Capsule Criticism: Kraken by China Miéville

Three-time Arthur C Clarke award winner China Miéville

How to synopsise or encapsulate or summate or evaluate China Miéville’s Kraken, a palpating, multitentacled chimera of narrative maximalism?

In the most rudimentary and exacting sense, Kraken is a mess, a shambolic shaggydog story by a born raconteur and virtuoso of songlike doggerel; a folly; an oneiric fantasia of an otherworldly London whose unearthing divulges the existence of the many enchanted warring factions navigating the city; and yet it is something of a protracted failure. This is, however, almost besides the point, because Miéville’s outsized artefact is both one of the most unflaggingly inventive (and unnervingly eccentric) and most monstrously ambitious books I’ve ever encountered as an omnivorous reader (both in terms of stylistic execution and, especially, in the incalculable complexity of its plotting) — and I’m no newly-minted initiate to Miéville’s novelistic vision of literary estrangement.

Kraken China Miéville

Kraken China Miéville #2

In many ways, I’d contend that where Kraken leaves its reader baffled and resistant to its register of overabundant narcosis and thus finally dissatisfied, a book like Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere — perhaps the most analogous genre text that Miéville’s novel so frequently seeks to transcend, while Kraken simultaneously incites it by comparison — succeeds because of its commitment to economical storytelling and the sustained emotive gravity of its central protagonist’s development from a mild-mannered and unprepossessing interloper to a self-realised prophet of subterranean weird.

Where Miéville’s novel holds it own, however, is in the articulation of its incomparable logorrheic imaginative overload. The characters populating Miéville’s novel are manifold and multivalent, and it is for these reasons that they provoke an intermittent reader stimulation, even if they don’t offer the conventional affiliation of authentic engagement one might hope to discern in effective three-dimensional characterisation: the figures in Kraken are not so much fully-delineated characters as they are narrative obstructions to the hero’s (Billy Harrow’s) progress to become the apotheosis of apocalypse.

Here we have a legendary giant squid preserved and pickled in Formalin; a clandestine British police department whose chief remit is in investigating eldritch crimes and eschatological activity; a coterie of covert British thaumaturgists known as the ‘Londonmancers’ who divine the city’s streets for evidence of future catastrophe as though interpreting the scummy residue left by tea-leaves; a disembodied Egyptian shabti named Wati who effectively astral-travels and materialises in masonry statuary, handcrafted idols and limited-edition plastic action figurines; a parasitic, sociopathic gang leader imprisoned by rogue magic and made manifest as a sentient talking tattoo; a supernaturally-endowed codependent pair of carnivorous guns-for-hire so unequivocally menacing they render the sadism of Gaiman’s Mr Croup and Mr Vandermar or Pratchett’s Mr Pin and Mr Tulip (of The Truth fame) as staggeringly impotent; a deceased warlock named Grisamentum whose fated passing was memorialised with pyrotechnical enchantments before his seditious legacy began to haunt his closest living allies; roving, chthonic skeletal entities that both represent and act as sentinels to the embalmed memories encased in museums; a back alley London embassy-cum-safehouse where the ocean itself is its animate, elemental occupant; gun-farmers (animal husbandry experts specialising in the specious breeding of organic firearms); knuckleheads (osmotic assassins adorned in studded biker jackets, and equipped with hands for heads); Chaos Nazis (fascist syndicates of grotesque Zionist clowns); swarms of self-immolating doppelgänger ghosts; teleportation devices; pig spirits; unionised animal familiars; an ancient fundamentalist religious sect devoted to devout squid worship; and easily the most amusing application for a magically-reengineered iPod in the annals of fiction.

Miéville’s imaginative intellect is on hyperdrive — but in the end the whole devolves into less than the sum of its multifaceted parts. Too often the reader is given to intuit that Miéville’s worldbuilding, here, is entirely governed by arbitrary innovation; it’s almost as if any concept that strikes him as indispensably cool, he incorporates into the book without considering the valence of its harmonious introduction into the abstracted fantasy realm he’s crafted. Not all of this coexists without being narratively problematic; moreover, even if the authorial intention was to orchestrate a mélange of hyperreal affect/effects, I can’t say that Miéville’s cognitive fecundity converges into anything formally cohesive in Kraken. This is a shame, because the novel is scarily precise in the perambulations of its elephantine plot; it’s just that the logic applied here is so schizotypally lateral, and the characters so tangentially defined, that it doesn’t demand a sincere emotional or intellectual investment of the reader.

We’re asked to indulge in the linguistic extremities of undiluted spectacle here, pure and simple: Miéville seems to postulate that visceral pleasure should be sufficient entertainment while his readers are positioned as spectators to insanity, providing we’re all in on the joke. But insanity is couched in pathology and disorder, not in the articulations of comedy or whimsy; so what the reader is confronted with here is a book committed to the art of derangement, but unwilling to diagnose its deteriorative consequences. We’re asked to laugh while the world burns. To bring another Gaiman and Pratchett work to mind (this one a collaboration), Good Omens did all this with more consistent page-to-page hilarity whole decades ago — and at least that book had the cojones to disclose to its readers why we should care if the apocalypse befalls us in the first place.

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