I hear today is something called Blue Monday; before today, I was familiar with this phrase only as the title of a lesser example of the music of a great dancey 80s band. Apparently, we should all be sad and restless today, wondering how “ennui” is spelled and where we can use it in polite conversation to make ourselves perk up just a little (not to mention look super fancy), and spend money we don’t have on drunken trips to rum-soaked resorts on small island nations with racial and economic politics of even more questionable repute than the countries we live in.
There, I feel better already! How about you? Sometimes, you just have to visualize the solution and everything naturally turns around.
Actually, I feel alright and here’s why: China Mieville has written a novel called Kraken. In this novel, as in all the Mieville novels I’ve read, loads–nay, worlds!–of crazy shit goes down; it’s all very enjoyable. I can’t help being simultaneously concerned that one person’s brain can contain so much insanity and weirdness and violence, but also eternally thankful that instead of becoming a murdering psychopath, he chose to write probably the BEST genre fiction going. The. Best. And he hardly limits himself to one genre per novel; hell no, that would not be sufficient to encompass the largeness and largesse of his super-brain. Kraken is sci-fi, fantasy, murder mystery, detective fiction, noir, comedy, sociological essay, grotesque. It does and is all these things, but it does some better than others.
Fantasy, sci-fi, noir, sociology, grotesque, comedy? Goddamn right. Mieville may well have been born in ether comprising some thick and delicious combination of these modes, for my limited reading tells me he does them better than anyone else right now. (Yes, even the comedy; this book is really funny!) But mystery? Detective fiction? Hmm. No. He’s not bad at these per se, but when a novice in both (moi) finds them unsatisfactory, then no hard-nosed detective fan is going to buy it.
Kraken is, to blandly understate things because to explain the whole book in any proper or satisfying way would likely just mean reproducing the whole damned thing, the story of a giant squid that mysteriously disappears from the Darwin Centre of the Natural History Museum. The gormless young biologist who bottled this specimen, Billy, quickly finds himself caught up in a web of intrigue that involves a multiplicity of doomsday cults, strangely embodied and even more strangely disembodied villains, the most terrifyingly evil dregs of history ever rebirthed for villainous purposes, and magic made less silly and more sinister when rebranded as “knacking”. I may sound flip but don’t let that fool you; China Mieville’s writing is stellar and his alternate London a place I would like to visit, as long as I was in a very well knacked protective bubble. I loved all this. There was anxiety, elation, bad dreams, sputtering laughter in public places, and early mornings with coffee for more reading. I was in, committed, in love.
But then, the detective stuff started to pall. It became somehow both too prolonged and rushed and neat; maybe if the mystery hadn’t been so damned obvious and utterly un-mysterious so early on, I wouldn’t feel this way. Not to say I don’t like the whole idea of the book and its conclusion; I actually think it’s brilliant. I think it is, in essence, the correct ending. But it wasn’t as deftly handled as I’m certain Mieville can handle it. (There might be something in taking a leetle bit longer than one year to write a novel this prone to bubbling over, Mr. Mieville. Just a thought. Or, you might ask your editor if he/she edits Haruki Murakami‘s novels; if he/she says yes, I advise you to fire him/her IMMEDIATELY.)
I’m just going to say it: the build-up, unraveling, and revelation of the mystery was a wee bit ham-handed. Maybe more than a wee bit; I’ll let my expert mystery fan friends decide. But I saw it coming from miles away, which in literary terms means ages before the protagonist had an inkling–and that’s not how mystery is supposed work, I don’t think.
There is a certain disappointing propriety in the brief and rather awkward conclusion to this raging and loud novel, however. I mentioned cults…it’s, in some ways, more specifically about competing notions of the end of the world. In Kraken-London, apocalypse is a dream defined in myriad ways by wildly divergent groups who don’t like to share. Brawling and the pooling of massive amounts of blood ensues. The crisis that all of the above is part of and contributes to is that the end of the world really does become nigh–and everyone suddenly finds themselves agreeing on precisely how. Telling you this won’t ruin the book because this isn’t what it’s really about–the world doesn’t end. And it doesn’t not end with a bang, but rather with something vaguely groaning, if not outright whimpering.
An ending about not ending…now that’s a complexity only Mieville might have the chutzpah to attack in the first place. I can’t fault him for his ambition, which is one of the many refreshing things about him. Everything just can’t be The Scar. But you can’t blame me for being ambitious to want to read nothing lesser than that.