Wednesday, December 07, 2011

China Miéville, King Rat (1998)

So there's this guy named Saul who comes home to visit his father, only said father has been mysteriously killed. He gets taken in by the cops, but a mysterious man calling himself King Rat breaks him out, and it turns out--this isn't *much* of a spoiler--that Saul himself is, in fact, part-rat. So he has to acclimate himself to this while a demonic Pied Piper tries to kill him.

This is Miéville's first novel, and the difference gulf between it and Perdido Street Station is quite remarkable; you never would have guessed from this relatively simple story what lay ahead. Aside from questions of scope, the writing itself seems somewhat less adroit, though it stopped bothering me pretty quickly; part of the issue may be that the opening trope--guy suddenly finding out that he and the world are dramatically different than he had imagined, first disbelieving, then accepting--is so well-worn that it must be very difficult to do well. I sort of feel like authors must think "yes yes, shock, disbelief, let's just take that as a given and move on, shall we?"

The book certainly has its moments. One aspect I particularly liked was the effort to make being a rat seem like a genuinely alien thing. There's a part soon after Saul's been rescued where King Rat goes, okay, let's eat, and roots through the trash to find some thrown-away foodstuffs. Saul is, as you'd expect, horrified, but KR asks him: when was the last time you threw up? and he realizes that, in fact he doesn't experience nausea, and once he's accepted that he's not in fact disgusted by the idea of eating garbage, he's fine--as you would be, when you think about it. Very clever. Also, there's one pretty exciting chase sequence, and the ending is rather grippingly macabre, albeit not so much that I would call the book as a whole a "horror" novel, as the fact that it was short-listed for this here Bram Stoker Prize would seem to indicate. Finally, the whole thing has a cool, mostly-upbeat conclusion: given that Miéville was even younger than when he wrote Perdido Street Station, I was bracing myself for the same sort of forced grimness that somewhat marred that book, but no, nothing like that, and the novel benefits from it.

Still, it would be hard to call King Rat exactly a great novel. A lot of it is pretty flat, and there are a few parts that are simply underdeveloped. In addition to King Rat, there's also a king of birds and one of spiders, but their narratives, particularly that of the bird, are just half-baked and peter out most unsatisfactorily. And the most (theoretically) interesting thing in the book--Saul's relationship with King Rat--is not given nearly the attention it deserves.

Hey, there's nothing to be ashamed of here; most people only wish they could write a first novel this good. It's not quite one for the ages, though.


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