Sunday, 20 May 2012

Here Be Monsters: Two Leviathan-themed Reviews

Today's reviews come to you dressed up as a literary fight, because 'comparison' sounds boring, and because I think both of the writers concerned are appropriately ferocious and war-like. One of them actually was a sailor, and the other looks as though he ought to be a boxer, and so the idea of them settling their differences through fisticuffs is not entirely crazy. Except that one of them is dead, which might make things a little difficult.


Melville wins on beard
In the red corner, we've got a writer who's been the bane of American teenagers for generations. He's a fearsome racist, a very dodgy scientist, a Bible obsessive and a man who really, really likes whales. Ladies and gentlemen, it's... HERMAN MELVILLE with MOBY DICK.

Facing off against him in blue is a man with a very different literary reputation. He's young, he's cool and in his time off from churning out amazing novels he teaches creative writing at my old university (he never taught me - I think I missed a trick there). Let me introduce you to the one, the only... CHINA MIEVILLE and his novel KRAKEN.

(Cue applause.)

But Mieville wins on sheer number of earrings
This is such a great pairing not only because I think Mieville's book is a response to Melville's, but because of who Mieville is. Melville spends a large part of his novel being patronising about a bald, tattooed, non-white man, and then one hundred years later a bald, tattooed, non-white man whose name differs from Melville's by only one letter (seriously, I'm getting confused just typing them out) takes Melville's concept and flips it into something totally different and totally awesome. The universe definitely has a sense of humour.

If a lot of people complain that Melville is much too popular, then Mieville suffers from the opposite problem. I've complained about this before: he's an absolutely excellent writer, but all the same he tends to be shoved onto the genre shelves and largely ignored by people who like Serious Books (who all, of course, will tell you that they love Melville). This is particularly ironic, because I think that what Melville and Mieville are doing is not at all dissimilar: both of their books are rip-roaring yarns with a twist; brainy, well-informed takes on a genre that's usually agressively masculine and aggressively brainless. That I enjoyed Mieville's book isn't surprising, but I'm still reeling from the fact that I didn't only like Melville's book, I completely adored it.

China Mieville is a writer whose brain seems to be constantly shooting out amazing plots in all directions like an overactive tumble drier, and the plot of Kraken is, as you might expect from him, both intense and intelligent. In an alternative London where the elusive giant squid has actually been captured, the Natural History Museum's prize specimen goes missing. The prime suspects are an underground religious group who worship the Kraken as a god, and who now believe it's about to be used to bring about the end of the world. Cue wild shenanigans as the squid's curator Billy discovers an extremely dark and dangerous alternative London where tattoos are alive, where statues talk and where there's even a crack anti-magic police unit.

I was sold Kraken on the basis that it was a reworking of a Western, and it's certainly got those influences going on, but after reading Moby Dick I realise that what it really is is a seafaring epic on dry land, and that what it's doing is taking literally a concept that runs through the heart of Moby Dick.

Now, everyone thinks they know what Moby Dick is about: some dude called Ahab chasing a white whale for 500 pages while nothing else happens. I am delighted to tell you, however, that this is not really the case. I was expecting a lot of angry masculine people yelling at each other in gale-force winds, and it isn't really that at all. Sure, Ahab slopes about, being moody (this is Melville's favourite descriptive word; the phrase 'moody Ahab' appears so many times that you might conclude it was Ahab's given name), shaking his fist at the sky and screaming 'DAMN THAT WHITE WHALE!' or words to that effect, but the revenge plot only takes up about a quarter of the text. Moby Dick really is, to use Melville's own term, a book of cetology, a very charming pre-Darwinian attempt to understand the nature of the whale. Is it a fish? (Melville delightfully concludes that it is, because only a stupid person could possibly suggest that mammals might live in the sea) What does it eat? What shape is its face? (This is honestly a chapter) How do you kill one, and when you have, how do you cut it up? What does it taste like? How long does it live? What is its history and mythology and what will be its future?

