A Jew and an Arab in 1960s London
China Miéville, Kraken (London: Macmillan, 2010, pp. 400, hbk., ISBN-13: 978-0333989500, £17.99; pbk., ISBN-13: 978-0330492324, £7.99
Mark P. Williams
‘It’s all metaphor, Billy remembered. It’s persuasion.’
— China Miéville, Kraken (p. 460)
<1> China Miéville’s new novel Kraken (2010) is set in an alternative, magical London existing in the spaces within the mundane one; it uses mixed generic markers, intertextuality and irony to indicate its own literary heritage and context, blending elements of the Lovecraftian, of Iain Sinclair’s psychogeography, and of a post-punk aesthetic to produce a playful and absurdist story freighted with serious concepts. Although the novel has certain aspects in common with his last novel, The City & The City (2009), Kraken’s particular style and subject can best be understood in relation to Miéville’s breakthrough texts Perdido Street Station (2000), The Scar (2002) and Iron Council (2004), set in the secondary world of Bas Lag, which associate his name with the form of fantastic writing known as the New Weird. Jeff VanderMeer characterises the New Weird as
a type of urban, secondary-world fiction that subverts the romanticized ideas about place found in traditional fantasy, largely by choosing realistic, complex real-world models as the jumping off point for creation of settings that may combine elements of both science fiction and fantasy … New Weird relies for its visionary power on a ‘surrender to the weird’ … involving the use of postmodern techniques that do not undermine the surface reality of the text (p. xvi).
<2> In these terms, although it begins in a London very similar to our own, rather than in a separate universe, Miéville’s seventh novel can be seen as clearly related to the New Weird. In Kraken, Miéville has attempted something very ambitious with his particular formulation of weird fantasy. Not only is he making the abstract conceptualisation of social forces visceral, as in Bas Lag, but he is also overtly playing with the metaphorical nature of fantasy in the process; he accomplishes this by taking away some of the seriousness of the New Weird, managing to be entertaining and humorous, without disrupting its impact. In Kraken, Miéville flirts with metafiction without becoming metafictional to the point where it breaks with the reality of the created world; it is a critical gamble with his audience’s expectations, breaking with the style of earlier fictions, but also recapitulating their themes in the process. Kraken’s central theme is the power and danger of belief.
<3> The plot of Kraken concerns the theft from the Darwin Centre at the Natural History Museum of a giant squid or Archeteuthis dux. Taxonomy is always important in Miéville’s fictions and the unravelling of conceptual frameworks surrounding the classification of human activities and/or events in the natural world is a central concern of the story: naming and thinking matter as much as doing. For these reasons, the theft of the cephalopoid is important to other agencies. The curator who looks after the squid, Billy Harrow, is questioned by unusually mysterious police officers, Baron and Collingswood from the ‘Fundamentalism and Sect-Related Crimes Unit’ (p. 36) who suspect that the squid may have been taken by ‘the Congregation of God Kraken’ (p. 96). The dialogue of Baron and Collingswood, composed of banter and occult knowledge conveyed obliquely and with a world-weary knowingness, recalls the John Constantine of Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing (1983-87) and the occult detective spin-off graphic novels of the Hellblazer series.
<4> Magic is important to the novel as a binding concept: it proceeds with a symbolic logic through which Miéville reveals the Surrealist impulse which informs his work. Performing magic is called ‘knacking’ and the knacks of different characters manifest as strange skills to affect the material and immaterial substance of the city with varying degrees of power. Knacks function associatively as magic literalises metaphors, sometimes in intensely visceral forms, such as when the Londonmancers read the entrails of the city by digging up a pavement:
Fitch was an old man in protective gear. He started the cutter. With a groan of metal and cement, he drew a line across the pavement. Behind the blade welled up blood. …
He put the angle grinder down, dripping. Put a crowbar in the red-wet crack and levered harder than it looked like he could. The paving stone parted.
