Squid Cakes

Maybe it’s just me. Maybe I’m too old and stodgy. I’ve been trying to read Kraken, by China Miéville, but after 125 pages (a quarter of the way through the book) I have no urge to keep reading. Yes, I’d like to know what’s going to happen to hapless Billy Harrow, who is being yanked around London by several very dodgy types. But I don’t have much confidence that Miéville is going to tell me. His prose style is like something unloaded from a garbage compactor, all bits and pieces mashed together. Sentences sitting side by side in a single paragraph seem to belong to different narratives. Characters say things to one another, yet the conversation zigzags without apparent logic.

Here’s an example, from page 135. Dane, who seems to be a good guy, if anybody in the story is, is talking to Billy. Dane is planning some sort of action:

Dane brought out maps of London felt-tipped with additions, sigils on parkland and routes traced through streets. A speargun, Billy saw to his surprise, like a scuba diver might carry.

Is there a connection between those two sentences? On second or third reading, we might surmise that Dane brought out maps and then also brought out a speargun — that Miéville is simply being a little too terse. But brought out from where? Has he been carrying a speargun in his shirt pocket? In the previous few pages there is no mention that Dane is carrying a container large enough to hold a speargun.

Three of the seven laudatory quotations on the back cover mention that Kraken is somehow humorous. Entertainment Weekly says, “…lobs a grenade into the urban-fantasy genre, remaking it into wild comedy.” The Denver Post mentions “humor.” SF Reviews says “Irreverent, funny….” But if there’s a stitch of humor anywhere in the story, I blinked and missed it. It’s just weird and grimy.

Apparently the world is coming to an end, and a giant squid is God. Billy is a curator at a museum of natural history, a very ordinary bloke, and has worked on preserving the carcass of the squid, which is now on display. Except, in the opening scene of the book, the carcass has vanished. Quite impossibly — it’s eight meters long, far too large to have been spirited away, but it’s just not there.

As a premise for a whodunit with supernatural elements, that’s a very nice starting point, but the plot is quickly swallowed up by a billowing cloud of black ink. Before long, the cult that worships the giant squid is trying to convince Billy that he’s a prophet, because he has literally touched God. Several factions, all of them unpleasant or confused, seem to be vying with one another for possession of the missing squid. We meet an evil entity who is literally a tattoo — a giant face inked on a man’s back. The eyes in the face move. The face speaks. There are also a couple of really nasty bad guys who go around murdering people for no very clear reason. That’s not my idea of humor, but maybe the folks at Entertainment Weekly find such things amusing.

In 1974, a California funk band called Tower of Power released a song called “Squib Cakes.” A squib (I had to look it up) can be either a small explosive or a short humorous bit of writing. Kraken isn’t short, and it isn’t humorous, but I’m sure some readers will get a bang out of it.

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