“‘It lives in the details,’ she said. ‘It travels in that…in that perception. It moves through those chance meetings of lines. Maybe you glimpse it sometimes when you stare at clouds, and then maybe it might catch a glimpse of you, too.'”
He may be best known as a novelist, but China Miéville’s short fiction is worthy of attention, too. Reading the stories collected in Looking for Jake, I feel as though I’ve gained a fresh understanding of his concerns as a writer. Miéville has often used the term “weird fiction” in conjunction with his work, and a good number of the tales here exhibit what is for me one of the key characteristics of that type of fiction – namely, the paranoid sense that the skin of reality is as thin as a soap bubble and that, if you’re not careful, you’ll discover what’s hiding beyond.
Take, for example, the story ‘Details’ (from which the quote at the head of this review is taken). As a boy, its narrator would go once a week to Mrs Miller’s house to take her the bowl of blancmange specially prepared by his mother. It turns out that Mrs Miller eats that for breakfast because it’s entirely smooth; she has seen something in the apparently-innocent everyday patterns of lines around the house, and that something looked back at her. Even memories or daydreams with patterns are not safe (“the thing’s waiting in the texture of my dress, or in the crumbs of my birthday cake”). Of course, it’s always possible that she’s delusional…isn’t it?
The paranoid uncertainty over the nature of reality is even more palpable in ‘Go Between’, where one Morley finds mysterious packages hidden in the items he buys from the supermarket, with instructions to send them on. What’s in these packages, what or whom they’re for, who sent them – and how they could know what he’d choose to buy – are all mysteries to Morley. One day, he comes across what will seemingly be the last of these packages, and starts to have doubts (did he make a mistake at some point? Might his actions even have inadvertently caused disaster or suffering?) and decides not to forward the parcel as instructed. Miéville brilliantly increases the tension of Morley’s conflicting thoughts as the protagonist watches terrible events unfold on the news – is this what happened because he didn’t send on the parcel, or just coincidence? – until the story ends in just the right place.
Though I wasn’t previously familiar with much of Miéville’s short fiction, I had read the story ‘An End To Hunger’ in a couple of anthologies; it’s interesting to read it again now in light of the other tales collected with it. Probably the least fantastical of all the stories in the book, ‘An End To Hunger’ is set in 1997, when its narrator meets Aykan, a “virtuoso of programming” who already views the internet as yesterday’s news. In time, Aykan becomes incensed by a click-to-donate website named An End To Hunger, whose methods he regards as corrupt; Aykan institutes a series of attacks against the site, until… Even though we’re not talking about somethings on the other side of reality in this case, the sense of secret forces at work in the world still prevails, and is brought into sharper relief by the context of publication.
As well as a writer of weird fiction, Miéville is, and always has been, a writer of the city; this latter is displayed in almost every piece in the book. ‘Reports of Certain Events in London’ is presented as a series of documents sent erroneously to the author; these describe a secret society’s investigations of ‘wild streets’, unpredictable thoroughfares which cannot be trusted to remain in the same place. Miéville’s approach to the story is effective in gradually unfurling the ramifications of its central idea, and the tale has the requisite frisson of uncertainty over whether what’s happening is real or all in the characters’ minds. The title story of Looking for Jake is another of the most strongly ‘urban’ pieces, this time describing a London which has been overrun by entropy, many of whose inhabitants have disappeared; this is one of those stories where it’s not so easy to pick out individual turns of phrase which are key in creating the atmosphere, but there’s nevertheless an accumulating sense of a washed-out, threateningly empty city.
Rounding out the collection are stories that show the variety of colours in Miéville’s palette. These range from ‘Familiar’, the tale of a monster grown from a gobbet of flesh, which has the kind of squelchily descriptive prose familiar from many of the author’s novels; to ‘The Ball Room’ (co-written with Emma Bircham and Max Schaefer), which lends a menacing aspect to a children’s play area with considerable economy. ‘Jack’, set in the same world as Miéville’s Bas-Lag novels, is the story of a semi-legendary freedom fighter/terrorist in the city of New Crobuzon – but, in typically tricksy fashion, we never see the man himself directly; and ‘‘Tis the Season’, in which Christmas itself has become licensed, showcases Miéville’s sharp sense of humour.
If you’ve never read China Miéville before, Looking for Jake represents a fine introduction to his work. If you only know him from his novels, this collection will show another side to this singular writer.