is a rather under-appreciated element of storytelling, and one that we ignore at our peril. I am inspired to try a story that depends on its setting for every aspect of plot, character and language. It’s something I’ve got close to before, but this time I will be making sure that the story is a direct product of the setting – something that could only happen then and there.

What about you? What are you reading at the moment, and what is it teaching you about your own writing/art/life?

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