I can squeeze between buildings through spaces you can’t even see. I can walk behind you so close my breath raises gooseflesh on your neck and you won’t hear me. I can hear the muscles in your eyes contract when your pupils dilate. I can feed off your filth and live in your house and sleep under your bed and you will never know unless I want you to.
I would consider myself a fan of Mr Miéville’s writing, and so I strove to read his entire published canon of novels—and when I reached the last leaf of King Rat, I declare that mission accomplished. King Rat was his debut novel, one he penned when he was still a graduate student, so it is funny that it became the last one I read after all these years.
Lots of readers have compared this book to Mr Gaiman’s American Gods (noting amusedly that King Rat predated Gaiman’s opus by three years) but very few stressed how eerily alike the two novels are. There were moments when I read King Rat that made me feel that Mr Gaiman owes Mr Miéville royalty. Mr Miéville did not pioneer the retelling and reinvention of characters from myths and fables for contemporary fantasy—a primary conceit of both works—but some elements did make me raise my eyebrows like how the twists in both novels are identical in eerily specific ways. The appearance of Anansi, the trickster figure from West African mythos, in the shape of a black man in King Rat tied the two works even more closely. I don’t believe there is any act of plagiarism here at all. What I believe is that the same muse whispered in both authors’ ears while the stars aligned in some epochal formation not seen in centuries.
The other obvious comparison one can make of King Rat is to Neverwhere, another Gaiman book (though in this instance, Mr Gaiman stole a march on ol’ China by two years). Both novels take readers to an underground hidden magical London and place the main character in the company of an enigmatic figure of folkloric proportions: the Marquis de Carabas for Gaiman’s Richard Mayhew, and King Rat for Miéville’s Saul Garamond. One thing one will notice once one reads enough Miéville is that he loves cities and he loves imagining and reimagining them. His celebrated New Crobuzon books revolve around a city called, yes, New Crobuzon. In The City & the City, he doubled the fun by having two cities exist in a Kafkaesque superimposition. In fact, he loves dreaming up alternate Londons so much he would revisit the device again and again later in Un Lun Dun and Kraken.
King Rat tells the story of an unremarkable young man named Saul Garamond who went to sleep in the apartment of his emotionally dislocated father and woke up to discover that his old man had taken a quick trip from a window to the streets below. The cops arrested him as he was the only suspect. So yeah, it’s not a cheerful read. Mr Miéville’s stories rarely are.
A trap is only a trap if you don’t know about it. If you know about it, it’s a challenge.
King Rat, the novel, is a lot of things. I can describe the book as a paean to the power of music (and it wouldn’t even be inaccurate) but that is a cruel joke about what the book is really like. Even in his earliest novel, you can already see Mr Miéville’s twin authorial signatures: monsters and Marxism. When you pick up a Miéville book, you can always be assured that you will feel sickened and disgusted, like you are gulping lumpy mouthfuls of milk that had gone off, and you will get lectured on socialism. King Rat is also a love letter to Jungle music (a popular subgenre of electronica in 90’s UK), something which Miéville evangelised with the fervour and intensity that Murakami displays with jazz. What really caught me by surprise is that King Rat also has ambitions of being a dark and gritty rebootquel of the Pied Piper of Hamelin fable, with some truly inventive revisions thrown in. If there is a fault with this book, it is its handling of women. Scoring an F on the Bechdel test is the least of its problems. Every female character in it were brutalised, fridged, and damseled to feed the male characters’ drama and pathos.
In spite of that, King Rat is still a genuinely fascinating book. In fact, I consider it one of his better works, and well worth anyone’s time. Mr Miéville is one of those authors that absolutely sweats (sometimes undeserved) confidence out of his every piercing hole, but in King Rat, we get to see a side of him that is more grounded, more conventional, and more anxious to impress. And when I read its epilogue, I smiled broadly because of how cheesily Miévillian it was. No other author could have written that with a straight face, and it was glorious.