DCPLive is a blog by library staff at the DeKalb County Public Library!
Jul 2 2010

Share Reads: Slightly Strange

by Lesley B

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.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Jimmy L July 2, 2010 at 9:34 AM

Great post Leslie. Your description of The City & The City reminded me of one of my favorite books: Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino. It is a book in which Marco Polo entertains Kublai Khan by describing to him the different cities he’s been to. But these are more imagined cities than real cities, each one takes on a different philosophical quality… time, memory, space, etc. work differently in each of these beautifully described towns… and somewhere in there, there’s also a story!

Dea Anne M. July 2, 2010 at 11:13 AM

What an interesting post. I like these sorts of books too. Something similar that I have recently read is The Stolen Child by Keith Donohue. It uses the legend of the changeling child as a touchstone for questions around identity and alenation. It is haunting without feeling supernatural. It lingered with me long after I finished it.

R. Hughes July 2, 2010 at 5:11 PM

I also like Italo Calvino and really enjoyed “Invisible Cities.” Think Jorge Luis Borges is another author who fits in this discussion. It’s been a long time since I’ve read him. “Labyrinths” and “Ficciones” stand out in my mind. I actually saw Borges speak at Emory, years ago, and he was fascinating. Am looking forward to checking out the Cafe Irreal site.

Lesley B July 3, 2010 at 11:21 AM

Calvino and Borges are frequently mentioned when I look for these books. The term ‘irreal’ was new to me before I posted and I think it works better than ‘speculative fiction’ or ‘New Weird’, which I’ve also seen when people try to get a grip on this. Other titles I thought about including were Cory Doctorow’s Something Comes to Town, Something Leaves Town and a children’s book, Tales of Outer Suburbia, by Shaun Tan (who has a great website, BTW).
Dea Anne, I read The Stolen Child and really liked it. I think of it as a modern fairy tale and I love those, too.

Ardene July 3, 2010 at 12:04 PM

How about Jasper Fforde? Especially his latest, Shades of Grey.

Jesse M July 6, 2010 at 10:55 AM

I really enjoyed The City & the City. Such an unusual and interesting twist on the typical murder mystery! China Mieville has proven himself a master at reinvigorating the tired tropes of the fantasy genre, and in The City & the City he does the same for the mystery genre. I highly recommend it.

Jimmy L July 6, 2010 at 3:11 PM

Yes, I love Borges. Speaking of Borges, you should check out Julio Cortazar too, if you haven’t already. I’ve only read his incredibly imaginative short stories, but I heard his novels are out of this world too.

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