|Melville wins on beard|
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.
|But Mieville wins on sheer number of earrings|
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.
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.
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.