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Posts Tagged ‘Kraken’

kraken-by-china-mieville-UK 

I bought China Mieville’s Kraken because I thought I knew the kind of book it was – and if you like the same kind of things I do, you will understand why. In the opening pages of the book, a preserved specimen of the giant squid, not to mention its tank, inexplicably vanishes from a museum in the centre of London. One of the curators of the centre, Billy Harrow, discovers the existence of a squid-worshipping cult, the members of which believe that this may mark a sign of an impending apocalypse. In the nights that follow the disappearance of the squid, people across the city are afflicted with terrible nightmares.

To a certain type of reader it all sounds very familiar, almost winkingly so. One is fooled into thinking one understands the game that Mieville is encouraging the reader to join him in. But then, quite early on, it turns out that things are jarringly not as they have previously appeared to be. ‘So I’m being chased by the Cthulhu cult?’ asks Billy, casually and sardonically. Everyone in the book gets the reference without the need for an explanation, and – tellingly – Mieville assumes the reader does not require one either. Around this same point it becomes clear that Kraken is much more than a simple exercise in pastiche, ultra-knowing or not, for the story widens out to cover a much wider canvas and a broader range of sources. To some extent the book is actually about how different perspectives and sources of ideas can interact and be mapped onto each other, whether they be literary, mystical, philosophical or scientific.

On one level Kraken is a ‘hidden world’ novel, in which the protagonists discover that the apparently-mundane surroundings they inhabit actually mask a much stranger and more terrifying substrate – an obvious comparison would be with Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere (to which, perhaps significantly, Mieville makes no reference here). But the mystic London which Billy Harrow stumbles into is riotously strange and imaginative, and fuelled by all flavours of history, myth, and pop-culture: it is policed by a distinctly Torchwood-esque branch of the Met, its museums are guarded by terrifying ‘memory angels’, certain streets only exist at particular moments in history and apocalyptic cults seem to be lurking in every dark corner, some of them devoted to the most implausible deities. As well as Lovecraft, there are tips of the proverbial to Michael Moorcock and many other cultural phenomena – we hear of Doctor Who-loving sorcerers whose sonic screwdrivers have become literal magic wands, while Mieville takes advantage of a requirement of the plot to delivery a scathing indictment of the implicit theology of Star Trek.

There is such a profusion of ideas in this book, some of them so outlandish, that in places it really resembles the kind of offbeat comedy Robert Rankin would write, but told with an absolutely straight face: at one point a witch working in the police Cult Squad attempts to apprehend a disembodied, supernatural trade unionist by despatching the animated spirits of TV police cliches after him. But to me it was really much more reminiscent of a modern-dress, much harder-headed and nastier version of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell – there is the same depth of narrative, breadth of world and sense of absolute conviction on the author’s part. The books also share the plot element of the return of a legendary figure: the problem with this is how one crafts a legendary figure from scratch and makes their appearance feel properly portentous when it finally comes – to my mind Mieville managed this less successfully than Susannah Clarke. 

Despite the scope of the book the core narrative is never difficult to follow and the prose itself slips by effortlessly. This is more than just a pyrotechnic fantasy romp – at its centre is some very astute thinking about the ways in which we perceive and shape the world, the primacy of idea and paradigm and how we actualise these things – ‘spell’ not just as magical procedure but the act of setting something down in writing, in its own way a magical alteration. The plot boils down to being about different ways of writing, in some ways; I am reluctant to say more for fear of spoiling the book.

I enjoyed most of Kraken very much indeed, but after a while I found myself almost wilting under the continual onslaught of brilliant throwaway ideas and images, and I couldn’t help noticing that in all this creative chaos at least one thread of the plot was never properly explained (at least, if it is, I missed it) – not a major one, though. And when the actual climax to the book returns to (loosely and very obliquely) Lovecraftian territory, it does so in a way that feels vaguely hackneyed – at least, the nature of the central conflict does not startle and delight the same way that much of the rest of the book does. But all this only means that Kraken is merely very good indeed rather than absolutely brilliant. I will be reading more China Mieville when I get the chance.

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