Sunday, July 04, 2010

Inky and tentacled

Take a Frankenstein-type story against a backdrop combining Margaret Atwood's Year of the Flood and Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials and do it up Doctor Who style, but more menacing, and you'll get something like China Miéville's new novel, Kraken.

While not my favourite of China Miéville's novels (though I'm not sure which of a couple others I'd name for this distinction), Kraken is certainly the most rollicking fun!

The plot starts simply enough: Who stole the giant squid from the British Museum? We follow Billy, the curator who preserved this particular specimen, into the mystery. Before you know it you're immersed in a London teeming with end-of-times religious cults, among whom some revere this squid as representative of their Kraken god, and criminal gangs. The city is regarded as a living entity unto itself, and magic is commonplace (though it was never clear to me whether average citizens understood these workings and ignored or dismissed them or maybe were magicked into being oblivious about the situation; as a "secret" knowledge it belongs to a vast underground society that operated just slightly out of step alongside a seemingly perfectly ordinary city). The allegedly neutral Londonmancers are taking sides, the familiars are on strike, and the memory angels are taking action. There's a lot to keep track of and I occasionally faltered, but at its heart this book is a whodunnit and you keep reading to find out.

We meet some deliciously creepy baddies — part Dickens, part noir — along the way:

They were in a beat-up car. The man Goss drove. In the back, the boy, Subby, held Billy's arm.

Subby had no weapon and did not grip hard, but Billy did not move. He was frozen by the man and boy having unfolded in his room — the intrusion, the drugged dragging of the world. Billy's thoughts stuttered in loops. He felt dragged across time. A smear of pigeons was behind the car, pigeons that seemed to have been following him for days. What the hell what the hell, he thought, and Leon.

The car smelt of food and dust and sometimes of smoke, Goss had a face wrong for the time. He looked stolen from some fifties. There was a postwar cruelty to him.

I envy the person a hundred years from now who ventures to annotate this novel. Miéville's descriptions are grounded in now, some cultural references more popular than others: Harry Potter, Star Trek, Life on Mars. One cop has Winehousey hair.

We're steeped in a world where nerds drive science and engineering (and this is seriously relevant to a few plot points). Miéville imagines that, for example, in his London, Doctor Who fans fashion untraditional magic wands and call them sonic screwdrivers.

Apparently, Billy thought, he lived now in a trite landscape. Deep enough below the everyday, Billy realised with something between awe and distaste, a thing has power, moronically enough, because it's a bit like something else. (p 260)

These revelations into a paradigm of recusant science, so the goddamn universe itself was up for grabs, were part of the most awesome shift in vision Billy had ever had. But the awe had been greatest when he had not understood at all. The more they were clarified, the more the kitsch of the norms disappointed him. (p 263)

So Miéville managed to extricate himself from my accusation of kitsch just before I named it. It was all starting to seem disappointingly silly and over-the-top, but he acknowledged it, explained it, and argued successfully for the relevance of his approach. I let myself enjoy the rest of the rollercoaster ride.

More than once I was reminded of Doctor Who (wouldn't you love for Miéville to contribute to that show!). This book shares with the most recent series story arc, to some degree, the concepts of erasing time and rebooting the universe. But some episodes from series past are also called to mind, in particular The Shakespeare Code. The power of the written word, the old magic of naming things. You will find some profound ideas beneath the surface, if you care to look.

Above all, I love how Miéville uses language. He excavates old words and reinvents them as required. He verbs nouns and adjectivizes verbs. He just writes so bloody evocatively well.

There is no knowing beyond that membrane, the meniscus of death. What can be seen from here is distorted, refracted. All we can know are those unstrustworthy glimpses — that and rumour. The prattle. The dead gossip: it is the reverberation of that gossip against the surface tension of death that the better mediums hear. It is like listening to whispered secrets through a toilet door. It is a crude and muffled susurrus.
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