When I was in my twenties, I had a friend who was a drummer. He taught me to wear earplugs which was a very good idea, but that’s another story. Anyhow, he was a big fan of jazz and jazz musicians and one evening he decided to educate me on what a jazz drummer was all about. He played several videos for me of incredible musicians, each one topping the previous, until one final climactic drummer who was quite frankly dazzling. His skill was unprecedented, his style unique. His mastery of rhythm and his instrument was so complete that his performance was entirely impromptu and spontaneously created out of the very moment.
It was so dazzling and masterful that it seemed to never end. Literally. It kept going on and on and on and on. I thought it would never end. Really, please, let it end!
It was too much.
I thought of this particular performance and the masterful drummer when I read China Mieville’s Kraken.
Mieville is undoubtedly a wordsmith of masterful proportions. If size matters, then his vocabulary should provide him with indomitable confidence. I’m sure I am not the first to notice it by any means, but let me be clear: China Mieville has big words. And he knows how to use them.
It is rare for me to have to look up a word, particularly in a fiction book, though it does happen. However, dictionary diving is not at all uncommon when reading a Mieville. It is good to stretch your mind and gain new verbage and he’s really the guy to do it because it does not seem that he is just Thesaurus Boy. You get the feel that this bald, pierced, menacing, son-of-Shel-Silverstein looking guy would use this same vocabulary with you while drinking with you in a bar. In a world where we all read so-called young adult fiction* (Harry Potter, Twilight [wretch], Hunger Games, etc etc) and the local newspapers are typically written on a 5th grade reading level, his books are anomalies. In no few ways are they welcome anomalies as well.
However, there is a reason why Mieville reminds me of that drummer so many years ago. There is a point at which it is beyond me. Not because I cannot get the words–I get them or can get them. Not because I cannot or am unwilling to learn and stretch–I am. There simply comes a point at which the story is so bogged down with this particular kind of word use that is becomes inaccessible and it makes the writer seem like he’s showing off too much. The brambles and briars of unfamiliar words that catch on the tails of imagination can become either a way to prick up the mind and heart or a trap that ensnares us in inescapable undergrowth. The story may go on ahead on a trail in front of us we can make out but cannot follow and we are left behind.
In spite of saying this, I am solidly on the side of recommending this book as a good read. It is not light hearted or easy reading but it is quite good. Mieville is a fine, though obtuse, writer and storyteller. The first few chapters seemed draggy and it was unclear to me what this cephalopod specialist scientist named Billy Harrow with a personality I did not find at all interesting was actually up to. He seemed rather boring and irritating. Next thing you know, some bizarre man and a boy, Goss and Stubby, were unfolding themselves out of a box and grabbing Billy by the throat. Yes, I said unfolding themselves out of a box. Goss then opens up his mouth and swallows Billy’s friend in one gulp. This is followed by a talking tattoo, various magical happenings, cults, a semi secret government organization designed to fight the occult, cults and occult cults and let us not forget the squid. The giant squid and the baby gods and the Kraken. Is you head spinning now? Mine was. So once you get past about chapter eight, it’s one amazing ride. Hold your breath and dive in for a whole different world.
I was irritated by a particular tension building device that was used frequently in the book. Mieville is pretty good with dialog, but he needlessly piled on too much of it when building up to end a chapter. Oh no it isn’t. Who is it? You’re kidding, it can’t be. Who is it? There’s just no way. Who is it? I can’t believe it could be them. Who is it? No one is going to believe this. Who is it?
Oh never mind, at this point I don’t care any more. But that’s just a pet peeve of mine.
So, if you want a book that will expand your vocabulary and make you feel really smart when you use the words you learn in a conversation with mere mortals, a story of squid (and really, who doesn’t like squid?), occult cults, magic and a bizarre step outside of the mainstream boring world, read Kraken. Your mind will be different for having read it, that’s for certain!
Oh, and while you’re at it, you could always have some Kraken Rum
*Please note, this is NO slam against what is called ‘young adult fiction’ at all. Some excellent writers there and pretty good storytelling as well. Glad to see apparent age categories do not perpetually bind a book to a limited audience.