Wednesday, July 27, 2011

China Miéville, Kraken (2010)

"But this was not quite the right kraken apocalypse. That was the problem."

So what happens is, when a preserved giant squid suddenly mysteriously disappears from London's Natural History Museum, one of the curators, Billy Harlow, gets sucked into an underworld of eschatological cults (one of which worships squid), wizards, supernatural crime bosses, ancient spirits, and all this stuff.

I was really looking forward to this book--the AV Club review quoted on the cover describes it as "hands-down the most fun book he's written in years," which made it seemed perfect to take on vacation. Well, it certainly tries to be fun, but as it turns out, while it goes down easily enough, it's ultimately a pretty substantial disappointment.

I'll tell you what the problem is: the world that Miéville evokes here is very thin. The novel is crammed full of those crazy Miévillian details--some of which are quite cool, admittedly--but the setting is extremely half-baked (can you half-bake something "extremely?" Never mind). Kraken's London is nowhere near as vivid as the New Crobuzon of novels past; this huge whirl of action--much of it sort of indistinct--seems to take place in kind of a void. So what you have, really, is a big pile of icing with no cake. Kinda messy, sort of tasty at first, but pretty quickly you're feeling vaguely ill.

It's not just the setting, either. Miéville, it has been said, is better at setting than he is at characters, and while I'll not argue with that, I don't think it's a big problem in the Bas-Lag novels; the people inhabiting them aren't Proustian or anything, but they do the job. It's easy to care about and/or hate them.

In Kraken, though--man, I don't think I can even convey to you how utterly one-note all of the characters are…actually, granting them even one note sometimes seems to be pushing it a bit. They're here to propel this not-that-compelling story forward, and that is all they are there to do. One thing I noted here is that, as opposed to the Bas-Lag novels, there is no sex whatsoever. I'm not saying that's a problem in itself, but it is indicative, I think, of a general lack of concern with letting the people be people. For there to be sex, they would have to, you know, interact and have relationships and do human-type things and stuff. But no, there's none of that here, the result being that one of the major characters dies, it's impossible to feel much of anything.

I'll point out a few good bits: there are these villains, Goss and Subby, sort of invincible, out-of-time murder spirits, who are effectively frightening, though really now, if the way to beat them is as obvious as it turns out to be, it's hard to imagine they would've stuck around so long. There's a group called "Chaos Nazis," who operate around a chillingly logical permutation of national socialist ideology. And--just a little thing--I quite liked the idea of a little protective charm consisting of an ipod containing a little demon that sings his own childish renditions of songs you've put on it to help you out. Oh, and there's an okay ending twist that's hinted at well enough that you could conceivably guess it even though you pretty much definitely won't. I approve of that. There are other things here and there that I liked, though not nearly so much as in any of the previous Miéville novels I've read.

There's a potentially great novel nascent here, but that's all there is. There's nothing wrong with a certain amount of self-indulgence, but Miéville just doesn't put in the work necessary for a really satisfying or--contra that bafflingly over-positive AV Club review--fun read.

Great Moments In Important Clarification Dept: from the back cover, we learn that, according to Entertainment Weakly, "[China] Miéville, never predictable, lobs a grenade into the urban-fantasy genre, remaking it into wild comedy." I suppose if you were half asleep, you might've thought it was referring to Melville.


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