Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Book review: Alert the Squid Squad‭! ‬The kraken is‭ ‬(lamely‭) ‬on the loose‭!

Kraken,‭ ‬by China Miéville‭; ‬Ballantine Books‭; ‬509‭ ‬pp.‭; ‬$26.

By Chauncey Mabe

Why is it that genre writers,‭ ‬just when they are about to step onto a wider stage of literature,‭ ‬tend to lose heart‭ – ‬or nerve‭?

I first noticed this in‭ ‬1998‭ ‬when Stephen King,‭ ‬after almost a decade of increasing critical acceptance,‭ ‬retreated to the comforts of‭ ‬Bag of Bones,‭ ‬an overlong,‭ ‬overstuffed supernatural thriller of the kind that made him famous earlier in his career.‭ ‬Perhaps spooked by reviews that took him seriously‭ (‬from the likes of‭ ‬The New York Times‭)‬,‭ ‬King abandoned,‭ ‬if only temporarily,‭ ‬the more rigorous pleasures of novels such as‭ ‬Misery,‭ ‬Gerald’s Game and‭ ‬Dolores Claiborne.

Now China Miéville seems to be following a similar pattern.‭ ‬Last year Miéville,‭ ‬already a popular figure in the neo-horror genre sometimes known as‭ “‬weird fiction,‭” ‬gained new readers and critical acclaim with the spare but deeply inventive fantasy-detective novel, ‬The City and the City.‭ ‬Some critics named it to their year’s best list and at least one‭ (‬uh,‭ ‬that would be me‭) ‬said it was the top novel of the year.

Miéville’s follow-up to that breakthrough,‭ ‬alas,‭ ‬is an exercise in apocalyptic excess titled‭ ‬Kraken‭ (‬yes,‭ “‬kraken‭” ‬as in Liam Neeson thundering,‭ “‬Release the Kraken‭!” ‬in‭ ‬Clash of the Titans‭)‬.‭ ‬It’s a huge disappointment,‭ ‬not only because it signals an aesthetic retreat from the high-wire performance of‭ ‬The City and the City,‭ ‬but also because it’s only so-so,‭ ‬even on its own weird fictional terms.

The ponderously convoluted plot starts when a kraken‭ – ‬a rare giant squid‭ – ‬disappears from the Natural History Museum in London,‭ ‬along with its tank of formalin.‭ ‬This is an impossible crime,‭ ‬of course,‭ ‬requiring dozens of men to carry out,‭ ‬and besides,‭ ‬the huge tank would not fit through any of the available doorways.

Genre geeks‭ (‬or at least those unfamiliar with the kitchen-sink aesthetic of weird fiction‭) ‬will think they know what kind of story this is when the police send the Fundamentalist and Sect-Related Crime‭ (‬FARC‭) ‬Unit to investigate.‭ ‬We’re well familiar with occult cops via‭ ‬The X-Files,‭ ‬Torchwood,‭ ‬Fringe,‭ ‬etc.,‭ ‬and we’re primed to admire their interaction and heroics.

Miéville has bigger,‭ ‬er,‭ ‬calamari,‭ ‬to fry,‭ ‬and the FARC squad is soon revealed as unequal to the present apocalyptic crisis.‭ ‬Billy Harrow,‭ ‬the squid’s young curator,‭ ‬doesn’t trust them,‭ ‬casting his lot instead with a cult of kraken worshippers who,‭ ‬to his discomfort,‭ ‬regard him as a prophet.‭ ‬The kraken cult proves impotent as well,‭ ‬and soon Billy is careening around London in the company of Dane,‭ ‬a stupendously competent kraken-cult apostate,‭ ‬trying to recover the missing squid and thereby avert a Fiery End of Everything.

While I’m all for subverting genre expectation‭ – ‬surprise is the soul of great horror,‭ ‬not to mention comedy‭ – ‬Miéville packs so many ideas,‭ ‬characters,‭ ‬and spoofs into this trunk that the fun goes out of the thing.‭ ‬One minute it’s a parody of‭ ‬Star Trek,‭ ‬the next it’s a labor comedy,‭ ‬with magical familiars going on strike against their oppressive masters,‭ ‬and the next it’s a religious thriller.‭ ‬And it’s always a Lovecraft spoof.‭ ‬No matter how clever Miéville is‭ (‬and he is‭)‬,‭ ‬this is not storytelling,‭ ‬it’s riffing.

Much can be found to admire in‭ ‬Kraken.‭ ‬Goss and Subby,‭ ‬an ageless old man and an idiot boy,‭ ‬make for a supernatural team of hit men fit to scare the small child in all of us.‭ ‬Likewise the Tattoo,‭ ‬an occult gang leader turned into,‭ ‬well,‭ ‬a‭ ‬tattoo by a rival‭ – ‬not that this hinders him much in the administration of his underworld business interests.‭

Kraken also is admirable for taking religion seriously‭ – ‬or,‭ ‬if not religion,‭ ‬then at least the faith of those who believe.‭ ‬Of course,‭ ‬it turns out that all religions are equally true,‭ ‬which,‭ ‬in a tiresomely predictable bit of triumphant secularism,‭ ‬means they cancel each other into mutual irrelevancy.‭ ‬This is nicely illustrated when various cults find they have scheduled their competing apocalypses on the same date,‭ ‬one of Miéville’s more successful stabs at humor.

Overall,‭ ‬though,‭ ‬Kraken is just too,‭ ‬too much.‭ ‬On top of everything else,‭ ‬it’s needlessly long.‭ ‬This book would have been significantly more effective with‭ ‬200‭ ‬pages cut out.‭ ‬It has too many passages in which the narrator explains what’s just been made abundantly clear in an exchange of dialogue.‭ ‬Wati,‭ ‬a spirit who can inhabit statues and figurines,‭ ‬spends much of the story in a Capt.‭ ‬Kirk action toy.‭ ‬He’s an important character‭ – ‬yet we do not need the detailed account of how he made his way back from the afterlife to become the leader of the magical helpers‭’ ‬union.

A little restraint might be hoped for next time out,‭ ‬the kind Miéville used to craft the superior‭ ‬The City and the City.‭ ‬Does he know his Lovecraft‭? ‬Indeed he does.‭ ‬But the way Miéville includes every Lovecraftian idea he’s ever had robs the Cthulu tropes of all their uncanniness,‭ ‬leaving them about as scaresome as a pickled specimen in a museum.

Miéville seems to have written‭ ‬Kraken in that café where Clive Barker,‭ ‬Neil Gaiman and Douglas Adams take tea.‭ ‬His debt to each one is plain as a nametag or a numbered jersey.‭ ‬While Miéville is as gifted as these esteemed Brit fantasists,‭ ‬this novel,‭ ‬alas,‭ ‬is neither as charming as Gaiman,‭ ‬as funny as Adams,‭ ‬nor yet as sexy‭ (‬or terrifying‭) ‬as Barker.‭ ‬I’ve seldom opened a book with as much anticipation,‭ ‬after the satisfactions of‭ ‬The City and the City,‭ ‬nor been so keenly disappointed.

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