Kraken is fantasist China Mieville's most realistic novel to date. Sure, one can trip over a bar set that low, but Mieville's examination of the microcults and the infighting of marginal religions in an otherwise lickable, tastable London is the high point of the book. Like his previous, The City & The City, Kraken owes as much to the mystery genre as it does to fantasy, and the caper plot serves as a tour guide to the terrifying, if occasionally goofy, underbelly of the occult world.
As the title suggests, a giant squid—dead and preserved—features prominently in the book. Worshiped by the Krakenists, its inexplicable theft triggers a chain of events that could lead to one of two different apocalypses, and does lead to an exciting romp.
There are plenty of novels these days about a secret police department that tracks down occult threats, but vampires and werewolves and demons have been trotted out so often that every drop of awe and wonder has long since been wrung out of 'em. Mieville plays a whole new game, clearly mining his own experience on the radical left and various subcultures for an understanding of how small handfuls of people with very strange ideas can conceive of history with only themselves in the center.
The squiddy church is the least bizarre of the cults in Kraken; they're really old Church of England fuddy-duddies, except for their worship of ten-tentacled gods that refuse worship. We have the foppish Chaos Nazis, who critique the Holocaust as using the wrong sort of camp; ferret worshipers and people who can fold human beings with the power of higher origami; the supposedly neutral Londonmancers who read the viscera of The City (and it does have viscera!)—and one of the baddies is a tattoo stuck on the back of a hapless victim. I haven't even mentioned the utterly literal Knuckleheads yet ...
Into this mix we follow erstwhile squid caretaker Billy Harrow, who is indeed harrowed by a near-instant introduction to occultism by the immortal weirdos Goss and Subby. They're introduced breathlessly: "Goss and Subby! Goss and Subby!" Goss is chatty and big, Subby a tiny silent boy, and their bloody career has extended back for centuries. One of the police officers thought their names were Goff and Fubby—the records date to the old-style long s of the 1700s. There's not really much to Harrow except for flustered confusion and quick escapes, as there is hardly any room for character development in this overstuffed novel.
The other "normal" person in Kraken is Marge; the diminutive is short for her apposite name Marginalia. (Poor thing.) A bit more fleshed out are apostate Krakenist Dane, a hard man and minor spellcaster looking for his lost god, and the anarchic cop Collingswood, who gets most of the best lines that Goss doesn't. Here's how Goss threatens someone: "So ... Clarabelle says she fancies you ... I said to her what? And she goes yeah, can you believe it?"
The real star of Kraken is its comically lugubrious narration. Near the end we're told, for example, "the kraken would give them this transmutation, this squid pro quo, by the contingencies of worship, toxin, and faith." The book is a love letter to a certain gonzo vision of dark fantasy—the results of crazy die rolls in homebrew role-playing games, bloody black-ink doodles on the margins of labor history textbooks,an apocalypse that ends the world neither in fire nor in floods, but in post-modern post-everything snickering. There are iPod playlists that give more accurate predictions than Tarot decks, and the narrative's many asides and infodumps are more interesting than any ol' squid that isn't even in half the book anyway.
Mieville puts up freak flag after freak flag to see who salutes—remember "Hippychick" by Soho, which used to excellent effect a riff from he Smiths' "How Soon Is Now"? Mieville does. He even makes a reference to real American apocalypse culture, with a strange shout-out to the transgressive writer Peter Sotos.
Not everything works. One major subplot deals with a strike of the familiars of the many wizards and magicians in the city, but these spirits never really map to the proletariat. They don't work collectively for one thing, and they surely predate modern industrial capitalism. Plus, it's all rather an excuse to introduce the character of Wati, an Egyptian spirit who manifests in statuary and dolls. So much for the collective protagonist of anti-capitalist narrative. Then there's the magician so obsessed with Star Trek that he made his own Tribble and his own transporter device. Harrow even ends up with the occult equalizer of a working Kirk-era phaser. Even the characters giggle at this, but the nudge-and-wink business doesn't make those particular scenes any more convincing.
Mieville is on much firmer ground when dealing with issues tentacular. His construction of Krakenism from the true literary history of the giant squid is excellent—the only thing missing is a reference to Frank Norris' classic novel of capitalist corruption, The Octopus. (Too American, maybe, or too few and two few tentacles?) Mieville's multiculti and multiapocalypti London is just as wonderful. Every urban fantasist these days is doing something or other about a secret city or this or that cool subculture, but the only thing one gets from reading most such novels is that these writers have never spent any time in urban environments or in contact with any subculture crazier than, say, that of online career comment trolls. No, the shopping mall with a Target and a Borders Books doesn't count. Mieville knows London like the back of his alien fifth hand, however, and loves to show it off.
And the end—as our narrator says, "It was awesome, yes, but." There's plenty of the usual fisticuffs and tentacuffs, gunplay and inkspray, but the climax of Kraken is pure postmodern antifabulation, the story that (un)writes itself, the triumph of the palest ink over the strongest memory. Billy makes good not because he's been ear-deep in the occult for the past 500 pages, but because he remains in heart and mind a scientist. "We've written it up," he says of the fearful kraken, and scientific rationalism triumphs over the poetics of magick with an insufferable k. Now that's some sci-fi, friends, so this summer go to the beach and take yourself some Kraken.