Guts oozed from the hole. Intestinal coils, purple and bloodied, boiled up wetly in a meat mass. (p. 186)
<5> Metaphor and materiality change places fluidly in the novel and Miéville’s core narrative is about the liberating potential of metaphor: objects have (magical) power because of people’s ability to invest them with meaning, consciously or otherwise. ‘Knacking’ is the ability to tap into and affect this, to turn it into process and action. Museums, as symbolic repositories of culture, are important for this: ‘In a city where the power of any item derived from its metaphoric potency, all the attention poured into their contents made museums rich pickings for knacking thieves’ (p. 178). However, ‘the processes that gave them that potential also threw up sentinels’ in the form of angels of memory, who guard the repositories of culture (ibid.).
<6> A dialectic of concrete and abstract, of action and thought characterises all of the exchanges in the novel, where Miéville uses humour and the fantastic to make the connection between the abstract and the concrete apprehendable. This is clearest in the character of Wati: a shabti from an ancient Egyptian tomb, a homunculus created to serve the Pharaohs forever in their afterlife, Wati named himself ‘The Rebel’ chose not to serve but downed-tools and organised a metaphysical strike which caused and/or was caused by a historical strike of Egyptian tomb-builders in ‘about 1100 BC’(p. 142). From there he moved onward, urging other ‘magicked slaves’ to throw off their chains: ‘brooms forced to carry water buckets; clay men made to fight and die; little figures made of blood and choiceless about what they did [,] Wati fomented rebellions’(p. 145). In the present ‘psychopolis’ of London Wati is busy organising a strike of magical familiars through the UMA, ‘Union of Magicked Assistants’ (p. 146), travelling from statue to statue to keep his support solid. When we first encounter Wati he is inside the Blake-inspired Newton statue outside the British Library; he later spends a substantial part of the novel inside a plastic Captain Kirk (an intertextual reference recalling, alongside all things Trek, Miéville’s appreciation of the novel Junglist by Two Fingers and James T. Kirk).
<7> From the humorous premise of ‘Magicked Assistants’ holding a general strike, Miéville builds serious points about liberation; the familiars take traditional forms, from birds, cats and dogs to beetles and from rats and golems to more abstract ones such as ‘e-spirits’. These latter are found in the computers of a financial building in Spitalfields which had ‘achieved self-awareness … learned magic from the internet, and by a combine of necromantics and UNIX had written into existence little digital devils to do the servers’ bidding’, and which also go on strike (p. 199). This seems textually to be a partial rejoinder to the attempts of Hermione Granger to free House Elves from magical serfdom in Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, but has another underlying purpose which relates it to the Remade and fReemade of Miéville’s Bas Lag novels: freedom and choice, and their effect on subjectivity. Miéville uses the absurdist imagery of familiars on strike to illustrate the ways in which even seemingly-abstract human activity has concrete effects on material reality, and, more importantly, the way conceptual forms attached to inanimate objects affect human behaviour; choice and individual subjectivity are thematically foregrounded as concrete social forces in the discussion of social processes.
<8> Belief is a significant social force in the text and shown as operating powerfully even at its most self-contradictory in the forms of the myriad cults of the novel. The cults encountered are overtly intertextual, becoming comments on cultural formulations as they have appeared in other fantasy work that informs Miéville. One cult alludes to H.H. Monroe/Saki’s story ‘Sredni Vashtar’, ‘the SV Brood were devoted to a wargod polecat ferret’ (p. 363); while another cult, the ‘Monsterherds’, recalling Iain Sinclair’s writings in Lights Out For the Territory (1997) on ‘Bulls & Bears & Mithraic Misalignments’, dressed in ‘municipal uniforms’ conjure a gigantic ‘minotaur made of air and leaves’ using leaf blowers which they split into many smaller but still deadly ones to fight with (p. 366).
<9> However, all these cultists are only middlemen in an economic exchange focused around finding the missing kraken, the Archeteuthis. Even the strange cult of assassins known as Chaos Nazis, ‘outrageous, dangerous monster-clowns’, who represent a thoroughgoing fundamentalist extremism with their ‘symbol [of] the eight-pointed chaos star altered to make a Moorcock weep, its diagonal arms bent fylfot, a swastika that pointed in all directions’ (p. 281), are only the proxy-violence of the gang-leader Tattoo, ‘[an] outsourced resource, subcontracting being as fashionable in gangland as in the rubble of Fordism’(p. 308). The allusion to Moorcock’s multiverse fictions by which Miéville defines the Chaos Nazis is a reminder that there is a rich history of radical fantasy which satirises adherence to binary principles such as Law and Chaos as equal follies. All of the cults in Miéville’s novel are alternate representatives of belief as an attempt to find or create meaning within the contradictory socio-economic forces of contemporary modernity, some by denial and others by adaptation, but all are millenarian and see the kraken’s disappearance as a sign of the coming apocalypse.
