Cold Iron & Rowan-Wood

February 3, 2011

China Miéville – Kraken

Filed under: review — Tags: , , , — Sam @ 11:38 am

Kraken is extremely ambitious; it attempts to draw from dozens of zeitgeist archetypes, pulling up their Mysteries and folding them together in a kind of symphonic origami. However, there’s a very fine line between that and “half-arsed in six different directions” and I’m very much afraid that Kraken is on the wrong side of it.

It’s a novel about surfaces & intersections—we see this most of all with the titular kraken. As we’re often told, the kraken dies when it comes to the surface: accustomed to the crushingly intimate pressure of its benthic home, the openness and emptiness of the surface is lethal. We see it also in the arms-length collaborations and conversations between different cults, the way in which they deal with each other using a kind of multivalent ecumenicism, striking theological poses and leaving it at that. The benthic depths of religion are still there, but they ain’t coming here.

This is the kind of novel that absolutely relies on a city setting, and (for the British) couldn’t be told anywhere except London, metonymically denatured as it is. London’s neomythic character is one of atomized alone-in-a-crowd emptiness, with uncountable individual social & ethnic groups touching only along their edges; there’s always another borough, there’s always something new to discover, there’s always an unexpected alley.

In the same spirit as his earlier Un Lun Dun, Miéville packs Kraken with surreal and fantastic imagery; in this case, however, it’s all explained and demystified. In fact, flattened. Some scenes read like Robert Rankin by way of Clive Barker, with their quotidian treatment of putatively horrific tropes, and then a later casual explanation. I’m thinking particularly of an early scene, where our first introduction to supernatural abnatural assassins Goss & Subby (your basic tattered-and-drab nonsense-talking thug and his creepy child sidekick—2/10 for originality, but of course that isn’t the point) is as they unfold themselves out of a small parcel. That could be a real intrusion moment, a way to ram home the way that strangeness has pushed itself into our protagonist’s life—but we’re in neomythic London, so strangeness is nothing new. A few scenes later, our one-step-behind police officers find out exactly how Goss arranged it (there’s a bloke who folds stuff; in neomythic London, you can buy anything if you know where to go) and that’s the last we hear of literal folding. This kind of semiotic flattening is all over the text, however: two of the antagonists are quite literally signs of themselves.

Miéville is clearly doing this flattening & estrangement deliberately, but it doesn’t work for me; the text glances over dozens of different mythoi and literary antecedents (my personal favourite was the cult of Sredni Vashtar) but treats them with as much interest as a tourist who goes home with photographs showing signs to historic buildings. I’m sympathetic, in principle, to the message (“There is no one universal meaning, no divine system. Everyone contends for their share of ontological authority. The future is what you fight to make it. Stuff just happens, and it’s up to us to deal with it. Everyone matters.”) but it isn’t coming across with passion or dedication, only with a kind of weary, intellectually smug postmodern box-ticking perfunctoriness.

I think, also, that the time of clever new portmanteau coinages for fantastika tropes is done. In Kraken, we have “realitysmith”, “Londonmancer”, “mageslick”, and “knacker” (someone who uses a “knack”, rather than someone who butchers dead horses) as well as the evergreen “ab-” prefix… abhuman, abnatural, absurd. It gets tiresome.

On the other hand, Kraken does have a lot of good points. Miéville’s imagination is as fertile and profuse as ever, and some of his inventions—like the kraken cult itself, and Wati the union organiser—are amazing.

Overall: if you read for imagery and whimsical invention, I recommend Kraken. For character and plot, it’s passable; as regards themes and style, it’s a failed experiment. But as always, that’s better than not making the experiment at all.

(Pornokitsch are a lot more positive, incidentally.)

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