Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Kraken by China Mieville

This book is an unreadable mess, a fascinating, memorable, unreadable mess. I really wanted to like it: it’s got much of what I look for in fiction: a clever, original plot, complex characters, challenging language. But it’s so overwritten, and Mieville is so enamored of his own ideas that it just grinds to a halt about half way through, brought down by the weight of all its excess baggage.

Mieville writes slipstream fiction--stories that straddle the boundary between realism and fantasy, and in Mieville's case that eschew traditional science fiction and fantasy tropes like robots and vampires.

Kraken is about a formaldehyde-preserved giant squid (architeuthis) that goes missing from the British Museum, and Billy, a museum curator who goes on a quest to find out what happened to it. But really, (as Sarah Lyall, writing in the New York Times says), that is like saying that King Lear is about property rights. Kraken is about a secret squid-worshipping religious cult; Kraken is about an urban army of sorcerers with their own reasons for wanting the squid (and the internecine warfare that erupts over who controls the squid); Kraken is about an obscure branch of the London police force dedicated to tracking the movements of the magical underworld.

But in his enthusiasm for introducing us to all these different actors and subplots, Mieville loses all forward momentum. The book ceases to be about where the squid went and just becomes about all this other extraneous flash. For pages and pages, Billy wanders around London with Dane, former member of the squid cult, and they encounter all these other weird folk and mysterious events, but they hardly find out anything at all about who might have the squid. And eventually, I just grew tired of all the smoke and mirrors and I couldn’t keep track of who was whom, and who might want the squid or not, and it just didn’t matter anymore. Mieville lost me, and I couldn’t finish the book.

Okay but here is the really really strange part. One way to track the activities of the underground sorcerers’ mafia is to read the graffiti in sketchy neighborhoods. This morning I saw this new tag on a wall across the street from my office. I swear I am not making this up. What does it mean? Why is it there? What is going on?

Corner W. Johnson & Brooks St., Madison, WI 7-11-11

ETA: Here is another one, spotted a few blocks from the first one, a few weeks later.

Corner E. Johnson St. and Frances St., Madison, WI 8-1-11



(Book 20, 2011)

4 comments:

Debora said...

Wow, that is strange! Maybe call in the help of Mieville ;-)?

herschelian said...

That is SO peculiar - certainly makes your review very interesting, d'you think someone who has read the book did it?

Ms. Wis./Each Little World said...

It is hard enough to follow the story in your short version; can't imagine trying to read it. And I really can't quite picture giant squid as topic of interest to me. But I love the serendipity of the strange graffiti!

Legends of Dune said...

The book sounds very complicated, but I like books that also happen to be a challenge for my concentration.

~Ondrej

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