ShareReads appears on the DCPLive blog on Fridays. Each week, a different person will share a little about what they’re currently reading, and why they like or don’t like it. The heart of ShareReads will be responses from blog readers, and the window of opportunity here is wide. Feel free to respond and discuss the book or author being mentioned, ask or answer a question, or even take the conversation in a different direction: mention what you are currently reading, and how you feel about it. The point of ShareReads is to have an ongoing discussion about books and reading. Remember: posting a response also counts as an activity for the Summer Reading for Adults program.
For this week’s Share Reads, I’m going to try sharing a kind of book I love to read and hate to describe.
They’re not fantasies, at least not the kind with magic rings and elves. Events in the book may be fantastical, but the characters don’t experience them that way. They are sometimes mixed in with science fiction but there’s no sense that you are reading about the future or an alternate universe. These are books that make me feel strange while I’m reading them. When I’ve finished them, the real world seems a little strange too.
The most recent book I’ve read with this quality is The City & The City, by China Miéville. A murdered woman is found in the city of Beszel, which seems to be somewhere in eastern Europe. Inspector Tyador Borlu of the Extreme Crime Squad is assigned the case and his investigation leads him across the border into the neighboring city of Ul Qoma. There he teams up with Ul Qoman detective Qussim Dhatt and the two men discover that the murdered woman is only the beginning of a larger conspiracy. Sounds like a fairly typical thriller, yes? It’s the border between the cities that’s unusual. One house on a street is in Beszel, its neighbor is in Ul Qoma. Streets that lie in both cities are described as “crosshatched” and people in one city are required to “unsee” people in the other. Inspector Borlu must solve the murder under the watchful eyes of Breach, a mysterious and powerful border patrol. No explanation is provided as to why the cities are this way and no one outside of the cities regards them as supernatural or magical. It’s unsettling to a reader, like one of those dreams where you find yourself living in a city that you’ve never seen before.
Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist is set in an unnamed city like (but not like) New York. Lila Mae Watson is the only black woman in the mostly all-white, all-male union of elevator inspectors. When an elevator she’s inspected has a suspicious accident, she must struggle against the union, the government and the mob to clear her name and uncover the mystery of her past. She’s an Intuitionist, which means she fixes elevators by intuiting the problem as she rides; unlike the Empiricists, who examine the machinery directly. Like the Miéville book, this weirdness is presented to the reader with no explanation or attempt to fit it into our reality; yet Lila Mae Watson and Tyador Borlu are real to me in ways that Hermione Granger and Harry Potter are not.
I think it’s that dreamy weirdness that draws me to books like this and it’s that mood that brings them together for me – can a mood be a genre? I’d have trouble explaining what else writers like Stephen Millhauser, Aimee Bender and Haruki Murakami have in common.
I poked around the Web before starting this piece in a desperate attempt to find someone more articulate to describe these books. The people at Cafe Irreal come closer than anyone else, so if you are at all intrigued by the titles I’ve mentioned you should definitely look at their site. If you’ve read a book with this peculiar, dream-like quality, please share it with me. I’m always looking for another one.