“He knew that truths are not true.”
Mieville had a high bar to clear with Kraken: Perdido Street Station remains one of the best books I’ve read ever; The Scar may be my favourite book so far this year; Iron Council was a thoughtful, intelligent piece of fantasy. In retrospect, it was pretty much inevitable that Kraken could only be a disappointment, but how much of a disappointment it actually was is, well, disappointing.
On paper, it sounds fantastic. A giant squid goes missing from the Natural History Museum in London. Its curator Billy Harrow is drawn into the hunt for it, into a strange sub-London of warring cults and petty magics, where the word on the street is that the squid is a god, and its theft will bring about the end of the world. It’s a book about belief, packed in true Mieville fashion with ideas about rebirth and containment and metamorphosis, drawing on traditional pulp fantasy plots to think about what belief is and why it’s important.
The only problem is that Kraken is dull.
There are good literary reasons for this dullness, I think. The novel’s subtitled “An Anatomy”, and this is precisely what Mieville’s doing: dragging us on an interminable treasure-hunt through a London of urban fantasy, throwing information about bizarre feuds and cultic networks at us without any kind of context or emotional affect, he anatomises faith for us, dissecting its ridiculousnesses and its petty compromises, just as Billy anatomises the squid which is for someone a god. And he’s anatomising fantasy, too: there’s a moment in the novel when Billy notes with disappointment how mundane and predictable the workings of London’s magic are, how obvious it is that a key buried in asphalt will open a magic door somewhere, or that secret messages are encoded in the flickering of a broken streetlight. In the hands of a writer like Kate Griffin, these charms would feel strange and new, the city defamiliarised; in Mieville’s hands magic itself is familiarised, because it’s already familiar if you’ve read enough fantasy.
It feels, then, that disappointment is somehow the right response to Kraken: that Mieville has made it his business to render what should be strange and unspeakable concrete, laid out for us as if behind glass. And perhaps this is his point: that to try to dissect faith and fantasy like this is to miss the point, that faith lies exactly in the unspeakable and not in the observable details, and that any anatomy of how faith or fantasy works can only be disappointing. (Billy, our POV character, is not a believer; he is unable to understand the lengths to which believers will go in service of their religion.)
But none of this, clever though it undoubtedly is, changes the essential fact that reading Kraken is not an enjoyable experience. Its cleverness is also joyless, its wit is irritatingly facetious, and it’s just plain boring. I really hope Mieville’s other non-Bas Lag novels are better than this one.