‘We’re always telling ourselves the story of ourselves, every waking moment, as if nothing matters more. Isn’t that a selfish way to live? Shouldn’t we try and get outside that?’
This novel is subtitled “A City in Ten Chapters” and we want to know the secret of this city, we spend 278 pages (in my edition) wandering around lost in this city, wondering about ourselves will we be gratified, will the novel answer all the questions it has raised, if only for my own gratification.
The city is a mystery when you notice it’s full of sunken side streets falling away from you beside river and canal, by yellow and pink brick terraces, in September for instance under castles of foliage, in deep light. Someone approaches and you’re sure you recognise him, you’ve met just once, and not long ago, but he vanishes away down one of those streets and you miss him. You feel you owe an apology. And it only gets deeper, the riddle of it, as years go by and the special creatures stay exactly the same, just as they were when Stephen went with them. The modulation of names and faces makes no difference at all.
The cover of my novel has a review snippet from Tash Aw “A strange remarkable work”, well I concur, this novel is strange, very strange. More like ten short stories all on the same theme of the city, with different voices, different tenses, different eras, first person, and third person, missing characters, choruses and probably more. We have tales that ring of Sam Spade, ones that are lifted straight from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (with a consulting detective and his sidekick – the sidekick narrating that chapter), others that are gothic and others that are drenched in heartache but also horror.
As you know I don’t like to put spoilers in my reviews but in this case I could probably point out the whole novel and it wouldn’t spoil it in any way as I must admit (it is my failing here) I just didn’t get it. Initially I thought it was being structured as a growing metropolis may be having an architectural theme, or slowly constructing a whole, later I thought it was all going to lead to a common theme as Colum McCann did brilliantly in “Let The Great World Spin”, even later still I thought it was probably a mixture of unconnected tales as would happen in a city, where your paths may never cross another individual. I still don’t know what this was, it is set in the past (maybe), the future (probably), the present (unlikely) and the disparate sections have minimal linking themes (maybe the “don’t go out at night” theme was common). We even have a “memory city” within the city:
And does our discipline not have a special affinity with the ancient practice of the memory house, for where does the detective live, if not in a memory city, a city that is less a physical place than a world of codes and symbols? Does she not, in her mind, walk the street at all times, in search of the meanings concealed there?
Yes this is a novel of codes and symbols, you could go back and reread it numerous times to search for the meanings concealed there, you could probably work out the literary references each chapter represents and then come to some conclusive whole. Personally I enjoyed a lot of the quotes, the language and the concept, pity is it didn’t reach the heights I thought were there, hate to say it but this is no David Mitchell, nor did it leave me with a sense of wanting more.