“Such are the perfections of fiction...Everything it teaches is useless insofar as structuring your life: you can’t prop up anything with fiction. It, in fact, teaches you just that. That in order to attempt to employ its specific wisdom is a sign of madness...There is more profit in an hour’s talk with Billy Graham than in a reading of Joyce. Graham might conceivably make you sick, so that you might move, go somewhere to get well. But Joyce just sends you out into the street, where the world goes on, solid as a bus. If you met Joyce and said 'Help me,' he’d hand you a copy of Finnegans Wake. You could both cry.” – Gilbert Sorrentino, Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Book Review: Kraken

By China Miéville
Pan Macmillain

China Miéville’s Kraken is nominally a fantasy novel about magicians in London, but this is a book that shares much more in common with the weird, paranoid vision of Phillip K. Dick than the adolescent wizardry of Harry Potter. Moreover, Kraken is simultaneously a crime novel, in which all of the characters in the book are in search of a MacGuffin, but the MacGuffin in this case happens to be an eight-and-a-half metre giant squid that has been preserved as a museum specimen. The protagonist of the story, Billy Harrow, is an otherwise normal man, who happened to working at the National History Museum when the giant squid was stolen. He is questioned by a division of the police who specialize in paranormal crime, and quickly introduced to London’s seamy underbelly of magicians, familiars and gods.
Those readers interested in Kraken purely for its plot will, by and large, find tight pacing, lots of unexpected twists, and an interesting casts of unusual characters, including a villainous and creepy father/son duo, named Goss and Subby, and a mob boss who is in fact a talking tattoo, among many others.
Miéville, however, is often popularly seen as an exemplar of the newer wave of genre writing, which increasingly incorporates ‘literary’ elements; this distinction between speculative and literary fiction is, of course, a false dichotomy, since the history of speculative fiction includes writers like Jonathan Swift, Thomas Moore, Graham Greene and Aldous Huxley. So there’s no reason why speculative fiction can’t be literary and vice versa, but it’s nonetheless easy to see why Miéville’s novels have been given this tag.
Even though Miéville has argued that Kraken is a return to his roots in genre fiction, the novel’s broader thematic framework suggests a ‘literary’ bent. The title, for example, recalls Thomas Hobbes work of political theory The Leviathan; Hobbes’ work called for the establishment of both a social contract and a strong monarchy in response to the chaos of the English Civil War; Kraken details a civil war of ‘all-against-all’ (to use Hobbes’ term) amongst London’s magicians. The novel is also incredibly allusive, referring both to such high cultural figures as Alfred Lord Tennyson, Thomas Pynchon, Stevie Smith, Virginia Wolf and J.G. Ballard, as well as popular culture like Star Trek, Morrissey, and M.I.A. What is perhaps most impressive about Miéville’s novel is his comprehensive exploration of the metaphor of the giant squid – no possible meaning of this symbols is left unexplored (including the tentacles, the ink, the beak, and, in an inventive pun, a reimagining of the word ‘quiddity’ as ‘squiddity’).
Miéville is also an avowed socialist, and his political interests are reflected in Kraken, which describes a workers strike occurring across a division of magical labour. But the particular power of Miéville’s writing is the ability to make the everyday seem very strange. Nothing in Kraken is what it appears to be – letters, lightbulbs, and even iPods are all mysteriously transformed into otherworldly objects in the logic of the novel. Even this gesture, however, has socialist overtones and recalls Marx’s description of how everyday objects are turned into almost magical commodity fetishes through the logic of capital (Marx uses the example of a table, which, under the regime of exchange value, ‘stands on its head, and evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas’). Indeed, Miéville’s entire description of the magical underworld of London could serve as a sort of extended metaphor for the hidden links of production and exchange within globalised, networked capitalism.
But for all the interesting thematic material in Kraken, readers attuned to ‘literary’ fiction will find the language inconsistent. While Miéville’s prose can achieve an interesting beauty through an impressionistic Beat aesthetic, at other points it is merely functional, and, at still others, simply clunky (e.g. ‘The police arrived at last, coming in a stampy gang.’).
Ultimately, however, this is a book driven by its narrative. And while most of the book makes for gripping reading, the final third is a minor letdown. The proliferation of twists and reversals towards the end of the book results in diminishing returns, so that, by the time we witness the final turn of the screw, it has a reduced effect. Moreover, for such a complicated narrative, the resolution itself feels both slightly rushed and a little too neat. But Kraken, in its vivid imagination and clever incorporation of incredibly disparate material, demonstrates why China Miéville has become a much-lauded writer of speculative fiction, even if this novel probably isn’t the best place for a neophyte to begin.

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