Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Review of Looking for Jake and Other Stories by China Mieville

Things have changed in the genre.  It used to be that writers cut their teeth and honed their style in the short fiction world of magazines and quarterlies, collections and anthologies, slowly climbing the ladder of success to novel-hood. But today, any writer with a good idea and manuscript in hand (and a little good luck) can get published.  Iain Banks, for example, has twenty-seven novels published, but only one short story collection.  China Mieville is another writer whose initial successes were novel- rather than short fiction-based.  It took seven years from the appearance of his first novel, 1998’s King Rat, to the time his first collection was published, 2005—and it remains his only collection published as of 2013.  Containing dark, occasionally artistic, often florid stories of horror, fantasy, and things marginally between, Looking for Jake and Other Stories is collection and is the subject of this review.  The following are short commentaries on the individual selections:

“Looking for Jake” is Mieville’s second-ever published work.  Epistolary in form and edgily atmospheric in tone, the narrator describes London after a strange apocalypse.  Monsters and other horrors forever hovering at the edges of empty streets and macabre scenes, Mieville is obviously attempting a moody, artistic piece regarding the evolution of society.  Lexically exuberant to say the least (very similar to Perdido Street Station in style), it’s a story to ruminate upon, nothing clear-cut, and one of the best in the collection.  

An allusive story of a Gulf War veteran, “Foundation” finds Mieville choosing sides politically—something his novels have difficulty doing.  A short but solid piece that uses metaphor nicely.

A joint effort with Emma Bircham and Max Schaefer, “The Ball Room” is the most straight-forward horror story of the collection.  Narrated by a security guard at a ready-to-assemble furniture store, he describes the mysterious occurrences in the ball room of the children’s playroom at the store.  

A piece of meta-fiction, Mieville himself reviews meeting minutes for a political club he belongs to in “Reports of Certain Events in London”. Slightly pretentious, Mieville’s relationship with London is nevertheless artfully expressed via the minutes.  The evolution of the city described via the strange behavior of the roads, it too is one of the best pieces in the collection.  

Obviously an experimental work, “Familiar” is the story of a witch who accidentally creates a familiar he’s unable to dispose of.  A distant echo of Frankenstein, Mieville’s story is florid grotesqueness that contains the overwrought verbosity of Perdido Street Station style-wise, and is Evil Dead in content.  Those who like a dense effusion of descriptions in a tale of the macabre will enjoy this short.  See the following: “The familiar could not retreat, even bleeding with arms, legs gone, with eyes crushed and leaking, and something three times its size opening mouths, and shears, and raising flukes that were shovels. The intoxicant reek of a competitor’s musk forced it to fight… Behind it, the familiar was motionless.  It made tools of shadows and silence, keeping dark and quiet stitched to it as the giant tracked its false trail.  The little familiar sent fibres into the ground, to pipework inches below.  It connected to the plastic with tentacles quickly as thick as viscera…”)

Weird for weird’s sake, “Entry Taken From A Medical Encyclopaedia” is Mieville’s entry in Jeff Vandermeer’s even weirder Thackeray T. Lambshead’s Pocket Guide to Eccentric and Discredited Diseases.  In the time honored tradition of Alice in Wonderland, it is delightful nonsense.

Another horror story, “Details” is about a young boy tasked with taking care of an old woman.  Its influences classical, those who enjoy H.P. Lovecraft will probably enjoy this coming-of age via the strangely unexplainable.

Borrowing the premise of Bruce Sterlings “Maneki Neko”, “Go Between” is the story of a man who receives mysterious secret messages.  Out of curiosity, he follows the instructions contained within and brings objects to the locations designated.  All goes well until he begins noticing strange things happening at these locations, and decides to dig a little deeper.  The story escalates nicely, but seems to serve no purpose beyond the story.

Another epistolary, “Different Skies” is the story of a hopeful elderly man who buys a new stained glass window.  Thinking his view upon the world will improve, when a group of young boys start to taunt and harass him, his optimism takes a hit, however.  Not a memorable story, but another nice use of metaphor.

In “An End to Hunger”, a brilliant computer junkie takes on a website he believes offensive.  The fight will test his skills and willpower in this inconsequential story of angst and paranoia.

“'Tis the Season” – A one-off that takes the commercialism of Christmas to new heights.  Good for a smile, but nothing more.

The only story in the collection that returns to Bas-Lag, “Jack” is the memoirs of an inmate who knew the mysterious one-armed Robin Hood from Perdido Street Station named Jack-Half-a-Prayer.  Feeling like material from the cutting room floor, those craving more from New Crobuzon will probably be disappointed by this spurious bit of material.  

As I listened to the collection on audio book instead of reading the graphic story, I cannot comment “On the Way to the Front”.

Saving the best for last, The Tain is also the longest piece in the collection.  Set in a bleak, post-apocalyptic London, the narrative switches back and forth between a loner named Sholl and an imago.  Brought into our world against their will through mirrors, imagos are creatures who resemble humans but do not consider themselves any part of our existence.  Dangerous to humans, Sholl attempts to discover why they leave him alone, and in fact, intentionally avoid him.  What he finds is not what he—or the reader—expects. 

A philosophically artistic piece, The Tain features Mieville tackling the challenge of writing an atmospheric narrative a la Mervyn Peake yet in the surreal, thought-provoking vein of Jorge Luis Borges.  In many ways a precursor to The City & the City, the dichotomy of human/imago is developed and examined in such a fashion that the reader is forced to look at both sides of perception.  Though the language is sometimes cumbersome, Mieville successfully creates a realistic vision of a London in ruin and sympathy for both Sholl and the imago as they try to come to terms with the situation they are in, the meaning behind it, and how to move on.

In the end, Looking for Jake and Other Stories is a dark, brooding, and ultimately an uneven collection given the variation of quality and sense of purpose to the pieces.  Almost entirely urban fantasy and horror, a couple of the pieces feel more like experimentation in style rather than serious efforts, while others are run of the mill genre work.  The one ‘story’ set in New Crobuzon will probably disappoint those looking for fresh material from Bas-Lag.  (“Familiar”, in fact, has a stronger Bas-Lag feel.)  A few pieces, however, are of standout quality, namely the title story, “Reports of Certain Events in London”, and The Tain.   Caveat: given the genre versatility of Mieville’s oeuvre, which stories the reader will enjoy depends on what expectations they bring to the table, killjoy fans impossible to dissatisfy.

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