Looking For Jake: Stories by China Miéville

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Image"Looking for Jake"
"The Ball Room"
"Reports of Certain Events in London"
"Entry Taken From a Medical encyclopedia"
"Go Between"
"Different Skies"
"An End to Hunger"
"’Tis the Season"
"The Tain"
With the release of his first short story collection, China Miéville cements his work alongside the genre greats, stretching his skills beyond his successful novels and revealing the true scope of his talent. His unique short stories transform the ordinary into spectacular metaphors of the fantastic in a similar vein to Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Looking For Jake opens with the title story of the same name in which the first-person protagonist searches an apocalyptic London for his missing friend, Jake. This at first sounds like a rather stereotypical genre motif, however, Miéville characterizes his apocalypse in a very unique way, never sharing an explanation of the events, nor relying on fire and brimstone descriptions. The typical concerns of death, destruction, and blame that most genre authors would concentrate on are relegated to the periphery, while the protagonist’s loneliness and the uneasiness permeating the barren streets act as the story’s focal points.

This is the way the world ends, you said.

Not with a bang, I continued, but with a…

We thought.

…with a long-drawn-out-breath? you suggested.

Allusions to literary works and mythology such as T.S. Eliot’s "The Hollow Men" and the Orpheus Myth amplify the mood of the piece, borrowing for both theme and tone. The creepy atmosphere is reminiscent in many ways of Stephen King’s dying western town in The Gunslinger. It accomplishes everything a good horror story should.

The next story, "Foundation," twists the well-known idea of Dr. Doolittle; however, instead of speaking to animals, Miéville presents a tormented character who can speak to walls, beams, and cement.

As the story delves into how the protagonist received this gift, the reader soon comes to realize it’s actually a curse. The author uses real-life events reported in The Guardian as a source of inspiration—an article about how a bunch of Iraqis were buried alive by U.S. marines. It would be a mistake to claim that Miéville is only using this story to support some leftist agenda. The theme is more ambiguous than that; a reader who pays close attention to the story details will receive a pay-off in the form of a true meditation on the inevitability of death, and how sometimes the innocent suffer unfairly.

"The Ball Room" co-written with Emma Bircham and Max Schaefer is about a haunted ball pit in a furniture store. The authors pick a security guard to narrate the story, who spends more time thinking about the store dynamics and his own life than on the haunted ball pit itself. Much of the narrative is internalized, and some details such as a scene with the protagonist’s girlfriend in the middle of the story seem ponderous and confusing.

Although the protagonist reveals himself to be unreliable and not beyond lying to us, the authors never present him as unlikable. Quite the contrary. He seems like a very amiable guy. This characterization and the previously mentioned scene complicates a rather stylistically simple story. The key to understanding these disparate elements then is realizing the protagonist keeps details back and doesn’t tell us everything. For this reason a reader might have trouble making sense of the story’s themes.

It all adds up to a subtle commentary on the illusions of happiness, particularly in a capitalist society. You don’t get to be a child and play in the ball pit forever. But when you think about it after growing up, the ball pit really wasn’t that much fun to begin with (it’s just a bunch of stupid colorful balls). This acts as the core metaphor gluing all the elements of the story together.

"Reports of Certain Events in London" presents a metafiction in which the author, China Miéville, serves as the story’s main character. In the story, Miéville receives a wrongly addressed envelope that discloses a vast conspiracy of ancient streets that appear and disappear at random. The narrative consists mostly of pieced together fragments of old letters, academic papers, and other miscellanea found in the envelope.

At first glance, it seems that Miéville’s character has nothing to do with the events of the story, that he is a hapless outsider who only observes, organizes, and presents the contents of the envelope for the reader. Some readers might find this particular character choice a dishonest technique to give the illusion of stylistic uniqueness, while not really writing to the needs of the story. However, as the story progresses, it becomes clear why Miéville is the main character. The point of the story is that there are no outsiders to great world events, even the ones that happen in secret. The little guy is always a part of the situation whether they realize it or not.

"Familiar" uses the most traditional fantasy concept in the collection, that of a witch’s familiar, but the author uses all his skills to twist it beyond recognition. After the witch abandons her familiar, which she engendered from her own flesh, it must try to survive by itself on the cold city streets. For what the plot lacks in originality, following a run-of-the-mill movie plot about a dog abandoned by its master, which now has to survive in the wild, it makes up with healthy doses of visceral descriptions.

