I said yesterday that I just finished reading Kraken by China Mieville. Check out that badass cover. Read me, it says, read me! So, you know, I did.
I also mentioned that I didn’t much care for the book. (In fact, I would’ve stopped reading halfway through, except that I had just previously stopped reading Clive Barker’s Weaveworld when it didn’t grab me after a hundred pages, and if you quit two books in a row, that makes you a book-quitter. Trufax.)
If you’re a writer, I think it’s important to consider why you don’t like a piece of writing. So let’s (ha! ha!) dive in…
The premise of the book is that someone has stolen a dead giant squid from its equally giant tank in a London museum, and the scientist in charge of caring for the specimen is trying to figure out whodunit. As he investigates, he delves steadily deeper into the bizarre underbelly of London, a world of squid-worshipping cults, Chaos Nazis, disembodied pigs, charmed iPods, sentient tattoos, and actual functional Star Trek phasers. The biggest question about the kraken heist is not who but why, and the whole thing is wrapped up tight with the impending apocalypse that everyone agrees is coming closer every day. Science, science fiction, fantasy, and the occult all swirl into a giant vortex of death by the time this book is over.
Now, if you’re like me, all that sounds pretty righteous so far. And I was hooked, in fact, for the first hundred pages or so. But the further I read, the more things fell apart, and not in that juicy W.B. Yeats kind of way. So what happened?
Style was an issue. Mieville’s style is light, playful, and sometimes fun to read, but he also leaves so much unsaid and uses so many difficult words and obscure references that he’s hard to follow at times. That’s a problem, but it’s not the problem.
Plot was an issue, only because there were so many layers of deception and conspiracy that it got hard to keep them all straight; but that wasn’t the problem either.
Characters were a much bigger issue; I didn’t especially like or dislike any of them, didn’t care what happened to them, didn’t get choked up when anybody died. But the characters are well-drawn, believable, likable, unique, and potentially very interesting. So why didn’t I care about them?
The real problem, I think, is that the book was just too much of a jumble. Too many disparate elements thrown together, without enough care taken to assemble it all into something coherent. Everybody says they’re worried about the end of the world, but nobody has any idea how to avoid it or even what causes it, so it’s just this disembodied plot element, floating there ominously but – pretty soon – uninterestingly. And the world is bursting with so many different kinds of weirdness, so many competing magics, that absolutely anything can happen, whenever the author wants it to. After a while it becomes a pretty much constant stream of deus ex machina, so you’re just sitting there waiting for Mieville to tell you what the answer to the mystery happens to be. By the time he finally did, I no longer cared.
The takeaway, I think, is that a story – even something deliciously crazy, where weirdness is the point, like Kraken – has to make sense. It has to have a system. The reader has to feel like he understands the rules to some extent, because if anything can happen, then he never feels like he’s backed into a corner, and then there’s no tension.
Thus sayeth Buckley.
By the way, new theme for the blog, you like it? I changed it because my friend pointed out that the old one didn’t have previous/next links on the posts, but I think the new one is just better visually, too. “Elegant Grunge,” it’s called. Classy.