Melville's cetology can be pretty much summed up as an elaborate How To guide to worshipping the sperm whale. To most of the characters in Kraken, Moby Dick would be read not as a novel but a holy book, part of the huge underground library the Kraken worshippers have filled with books about their deep-sea god. I'm really not going out on a limb here at all - at one point, the text actually calls Moby Dick a god, and it's pretty clear that the men in Moby Dick are out there killing whales not only because it brings them money to do it, but because they believe in what they're doing. You could make a definite argument for whale-slaughter-as-ritual-sacrifice, and if there isn't a Moby Dick as Old Testament God thing going on I'll eat my Oxford World's Classics edition.

The sea appears in both novels as an almost human (or more than human) presence - in Kraken it even has its own house next to the Thames. Kraken's Billy, just like Moby Dick's Ishmael, teams up with a big bruiser with a harpoon and both pairs of men go adventuring together in pursuit of the big prize god, who may or may not (no spoilers here) be the death of them. As I've said, there's a lot of other stuff going on in Kraken too that comes from different literary traditions, but on one level it absolutely has to be a very sharp and well-considered response to Moby Dick.

And much as I liked Moby Dick, it definitely needs responding to. Ishmael is an absolutely infuriating narrator who spends his entire time making clanky puns and being willfully obtuse for humorous effect: he's the kind of man who, if he met someone called Miss Fine, would say something like "In fine, it's a fine day to meet someone so fine, I find!" (This is partly why he does not have a lady friend waiting for him at home like all of the other sailors; it also may have something to do with how much he likes cuddling in bed with his friend Queequeg.)

Also, and more disturbingly, Melville himself is quite obviously racist in a way that's not just unthinking but disgustingly deliberate. There's a horrible scene where a white character unleashes a torrent of verbal abuse on one of the ship's black servants just because he exists and the white character feels like it, and at another point a different black character is told that if he falls into the sea while they're in pursuit of a whale he won't be saved, because the whale is worth three times his price in Alabama. Even the broadest allowances for time and culture don't exuse it, and I was left wishing I could unleash not only China Mieville but Toni Morrison upon him. Nasty man.

Talking about the Great American Novel, by the way, I cannot understand how anyone not completely insane could ever think it was a good idea to set Moby Dick as high school reading. Large parts of the text are plotless meditations on whales, their history, biology and mythology, and the parts that are actually about moody Ahab and his Great White Whale nemesis are so heavy with intense Biblical references that the average page needs to be glossed five times. Your typical teenage reader is going to have jumped ship by page twenty. Moby Dick is the kind of book you need to come to on your own, and read it because you want to. If you do that, it's a delightful Victorian curiosity cabinet of a novel with some startlingly good writing hiding inside it. There's a scene where Melville's describing the ship setting light to excess bits of whale as it sails along in the dark: the ship is burning and it's making the sea burn and the whole thing looks like it just got thrown up from hell. It's an absolutely great description, and, like his hilarious cetology, totally unexpected.

In fact, I'd have to say that I think Melville is the better writer of the two. Mieville has a cracker of a plot, and an exceptionally vivid writing style, but at the same time it feels a bit chaotic and unchained, all his mad descriptions and ideas pinwheeling about with not much focus. Melville handles delicate and serious just as well as he does crazy and bold, and as a result Moby Dick is less of an exhausting adrenalin rush and more of a stunning piece of artistry.

Both Kraken and Moby Dick are exciting and extremely fun - unexpectedly so in the case of Moby Dick. I'd certainly recommend them both, and I definitely enjoyed reading them, but even though I'd far and away prefer to hang out with Mieville the person, I think Moby Dick might just have the edge on its opponent in terms of sheer textual excellence.


RED: 4 stars
BLUE: 3.5 stars

AND SO RED WINS IT. I know, I was shocked too.

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