Columns > Published on September 26th, 2013

Three Books About... Cities

“What strange phenomena we find in a great city, all we need do is stroll about with our eyes open. Life swarms with innocent monsters.”

Writers don’t have to live in cities. Steinbeck found life swarming in the waterfronts of Monterey; Faulkner in the dusty streets of Oxford, Mississippi; Shirley Jackson in the small town conspiracies of North Bennington, Vermont. But like Baudelaire said, there’s nothing to beat an hour on the pavement of a great city to supply a writer with material.

Cities take on personalities, develop identities. We compare them, the way we do people; befriend them; become heated about them in discussions; are surprised by their real life appearance when we visit them for the first time, as though we are taking tea with an acquaintance we have discussed but never met.

The city as character walks the pages of many novels. These three writers demonstrate how wonderfully multifarious the literary city can be.

'Neverwhere' by Neil Gaiman

Cities take on personalities, develop identities. We compare them, the way we do people...

Originally written as a series for BBC2, Neverwhere became a novel in 1996 when Gaiman committed his story about strange goings on beneath the streets of London to print. It’s perhaps telling that the book didn’t receive a US release until Gaiman made changes to the text. The reason? His publisher felt the geographical references would be too obscure for Americans to follow (and for Gaiman completists, both versions are still available, depending on where you shop). The changes Gaiman made were small, the story in whichever version of Neverwhere you read is the same. It’s the kind of adult fairytale Gaiman specializes in: the London we inhabit is only one of two cities. Beneath the streets, accessible only by special permission, is another London: London Below. A man from London Above — Richard Mayhew — becomes by chance caught up in a plot to assassinate one of the inhabitants of London Below, a young girl called Door.  

The idea of cities in parallel has proved deeply attractive to other writers, as we’ll see below, but Gaiman’s interpretation of the idea is quite literal. It springs from the understanding that most cities have ancient roots, and that the ones we tread today exists alongside much older ones, visible to us if only we take the time to look. If you think there’s a touch of hyperbole about this, remember that the body of Richard III (the one who locked the Princes in the Tower) was dug up only this year from the middle of a car park in Leicester. Kings lie buried beneath our feet and the place names we use were once literal descriptors. Gaiman’s take on this idea is to make places people — Old Bailey, the Angel Islington, The Black Friars. Neverwhere is a place animated by landmarks and nods to the city’s long history. It is also a city of the homeless. Gaiman’s Richard is named for Henry Mayhew, the founder of Punch and reformer, who recorded the lives of 19th century London’s poor. In 1996 London had become a city of the dispossessed, with the homeless living beneath Waterloo Station in cardboard cities which rivaled a Brazilian favela for squalor and danger. Gaiman’s fairytale is also a social critique – the poor may live alongside us, but they are invisible to all but a few.

Richard stared at the glistening street. It all seemed so normal, so quiet, so sane. For a moment, he felt that all he needed to get his life back would be to hail a taxi and tell it to take him home. And then he would sleep the night through in his own bed. But a taxi would not see him or stop for him, and he had nowhere to go, even if one did.

'The City and the City' by China Miéville

If Gene Wolfe’s novella Free Live Free inspired Gaiman to write Neverwhere, Gaiman’s work probably fed into China Miéville’s King Rat, another fable about a legendary London beneath the streets, which appeared just two years later. Miéville, High Priest of New Weird and longtime resident of Britain’s capital, liked the idea so much, his next novel, Un Lun Dun again approached the idea of a fantastic counterpart to the everyday city.  

Both these and Gaiman’s work are riffs on the Alice-through-the-Looking-Glass theme, but with his third run at the subject, Miéville gets interesting. The City and the City moves the urban motif from the literal to the psychological. As before, two cities — Besźel and Ul Qoma — occupy the space of one, but you don’t have to fall through a rabbit hole or turn widdershins to access one from the other. These two cities are the same place, differentiated only by a state of mind, codes of dress and the observance of certain customs. Dwellers of one are mandated by law to ignore the actions of those dwelling in the other and the only passage between the two is regulated by areas called crosshatches.

It seems a complex environment, but it’s one that Miéville uses masterfully to create a police procedural which soars above the clichés of the genre. Think Berlin: an ideological split translated into the physical reality of a wall. In Miéville’s alternate-reality Balkan state people are only people if they think the same way we do, follow the same codes and habits. The treatment not only evokes Stalin’s Russia, it captures the alienation of all city life, how glancing at a face can seem like a trespass when we all have somewhere else to be.

I turned to the railway lines a few metres by my window and waited until, as I knew it would eventually, a late train came. I looked into its rapidly passing, illuminated windows, and into the eyes of the few passengers, a very few of whom even saw me back, and were startled. But they were gone fast, over the conjoined sets of roofs: it was a brief crime, and not their faults. They probably did not feel guilty for long. They probably did not remember that stare. I always wanted to live where I could watch foreign trains.

'Invisible Cities' by Italo Calvino

The conflict between the world’s choices and man’s obsession with making sense of them is a recurrent pattern in what I’ve written.

-Italo Calvino, the Paris Review

The pattern in Invisible Cities is this: Marco Polo recounts stories of his travels to the emperor Kublai Khan. Each time the pair meet, Polo describes a different city, yet all the cities he describes are the same one: his home town of Venice. The cities are classified by Calvino according to eleven themes, and when these are plotted against the order in which they appear in the book. The result is an oscillating wave, not unlike the skyline of a city.

Invisible Cities can be read as a series of enjoyable fables, but scratch beneath the surface and what you have is a work which uses cities to explore one of philosophy’s great imponderables: the interface between reality and our perception of reality. We like to think of our environment as fixed, unchanging, but the fact is that everything we perceive is shaped by our preoccupations at that moment. We can walk the same street many times and experience it in a different way, depending on what’s going on in our heads, and cities, with their sensory overload and constantly shifting personnel, provide the perfect material for Calvino to make his point. We never walk the same street twice. Marco Polo never returns from the same Venice twice, because each time he visits his birth place, he’s a different man and therefore so is Venice.

“Memory's images, once they are fixed in words, are erased," Polo said. "Perhaps I am afraid of losing Venice all at once, if I speak of it, or perhaps, speaking of other cities, I have already lost it, little by little."

From fairytale, to political allegory, to work of philosophy, each of these three books constructs its own city of ideas. Which city-book would you live in and why?

About the author

Cath Murphy is Review Editor at and cohost of the Unprintable podcast. Together with the fabulous Eve Harvey she also talks about slightly naughty stuff at the Domestic Hell blog and podcast.

Three words to describe Cath: mature, irresponsible, contradictory, unreliable...oh...that's four.

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