Cultist Hijinks and Arcane Hoo-hah

About halfway through China Miéville’s 2010 urban fantasy Kraken there’s a quick sketch of a character we never see again:

Pete Dwight wondered if he had chosen the right career. It was not that he was a particularly bad police officer: there had been no complaints, no dressings-down. But he was never relaxed. He spent his uniformed days queasy with low-level anxiety, gnawed by the sense that he must be doing things wrong. It was going to give him an ulcer of something.

That brief passage holds more honesty and solid relatable characterization than the whole rest of this sludgy, frantic mess. Doubtless Miéville dismisses that sort of writing as merely mundane, and for Miéville “mundane” (i.e. of this world) is not where the action is. You can see what he’s trying to create with this novel: a black-comic supernatural thriller. But it isn’t comic and it isn’t thrilling. It’s supernatural, sure, but you still have to earn it — slathering on layers of eldritch shit isn’t enough to keep the plot-heavy whimsy from feeling like a chore.

krakenThe novel’s action is set in motion by the disappearance of a preserved giant squid from the Darwin Centre in London. Billy Harrow, a curator at the Centre who’s both an expert on molluscs and a stultifyingly bland protagonist, is pulled into the search for the missing specimen by paranormal-specializing police officers as well as a squid-worshipping cult that believes the “squidnapping” portends the end of the world. From there the cast grows more bloated, the cultist hijinks more frantic, and the arcane hoo-hah more arbitrary and muddled as Billy fulfills his audience surrogate role by expressing again and again his bafflement at the phenomena occurring around him. (“Jesus.” “This is batshit.” “Are you taking the piss?” “Jesus.” “Oh, shit.”) It all gets very old, very quickly. Kraken isn’t a guilty pleasure; it isn’t a fun book that you burn through, knowing it’s bad but enjoying it immensely in the meantime. It’s pure slog.

Admittedly there is some good stuff here. Unlike some folks, I enjoy Miéville’s neologisms — gunfarmers, Realtheologik, the Teuthex (though “Londonmancers” is particularly weak). And the subplot with Billy’s friend Marginalia investigating the apocalyptic goings-on has a lovely texture of forlorn melancholy. Her quest is a lonely pursuit, full of dead-ends and despair. And her encounters with the supernatural underbelly of London feel more real than Billy’s, and for that reason more threatening — especially when she encounters Goss & Subby, a deeply unwholesome pair of minions doing the bidding of the underworld boss The Tattoo.

Goss & Subby are really the novel’s happiest creations, Goss all aggressive patter and Subby his eerie childlike familiar; and though they’ll remind you of any number of other villainous characters from books and movies, they carry a real charge of malevolence that lingers on the page. A book that focussed on them, or on Marginalia’s quest, could have been an involving read. But that’s not the book Miéville wrote.

Slogging through Kraken reminded me what a pleasure it was to read Tim Powers’s The Anubis Gates last year. There are similarities between the two novels, and Miéville has mentioned Anubis’s influence. But even at its most plotty and actiony, Anubis has a weird, wonderful alchemy of the larkish and the horrific. Powers combines a solid sense of narrative with a masterfully light touch; Miéville seems to hope that pure invention can achieve the same effect on the reader, but his invention is so baroque and fecund that you lose the sense of the uncanny, or a belief that this realm of cults and arcana could actually be a world parallel to everyday life.

Stray observations:

  • I love London. It’s the greatest city on Earth. I got no sense of London from this book, or indeed a sense of any place real or imagined. I’d be interested to read Un Lun Dun or The City & the City to see how he does there — I’ve heard good things about both of them and from the titles alone a sense of place would seem a given. But who knows.
  • Words Miéville likes: ajut, nous, telos. He loves telos too much. He’ll throw it in anywhere he can (which isn’t hard in a book about competing apocalypses). But I’ve always liked ajut, along with its sisters afoot, agape and aplomb.
  • A major element of the book is the theory that teleportation in Star Trek is actually murder. It’s clever but Miéville falls in love with the cleverness to the detriment of the book.
  • Miéville seems like a hell of a nice guy in interviews, charmingly modest and sensible.
  • Google tells me there’s a dive bar here in Seattle called the Kraken.