<10> Stylistically, Kraken synthesises traits from several contemporary sub-genres in the service of a dense, heavily intertextual prose. Kraken is aligned with conceptually overburdened fictions of Jeff Noon’s ‘avant-pulp’ fictions such as Vurt (1993) and Pixel Juice (1998) and Steve Beard’s ‘bizarro’ fictions such as Meat Puppet Cabaret (2006) where linguistic estrangement and cognitive estrangement play off one another in combinations which borrow equally from cyberpunk and avant-garde rhetoric. Miéville’s characters move strangely through an estranged city, ‘treat[ing] fences as something other than barriers, walls as stairways, roofs as uneven floors’ (p. 356); the London they move through is estranged even in its more mundane corners:
A space between concrete sweeps of flyovers. Where the world might end was turpe-industrial. Scree of rejectamenta. Workshops writing car epitaphs in rust; warehouses staffed in the day by tired teenagers; superstores and self-storage depots of bright colours and cartoon fronts amid bleaching trash. London is an endless skirmish between angles and emptiness. (p. 357)
<11> There is a certain something of Iain Sinclair about Kraken which appears in its conceptualisation of how the fantasy London relates to the mundane London. It echoes Conrad Williams’ London Revenant (2004), where perception is questionable and the Surrealism of the narrative may be fantastical or psychological at different times, as well as the established urban fantasy sub-genre from Neil Gaiman and Michael de Larabeiti to Martin Millar.
<12> Graphic novels and comic books provide an obvious point of comparison for this text, particularly the postmodernist and Surrealist superheroes of Grant Morrison. Miéville’s villains in Kraken resemble the avant-garde inspired grotesques of Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol such as the Brotherhood of Dada, the Men from N.O.W.H.E.R.E., the Dry Bachelors and the Scissor-men. Tattoo, the gang-leader of Kraken is Surrealistically abstract, a living ink-drawing tattooed onto the back of a man named Paul; he ‘had run with the Krays, before he was Tattoo’ but ‘[n]obody remembered what his name had been: that was part of what had happened to him. Whatever nasty miracle had en-dermed him had thrown away his name as well as his body’ (p. 97).
<13> Tattoo’s henchmen are called ‘knuckleheads’ because they are literally men with fists where their heads should be and other clenched hands instead of genitals; thought and sexuality are subsumed beneath violence in their grotesque bodies. Such suggestive names invoke a whimsical and strange atmosphere that Miéville is creating in Kraken which mixes parody and Surrealism with stark violence, veering between horror and farce. This difficult balancing act produces oscillations of tone which only a real commitment to the abstract and absurd scenes can carry. Magic performs the double-movement of being something in itself and also being a metaphor for other social processes; by being meta-fantastic, self-conscious in the metaphorism of its magical elements, it facilitates a critical return to the principles of politicised fantasy which his New Weird embodied.
<14> Kraken is a change of discourse which generates fresh perspectives on Miéville’s dialectic that might be described as a kind of Neo-Weirdism: this text shows that Miéville’s vision of the social function of fantasy is invested strongly in the cultural jetztzeit of place and genre, the ‘now-time’ of contemporary London and the history of contemporary fantasy. Miéville proposes that we should respect the power of metaphor to change perspective, reminding us that although everything is always someone’s metaphor, meaning is something we have to create for ourselves if we do not want to have it imposed upon us.
VanderMeer, Jeff. “Introduction: The New Weird: ‘It’s Alive?’” The New Weird. Eds. Ann and Jeff VanderMeer. San Francisco: Tachyon Publishers, 2008, ix-xviii. Print.
To Cite This Article:
Mark P. Williams, ‘Review of China Miéville, Kraken’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 8 Number 2 (September 2010). Online at http://www.literarylondon.org/london-journal/september2010/williams.html. Accessed on [date of access].