Looking for Jake, China Miéville

Del Rey, 2005, 303 pages, C$21.00 tpb, ISBN 0-345-47607-7

After the highly atypical success of Perdido Street Station and the two subsequent “Bas-Lag” novels, China Miéville now has a short-story collection on the shelves: Looking for Jake. Unlike other authors with drawers full of short fiction, this collection took a fair time to assemble because of the scarcity of material to reprint: Miéville is a long-distance writer, and his predilection for writing long means that his short-story output has been comparatively slight, and late in coming: Of the 14 stories in Looking for Jake, only two date from before Perdido Street Station. This anthology will allow readers to answer an interesting question: We know that Miéville can write novels, but is he as good with his short stories?

At first, the answer is reassuring. Cherry-picking the collection for its best material, one quickly settle on a few noteworthy short stories. “Reports of Certain Events in London” is a natural choice, given how it was nominated for a 2005 World Fantasy Award. Much like most of the other tales in the volume, it features unusual storytelling (a writer named “China Miéville” telling us about a package mistakenly received) and an original idea (migratory street-fighting!). “Foundations” tells us about buildings thirsting for sacrifice, with a political twist. “Go Between” is about a man asked to bring things (discovered in the strangest yet most ordinary locations) to other places, with no idea what or who he’s working for and even less of an idea if his work (or refusal to work) is doing anything at all; a fine tale well-told. “The Ball Room” packs a mean chill as a horror story told from within an IKEA-like store, though you’ll have to squint at the table of contents to discover that it was co-written with Emma Bircham and Max Schaefer.

Clearly, Looking for Jake shows that Miéville, for all of his critical acclaim, remains a horror storyteller first and foremost. “The Tain” and the title story may be exquisitely written, but they remain post-apocalyptic stories with mean beasties lurking in the background. (In “The Tain”, as the title suggests, mirror reflexions take over “our world”. The scene revealing the idea is deliciously shocking.) I may not have cared too much for “Familiar”, but it features plenty of gruesome and grotesque content. Miéville even allows himself some faint Lovecraftian overtones of someone who has clearly Seen Too Much in “Details”. Unwelcome vision also plays a part in “Different Skies”, which brings to mind a riff on the classic “Slow Glass” concept.

But there isn’t just horror in Looking for Jake: Miéville is a funny fellow in conversation, and so a few humorous stories pepper the anthology. The most obvious of them is “’tis the Season”, a holiday tale (first published in no less a venue than Socialist Review) set in a future where Christmas™ is only available to those with the means to license it. “Entry Taken From a Medical Encyclopedia” re-prints Miéville contribution to the Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric & Discredited Diseases: It’s impossible to summarize, but it’s both spooky and hilarious. “Jack” may not be a funny story, but it’s a fine nod toward fans of the Bas-Lag universe, with a twist. “An End to Hunger” is a dot-com tale halfway between humour and horror, though its overall impact is muted.

Not that it’s the only misfire in the collection. Tastes will differ, but I myself couldn’t make myself care for “Familiar”, “Details” nor “Different Skies.” I still can’t make much sense of “On the Way to the Front”, a short graphic short story (with illustrations by Liam Sharp) that’s heavy on mood but light on meaning. In the same vein, a number of stories bury their central idea in too much distraction, with “The Tain” being perhaps the most obvious example.

On the other hand, “The Tain” is the story with the best characterization, which is no accident given how it’s three times as long as the other stories. Miéville’s talent for well-written invention shines through his short stories, but it’s obvious that he needs the space offered by a novel to develop his visions. Still, Looking for Jake offers plenty of thrills for Miéville fans, and plenty of chills for all readers. In fact, it’s a decent introduction to his work for harried readers without the time to read any of his massive novels. The writing is good (if not exactly tight) and the ideas are there. It’ll probably take five years before Miéville writes enough short stories to fill another collection, but Looking for Jake will do until then.

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