Collage: (n) various materials are arranged and glued to a backing; a collection of unrelated things.
Compose: (v) Construct or create, especially a work of art of music.
Composite: (adj) made up of various parts, blended, made up of recognizable constituents
Scavenge: (v) search for and collect (discarded items); remove unwanted products from; to feed on carrion or refuse.
China Mieville is the king of collage. He doesn’t cut out pictures and glue them on paper. His layered images are verbal.
All fiction writers are collage artists. We scavenge, borrow and steal things we see or hear, overhear, or that people tell us. We weave clothes, cars, license plates, and snatches of conversation into our stories. We co-opt our neighbors’ pets, children, bad boyfriends and zany relatives. Our collaged notions coalesce, we hope, into a believable reality-quilt strong enough to support our story.. Because Mieville writes fantasy, his collages are more textured and more direct.
In Perdido Street Station, Lin, the main character’s artist lover, has the body of a human woman and a scarab beetle’s body for a head. The city of New Crubozon, where Perdido Street Station takes place, is filled with horrific living collages; humans with machine parts, animal parts or additional human appendages magically grafted onto their bodies. They are called the Remade. The other races that inhabit New Crubozon, such as the Khepri (Lin is a Khepri) and the Garuda, are hybrids of humans and birds, insects or animals.
But before New Crubozon there was London, and before Perdido Street Station there was King Rat.
King Rat is Mieville’s first published novel. It came out in 1998, a horror story set in late 1990’s London. Saul Garamond, a disaffected twenty-something, is arrested for the murder of his father, but then a strange man. . .creature?. . . breaks him out of jail. That creature is King Rat, a rat in human form, who tells Saul that Saul himself is half-rat, and that they must work together to defeat a deadly enemy.
The rest of the book leads Saul and the reader through the darkened corners and scrap heaps of London, through the sewers of course, through curls of landscape. While Saul is learning the secrets of rat existence; his human friends who, like him, live on the fringes of society, are making their own collages. Fabian, a visual artist, is at work on an actual collage. Natasha, a DJ who composes jungle style drum and bass music, layering “found sound” (radio static, human voices) over an imperative bassline, meets a disturbing yet appealing flute player. The flute player is The Piper, King Rat’s hereditary enemy.
Natasha refers to her scavenged sounds as road kill. Here’s her process:
“Her eyes were wide as she scanned her kills, her pickled sounds, and found what she wanted: a snatch of trumpet from Linten Kwese Johnson, a wail from Tony Rebel, a cry of invitation from Al Green. . .she dropped them into her tune. (Mieville, p 58)”
Rats are scavengers, and King Rat teaches Saul how to scavenge for food. Later the reader realizes that King Rat is scavenging for advantage, for power.
While not a physical composite, King Rat comprises the characteristics of rats and humans. As a human he is shrewd, venial, cockney; as a rat he is strong, agile, cunning and completely survival driven. He never actually transforms into a rat; instead he accomplishes things only a rat could do. Soon Saul meets two other “King Animals,” Anansi the Spider King and Loplop the Bird Superior. Anansi and Loplop have also been defeated by the Piper and seek revenge.
Natasha, meanwhile, under the Piper’s thrall, is hard at work on her masterpiece, a composition titled Wind City. “Because it was a city, Natasha saw as she listened. She sped through the air at a huge speed between vast and crumbling buildings, everything gray, towering and enormous and flattened, variegated and empty, unclaimed. Natasha painted this picture carefully, took a long time creating it, dripping a hundred hints of humanity into the tracks, hints that could not be delivered, dead ends, disappointments.
“. . .This was Wind City, a huge metropolis, deserted and broken, alone, entropic, until a tsunami of air breaks over it, a tornado of flute clears its streets, mocks the pathetic remnants of humanity in its path and blows them away like tumbleweed, the city stands alone and cleared of all its rubbish. Even the ghost of the radio proclaims the passing of the people, a flat expanse of empty sound. The boulevards and parks and suburbs and center of the city were taken, expropriated, possessed by the wind. (Mieville, p210)”
If Meiville likes sticking diverse things together, he also likes tearing things apart. After the Piper tortures and kills one of Saul’s friends, a police inspector visits the crime scene:
“There was no escaping this crime; it lay all around him, on the platform, spattering the walls, carbonized on the live rail, smeared by gravity the length of the first car. It was as if the metal stakes and the bloodied stubs of ropes, the ruined flesh had been conjured up spontaneously out of the dark tunnels.” (KR, p 151)
Scraps of sounds, scraps of flesh, scraps of food, scraps of truth. . . these are Saul’s compass points as a rat. In his nocturnal trips through the city, he finds scraps of art; posters for music gigs, graffiti high on the walls, and when he returns to his father’s flat he finds another scrap of truth, literally a scrapbook, his human father’s journal.
Saul’s experience of his city is a composite.
“This point of view was dangerous for the observer, as well as for the city. It was only when it was seen from these angles that he could believe London had been built, brick by brick, not born out of its own mind. (Mieville, 257)”
Despite the darkness, the filth, the rot, the grime and decay, despite the persistent hopelessness expressed throughout King Rat, it reminds me of Neil Gaiman, specifically Neverwhere. While Neverwhere is sweeter than King Rat, it too conjures an eerie magical London crouching in the corners and crevices of the modern-day city. Gaiman’s London grew organically and there is a suggestion that somehow, London Below is even older than the everyday city. Mieville’s London is decoupaged, a multi-layered piece of 2,000-year-old communal art. Saul scurries through the joins in the artwork, surfacing to the world of human London only briefly, noting snippets of scenery or human landmarks. In Gaiman’s epic Sandman, the character of Lyta embarks on a vision-quest for her lost son Daniel. She traverses a landscape that resembles both the kingdom of dreams and the slums and alleys of her home city, not unlike Saul’s trek through London’s shadows.
Perhaps King Rat’s occasional similarity to a graphic novel is not a coincidence.
“King Rat grasped his small perch with his right hand. He crouched, his left arm dangling between his legs, his head lowered toward his knees. Seeing him, Saul thought of a comic-book hero: Batman or Daredevil. Silhouetted in the ruined window, King Rat looked like a scene-setting frame at the start of a graphic novel. (Mieville, p258)”
Neither Batman nor Daredevil, who both had murdered fathers, is a random choice here.
Because the plot of King Rat is relatively straightforward, and the book is pretty short, Mieville doesn’t really get to open up the throttle on his fantastical hybrid images. Even his prose isn’t quite where it will be in Station, when his extreme vocabulary will add to the feeling of foreignness, when his modifiers will stack up on the page like Victorian knick-knacks, adding texture to the text. In King Rat, the modifiers seem flabby. The Piper’s voice is “suddenly vicious;” in a crime scene where a homeless woman lies murdered, the floor is “vile with blood.” While he paints exquisite visual pictures, Mieville doesn’t give us much of the other senses, even, surprisingly, smell. We see, not hear, Natasha’s music (her eyes are “wide”). The book is filled with rats and we see them but never feel them, not even when they cuddle up against Saul, not when he is forced to step on their dancing bodies to reach and disable a boom-box, freeing them from the Piper’s poison music. In the climactic final scene, King Rat’s feet are “ponderous and enthusiastic.”
These are small flaws. Perfectionists may scowl at the collage and say they can see the seams, but the meta-image heralds the arrival of a new, strange and wonderful story-teller.