Thoughts on life after the PhD
Ah, China. I want our relationship to continue, I really do. But you’re not the lover you once were. As much as your post-Scar work frequently disappoints me I go back to you again and again, because there are just enough flashes of brilliance in you to keep me hanging on, but alas, not enough to sustain a healthy reader-author partnership. Even Perdido Street Station, which some have hailed as your best work, kind of bent under its own weight at the end. The City and the City was remarkable, but alas, it too couldn’t sustain itself through to its final pages. And now you give me Kraken. A novel about a cult that worships a giant squid.
I have to give you credit for the sheer balls that it took to write this thing. You write without any sense of cheekiness about cats and pigeons going on strike. You depict people drinking squid ink to get high. One of your wandering spirit characters communicates through a Captain Kirk action figure. Your two most dangerous and despicable villains are named Goss and Subby.
The problem here isn’t a lack of originality or audacity, it’s that your cast of characters and concepts could fill a whole series of books. Just when I’m getting used to the idea of a man imprisoned in another man in the form of a talking tattoo on his back, you bring in gunfarmers (still haven’t quite figured those out). And a guy haunted by a hundred different incarnations of his own soul. This novel is such an endless parade of unearthly freaks and earth-bound gods that by the second half of the book I couldn’t remember who was on whose side or what anybody was fighting for. The multiple twists at the end didn’t carry much weight for me because I never understood what the story was twisting away from.
In an attempt to sum up: there’s a giant squid preserved in a tank in a museum. It goes missing. There’s a cult that worships it but probably didn’t steal it. There’s a secret police force that deals only with cults and their many apocalypses. There’s the hero of the story, the guy who preserved the squid, suddenly pursued by all manner of friendly and unfriendly parties. And after that there’s really not much point in saying more about the plot, because you completely lost me. And I just couldn’t bring myself to care much about many of the characters you created, because I could never really figure out what their purpose was. Near the very end of the novel a woman says, “It *never* made any sense.” At least she was someone I could relate to.
There’s one oddly moving moment, when a follower of the squid cult comes face to face with his god and kneels, weeping, in front of its tank. At that moment, weeping over a squid doesn’t seem any stranger than weeping over the Dalai Lama, or the Second Coming of Christ. Kraken has brief moments of beautiful insight about the importance of worship and faith.
You’re a wellspring of original ideas, I’ll give you that. You could have taken just one or two of the characters in Kraken and built a wonderfully complex book around them. But when you pile them all up on top of one another and send them hither and thither in an endlessly unfolding and re-folding plot, the result is a blurry mess. You’ve said yourself that you love monsters, and this book is certainly chock full of them. For your next book, though, please—give them some space. Give the readers time to get to know them all so that all your beautiful prose and maze-like storylines feel worth the mental trek.
So good-bye for now, dear China. We had a good run. I’m sure I’ll be knocking at your door again at some point—you’re still brilliant, after all—but for the moment we’re over. I’ll be shacking up at Stieg Larsson’s place for the foreseeable future.
writing•translation•scholarship on Japan (and a few other things)
tales of travel, research, and life
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