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The Kitschies: Kraken by China Miéville

Kraken [This is the third in a set of five reviews - each looking at one of our 2010 Kitschie finalists. As part of our commitment to a transparent judging process, we'll run through each of the books in turn with our criteria in mind. Please take part in the discussion below!]

“Miévillian” gets bandied about a fair amount these days as adjectival shorthand for a particular kind of book.  Generally, that book is 1. Gritty 2. Urban 3. Fantasy featuring 4. Tentacled 5. Weirdness.  There could not be a more superficial way of categorizing China Miéville’s work. Rightly, “Miévillian” should refer to those rare, tightly-controlled stories that simultaneously subvert genre conventions and narrative expectations while blasting the reader through a plot so carefully constructed and densely layered she can only stagger off the final sentence longing for more.  “Miévillian” doesn’t mean weird words and cactus-men.   “Miévillian” is about ripping genre apart and rebuilding it in into something new and wholly unimagined. 

China Miéville’s protean approach to genre means he’s never met a category he didn’t explode with all the calculated mischievousness of a teenager smoking under the principal’s window during school hours.  Nowhere is this more evident than the absurdist comedy of Kraken.

Intelligent (but not arrogant):  Miéville’s novels reward deep and thoughtful engagement, and Kraken is no exception.  It’s a novel about the end of the world, what happens when multiple independent groups schedule their apocalypses for the same day; it’s a novel about London, and London’s symbiotic connections with its inhabitants; it’s a novel about geekery, geek culture, and the way people assert their individuality in terms of what they love and respect; it’s a novel about collective action, unions, and strikes; it’s a novel about collective identity, how people group together and what happens when individuals split away; it’s a novel about the ocean that lives in a house; it’s a novel about faith; and, deep down inside, it’s a novel about stuff.  About things, about the material that makes up everyday existence, the objects we see and touch and desire, and why, and how.  And what happens when those things are gone.  Kraken is as much a novel about absence as about presence:  a stolen squid, a missing person, a lost faith.  Deep stuff.

Kraken recognizes the value of traditional religion as well as the importance of other forms of collective identity while developing a story underlined with the appurtenances of historical materialism, all tied up with a big squid-shaped bow.  It is an astounding feat of literary architecture. Readers have accused Kraken of being undisciplined, and Miéville’s “everything including the kitchen sink” approach to writing does give the appearance of chaos.  But Kraken is no more a mess than a Bentley is an accident of metal tubing.  It’s a carefully designed, beautifully constructed piece of machinery with an engine at once so powerful and so quiet the reader is lured into forgetting that she’s roaring down the highway at fatal speeds in a petrol-filled death-box.  It is “the movement that looks like not moving, and it is the most powerful move of all.”  Kraken is that rare marvel of engineering, a beautiful car with a hell of a lot more under the hood than (tentacled) hamsters on a squeaky wheel.

Readers tend to ding Miéville for his astonishing vocabulary.  It’s true that writers have been known to mine their thesauruses for synonyms to over-used words and wind up slapping some poor adjective somewhere it doesn’t belong.  Not so Miéville, who wields the language in Kraken with the joy of an artist and the skill of a surgeon.  He may be able to rattle off every synonym for “inky” the OED has ever collected, but he will never use the word he’s chosen when it would be contextually inaccurate.

Progressive (but not wanky):  Miéville, a proud socialist, is often accused of political didacticism in his novels.  Indeed, Kraken would seem to fit the bill, as it includes an apparently-random subplot about striking animal mediums and their ancient Egyptian spirit union leader.  This, however, proves to be yet another a superficial reading of the novel.  If Kraken is about how people group together to give structure and meaning to their lives, then trade unions are but one of the novel’s many organized collections, from squid cultists to the police and the Catholic church.  

You don’t have to know your Marx to pick up on Kraken’s themes. Faith in a faithless age may not be an exclusively modern issue, but it’s certainly a resonant one.  A book that argues, in part, that one can find meaning and direction outside of traditional religion can’t be faulted for lack of forward-thinkingness.

But Kraken’s progressiveness doesn’t stop there.  It is an exemplar of Miévillian genre-busting, combining elements of classic British surrealist humor with urban narrative, disaster literature, suspense thrillers, eschatological dispensationalist fiction, and Campbellian mythic fantasy, injected with a rich vein of Lovecraftian weirdness and covered with a good sprinkling of hauntology for flavor.  Miéville combines these ridiculously disparate elements not to prove that he can, but to create something new and more than equal to the sum of its parts.

Entertaining (but not trite):  If Kraken trips up anywhere, it’s in this category.  We’re not accusing Kraken of being trite: just the opposite. Kraken is such a dense book that it may be hard to follow at times.  And, like most of Miéville’s work, Kraken is a slow burn.  It takes Miéville a little more than a hundred pages to get his novel’s ducks in a row, and one can understand – if not forgive – the casual reader for giving up before he starts shooting.  Once the story takes off, however, the book is impossible to put down.  Miéville drives the reader through a increasingly terrifying and unrecognizable London, a city crawling with weird religions and weirder denizens: invisible pigs, evil tattoos, and men who can fold anything – anything – like origami.

Readers expecting Neverwhere with squid may have been disappointed in Kraken. And indeed, anyone reading Miéville hoping that this time he’ll write like someone else deserves to be disappointed.  Miéville can be depended upon to produce progressive, intelligent and entertaining novels – but, more importantly, he can be depended upon to produce novels uniquely and unmistakably his own.  Bursting with ideas and crackling with energy, Kraken may look chaotic, but it is as carefully structured and executed, as genre-destroying and forward-thinking as anything Miéville’s ever produced.  And it’s one hell of a good read.  Kraken is as Miévillian as Miévillian gets.  And Miévillian isn’t about what is.  Miévillian is about what can be.

So what do you think?  Is Kraken our 2010 Kitschie winner?