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Another fine mess

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Kraken - China Mieville There are already some strong reviews on this site, and some giving the book qualified props for inducing lots of readerly pleasure while seeming a bit light. Thin. Shallow. (See, e.g., Keely's pretty thoughtful review.) Ironic, maybe, as the Kraken is a creature of the depths, inhabits the the abyssal dark, and is awfully heavy. Yet this book floats like a butterfly fish, and sings with silly abandon. This novel is no doubt a gas.

So I guess it's understandable that you might maybe knock its willingness to squeeze the pulp, manically wave the tentacles, put a clown nose on apocalyptic dark fantasy. But I think it's a brilliant bit of counter-programming, a generic reframing that amplifies its central themes of (while also thumbing its nose at) faith and magic.

First we've got to redirect our attention to the grosstopical intersections of conspiracy and farce. In one genre, a guy walks into a room where people are whispering, and he realizes that something is afoot, that there are plans and disguises and the endless revelations of what lies behind appearances. What you know is wrong, and the plot is a twisty labyrinthine exercise in discovery and reconception. In the other genre, the same thing happens. But sometimes it's Mr. Furley and sometimes it's JFK. Sure, one wears an ascot and the other is made by an asshat, but the key difference seems to be sobriety. With the former, bug-eyed high sexual anxiety about Jack Tripper provokes giggles; in the latter, horn-rimmed (psychosexual) anxiety about Jack Kennedy provokes a political consciousness. Right?

Well... I don't think Mieville buys that neat distinction, sees it for the (mindless) unseeing that it really is. These two genres share the same neighborhood. And here he uses the doubled, doubting ironies of comedy and conspiracy to tackle the impact and influence of faith. His book is cluttered with cults, strange and familiar theologies each with its own End in mind. It'd be easy to dismiss them as ludicrous or simply ludic; we all too easily see the kooks worshipping Kraken as different in kind from the careful faiths of (say) the Catholic. But the generic tendencies here get pretty reductive: if seen via the dark-alternate-epic or the light-comic-opera, the faiths of cults (and high dark fantasy) are either allegorical or unserious, and either way, they seem to say nothing about the everyday. But there is something fundamentally comic *and* conspiratorial in the believing in some big Other or anOther. Whispers and hints of meaning at the edge of what we know, so we tug our ascots, bug our eyes, steel our nerves, and try to Believe.

I'm not keen on a full-on exegesis here. Partly because this thesis is half-baked, which seems in keeping with the theological spirit. But partly because the book rejects the simple dichotomy of thumbing your nose or taking it seriously. Kraken or Yahweh, either way--there's something simultaneously silly and grandly humanly central about how and why we believe. Mieville isn't coming to conclusions--that's not what comedies or conspiracies do. They send us into the maze, and dazzle with endless turns and twists and pratfalls. (Heck, that's kind of like faith, too, eh?) The plot is far less crucial than the endless performative play of being inside, seeking, and really seeing.

I think this book is dazzling comic fun, and that's serious praise in my belief system.

Plus it has an endless dizzying array of digressive wonders. A troupe of Chaos Nazis, baddies who reject the priggish misguided horrors of the German variant -- "The problem with Auschwitz," their intellectual wags of torture-killing insisted, "is that it was the wrong sort of 'camp'.... Its screwball dialogue is always taking the piss out the portentous Pottery sobriety of magic (so our hapless hero's innocent question about whether his sidekick has a "magic key" gets a blunt rejoinder -- Don't be a twat). Familiars go on strike; cops (my favorite character, the brassy Kath Collingwood) summon magical aether-cops by burning old videocassettes of The Sweeney and Life on Mars; etc. Every page has a bit of lunatic invention that brought a smile to my face. And the prose is every bit as twisty and devious.

Just a damn good read, as smart as it is funny.