"Entry Taken From a Medical Encyclopedia," originally titled "Buscard’s Murrain" in its original anthology appearance, mimics the style of a medical encyclopedia entry. Buscard’s Murrain is a parasitic disease that causes you to say the word "wormwood" constantly. If someone in an audience accidentally repeats the word, they, too, will catch the disease. The format is as follows: the disease’s name, country of origin, first known case, symptoms, history, and cures. Such a style might lend itself more naturally to a vignette, but the author impressively uses the confines of the structure to produce an actual story. It is fascinating to learn about the mysteries and intricacies of the disease as you follow it through history.

"Details" draws loosely from the Cthulhu Mythos in a story about an old woman who finds the horrible truth of the universe located in the cracks of a building. The idea of being punished for noticing too many details is ironic given the current world’s lack of attention span thanks to the ubiquitous presence of electronic media. Thematically, the story sticks to established Lovecraftian themes of a cold-hearted universe and the ambiguity of good and evil. However, the choice to ignore any rigid guidelines of the mythos and keep the story only tangentially related proves a sagacious one as this inclusion might appeal to those turned off by alien squids and faux-Victorian prose.

The protagonist of "Go Between" bears a sacred duty to follow the instructions and deliver the metal containers that he finds in the everyday objects he purchases. This story transforms into the ultimate conspiracy theory as the protagonist battles between constant paranoia and illusions of grandeur. The two sides of human nature fighting for dominance proves the capacity of the human mind to rationalize its role in both tragedy and heroic acts. There is a very human quality to this story.

The old man of "Different Skies" ponders the meaning of his continued existence after he purchases a cursed window. On the other side of the window, a phantom gang of teenagers harass and threaten him. The writing captures the ferocious capacity of the youth with almost the same accuracy as it does the frailty and loneliness of the elderly. By the end, you’ll be looking out your window and wondering if the hooligans are outside, which once again attests to Miéville’s strength as a horror writer. It reminded me a lot of Harlan Ellison’s "The Paladin of the Lost Hour" in the way it got me thinking about my perceptions of the Elderly and the cruelty they sometimes suffer.

"An End to Hunger" is about a computer hacker who messes with a charity organization’s website, forcing big corporations to pay large amounts of money to starving children. The author tackles a very controversial topic, transforming a corporate charity into the villain and a hacker involved in illegal activity into a hero, thus forcing us to reevaluate our own moral systems of right and wrong. Like the viewpoint character watching the story as it unfolds, it is impossible not to feel a tad uncomfortable while reading this story. The narrator is a bit of a cipher, pushed around and made anxious by the legitimate claims of both sides (perhaps symbolic for our own teetering ethical resolve). Though, Miéville shows his political leanings more than usual in the story, especially in the way it concludes, it is still worth the read.

"‘Tis the Season" is a heavy-handed socialist romp about protesters illegally caroling on the streets in a society where corporations have trademarked Christmas and its associated traditions (i.e. mistletoe, Eggnog, Santa Claus). The light tone of the prose and comical moments act as a saving grace to smooth out the rough patches of heavy political ideology. How can you not laugh at lines such as: "I’m dreaming of a red Christmas" sung by Marxist carolers, or when the Gay Men’s Radical Singing Caucus chants: "We’re here, We’re choir! Get used to it!" However, the story captures the spirit of Christmas more than it captures the spirit of Karl Marx.

"Jack" brings us back to the world of New Crobuzon from Perdido Street Station, and tells the story of Jack Half-a-Prayer, a Remade Robin Hood. A lot of fun to read, but nothing special. I suspect this story will be better appreciated by those who have experienced the novels first and possess familiarity with the characters and world.

The masterpiece of the collection, "The Tain," finds the protagonist, Sholl, as an unlikely savior in a post-apocalyptic London overrun by sentient reflections called the Imago. They have broken free from the mirrors that once imprisoned them, and now seek revenge on their captors. Miéville pays homage to Jorge Luis Borges in this dark novella, borrowing from him for inspiration, and also imbuing his Imago with qualities of the vampire—creating new myths within the story and also suggesting these creatures are the origins of the myths, a sort of metafictional game in tune with the motifs of mirrors and reflections. The unique point-of-view switches every scene between a third-person human protagonist to a first-person Imago, creating a kind of mirror effect that fits the content of the story nicely.
Publisher: Del Rey (Aug. 2005)
Price: $10.74
Paperback: 320 pages
ISBN: 0345476077