To navigate the city, you have to unsee as much as you see.
If you actually encountered the city for what it was, you’d be unable to use it for anything, much less live in it. Great myths and human tragedies on every corner, unfurled histories along each broken-down street and sidewalk — almost all of which you have learned to ignore, nearly subconsciously, in order to walk to the grocery store or the bar.
China Miéville’s book is a carefully observed novelistic treatment of the minute-by-minute, step-by-step experience of living in a city: of the discipline, decision-making, and rejection of empathy required for an individual to treat a city as an environment. Its detective mystery plot, antifantasy trappings, and weird kinship to 1984 rocket the book from start to finish. But the what’ll stick with you is the vocabulary it generates for making sense of the city visible and invisible.
Start at the beginning.
Tacoma — our partially lovely, continuously unfurling city — is right there, between this water and that mountain.
That mountain has gone by several names. Today, let’s call it by an older/counterfactual name (e.g. not after a dead old dude who was fighting for the other side, and didn’t even do a competent job of it; but I digress): let’s call it “the Mountain That Was God”. What’s the difference between the idea of our mountain and the idea of a god? People take both for granted, accepting them as ideas, or things, without much thought. Gods, and our mountain, are part of the world and part of daily experience, but are also impossible, remote, extraordinary.
Speakers of English will encounter a particular conundrum. There’s a glittering word-hoard of King James’ vocabulary that’d be ideal for describing our mountain if it hadn’t been pounded into a filthy stricken rut through overuse and under-appreciation by generations of spiteful, evil maniacs: “awesome”, “terrible”, “holy”, and the like — we’re forced to back off from these words, still ticking and radioactive from exposure to the creaking murderous Christianist mind control system, and say: “Yeah, you know, this mountain is really big, tremendously big, too huge for comfort, reaching way up into the sky (sometimes, when its peaks are covered by clouds, reaching past the sky and right into whatever’s next), and then crushing down past the horizon. It’s heavy, heavy as hell.”
The mountain is too big, and too close. You know where it is even if you can’t see it. Most of the time most of it’s behind the clouds-rain-fog, but when you can see even a little bit of it, ‘zounds!, you know you’ve seen the entire thing. You can feel it. You know where to sit, on which trains, in order to watch it recede as you travel away or to watch it enlarge as you travel back home (an “awesome” experience). You don’t want to be far from it, but you don’t particularly want to get too close. It’s big enough where it stands.
There’s another old word for this mountain-sense: (a) the sense of knowing it’s there, the center of the earth, (b) the sense of truest love (devotion? gratitude?) for the ecology, the people, the earth and the sky and stars that spiral out from it, (c) the sense of knowing that without the very best and the very worst actions of our species (and we humans have been impossibly cruel, unjust, and awful in this town, among others) you wouldn’t be here to watch, or wait for, the mountain, and (d) the hope that you’ll get to see it again, soon; the word for this sense, a word that might yet be recovered, is “faith”.
When you have a question, go watch the sky. Where the sky is the biggest, most dynamic thing (bigger than the mountain, more mercurial than the saltwater) and when you have a question, look up. No matter how perfect and crisp the day, no matter how grey or blue or orange or black the sky, if you watch long enough, you’ll find that it’s moving along. Even when all appears still, it’s constant motion: the earth, the sky, the saccades of your eye. And your brain, incinerating too much precious energy in tremendous, unceasing, uphill fire-&-motion, cobbling together the thinnest, most fragile veneer of the appearance of a world.
When you have a question, go watch the sky.
Ask your question, but as you can see, there is no answer.