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Recent reading: Kraken, by China Miéville

21 November 2010

KrakenKraken by China Miéville

This is not a review. Or it’s a not review. If you look at my Khanya blog you will see a couple of recent posts about vampires and vampire cults and vampire communities. I discovered that there were people who regarded themselves as real vampires, and thought that real vampires were fictional. I was interested in cults of fictional creatures, but hadn’t quite been prepared to discover that there were people who regarded themselves as the creatures, and the fiction as some kind of distorted presentation of their real nature.

I walked into my son’s room looking for coffee cups to put in the dishwasher, and saw this book lying upside down on a pile of dirty clothes for washing. Kraken it was called, by China Melville or some such. I picked it up, and turned it right side up, and saw that it was by China Miéville. Never heard of him. Turned it over and read the blurb. It said something about a museum specimen, a giant squid, which some people worship as a god.

I just had to read this book, didn’t I?

It was surely meant to be. Here I am, absorbed in the question of actual people involved in actual cults involving fictional creatures. And here is this book about fictional people involved in fictional cults worshiping actual creatures.

I was pummeled by the logic of the Golux.

If you don’t know the Golux, he is a character in James Thurber‘s The Thirteen Clocks. The Golux, a little man with an indescribable hat and a dark describable beard, guides prince Zorn of Zorna to a castle where the evil Duke has killed time, seconds and minutes bleeding on the floor. The Duke keeps Princess Saralinda prisoner, and her hand is the only warm thing in the castle, and if she can warm up the thirteen stopped clocks, maybe time will live again. So they go round and she touches the clocks, but they don’t start and time stays dead. The Golux has an idea. “If you can touch the clocks and never start them, you can start the clocks and never touch them. That’s logic as I know and use it.” So they go round not touching the clocks, and they start.

So if you want to grasp real people involved in a cult of fictional creatures, what better than reading a book about a fictional cult of real creatures?

So I began reading Kraken.

If Tom Lehrer was impressed by a man facing singlehanded a ton of angry pot roast in a bull fight, how much more impressed must one be with one man facing half a ton of pickled calamari?

Well, I wasn’t very impressed. It jumped the shark, or rather the squid, in the third chapter.

What sort of book is this? It is Neil Gaiman meets Harry Potter meets Charles Williams but it somehow lacks something that those books have.

A giant squid exhibit is stolen from a London museum, in mysterious circumstances. The Kraken Church are suspected by the London cult squad (the most realistic thing in the book, shades of the South African Police’s occult crimes unit — the one thing they didn’t investigate was the activities of their colleagues in another branch who put hexed nails in Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s driveway, but that’s another story). The curator who discovers the theft, Billy Harrow, was also the one who pickled the squid to put it on display, and he is thought to be the prophet of the Kraken by the Church of Kraken, so they are after him, and so are a whole lot of other people, and gods, and demi gods in the mysterious London underworld or other world. This is where there is a vague whiff of Gaiman and Harry Potter and Charles Williams. Like the Diagon Alley of Harry Potter, there is this other London, and like Charles Williams‘s All Hallows Eve, London, the city itself, is one of the characters in the story.

The cops give Bill protection, but this is breached by Goss and Subby, or Goss and fucking Subby, as he is usually called. Not that he does much fucking in the story, or much of anything else, either. It’s not clear whether he has the apparatus. What he does have, is … no, I’d better not give away the plot, not that there’s really a plot. One of the twists in the plot, or rather one of the twists in the not plot. If you want to know about Goss and Subby, you can Google them. Perhaps it’s Sub and Gossy. No a gossy is a keratinous relic of an ancestor that subsides into oblivion down ley lines in Helliconia, and resembles a duppy, but not quite, but that is part of another book, or series of books, by Brian Aldiss: Helliconia Spring and summer, and winter. So no, these gossies return, or rather Goss and Subby are back and everyone is scared because a more nihilistic pair of villains you have never met.

In my youth I used to be rather fond of the Theatre of the Absurd, which was popular in the late 1950s and the 1960s — people like Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco and Harold Pinter. I’m told by the critics that there were Modern authors, and represented Modernism. I’ll take their word for it. Samuel Beckett’s novel Watt was as weird as could be, but I was disappointed because the copy in our library and in our local bookshops has a page missing, the page that made me want to read the book in the first place. I went through the library copy page by page, and it was not there. It had vanished as though it had never been. If anything was Absurd, that was.

Well, if those were Modern literature of the Absurd, Kraken could perhaps be described as Postmodern literature of the Absurd, but it isn’t as pleasantly absurd or as absurdly pleasant as the others. There’s a deus ex machina in every chapter. Well, every second chapter. The bad guys have extraordinary powers that make them invulnerable to attack until something quite simple defeats them. Perhaps that’s more like a Premodern fairy tale, but the fairies are pretty scary. That fits, too.

If you think this review is pretty disjointed and full of non-sequiturs, that’s because the book is too, and anyway, as I said at the beginning, this isn’t a review.

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