Looking for Jake

When you first open this book, you quickly discover one thing. Something has happened: something not good. The narrator of the first story lost Jake about nine months ago, but doesn’t remember how. It happened after the city changed; after the urban monotony became “charged desolation” (p.7), after the shadows filled with horrors and the phone lines filled with static, after the coming of “the things that flap.” (p.9) But the details are lost. It seems only fitting. It has been, after all, “a very inexact apocalypse.” (p.11) By the time the narrator decides to end the story (he is writing it as a letter, and posts it before embarking on the journey he hopes will lead him to Jake) he has not been able to pin down for us exactly what has happened or why, but we have been put thoroughly ill at ease. This London is sick, and the sickness seems bleakly inevitable; seems to have been just waiting to happen. Or perhaps the city is transforming, into something “hungry like a newborn” (p.17), and its inhabitants are just having to ride out the pangs. Something has happened; something is happening, and the narrator’s lonely letter is all that exists to mark it.

All things considered, such a messily ambiguous thinning does not make a bad orientation package for what comes next. “Looking for Jake” was published in 1998, making it the oldest story in Looking for Jake (of the other thirteen, which I think represent the entirety of China Mieville’s short fiction output, only two were published before 2002), but it is the most typical story in a collection with a wider range than you might expect from Mieville’s reputation and novels. It is also one of the best. It starts things off well. After reading it, the most sensible thing to do is to continue on; Looking for Jake is a cannily-sequenced book, and most satisfying when read in order. To get at the bones of the book, however, the most useful thing to do is to skip to the story Mieville published next.

“Different Skies” (1999) is in some ways similar to “Looking for Jake.” In “Different Skies,” however, the weirdness is much more localized. It’s the story of a lonely old man who buys an antique stained-glass window, and finds that on the other side of it is another city. (And, yes, another sky. Mieville’s titles tend to be literal, although not always in the sense that you expect. It is one of the ways in which he disguises the truth of his stories.) But both tales use a structural device—a letter in the first story, a diary in the second—to present a first-person narrative in such a way as to maintain ambiguity about the fate of its narrator. Both question the nature of the story they are telling—the narrator of “Jake” wonders how to relate the incredible, while the narrator of “Different Skies” hopes his story is not a “banal morality tale” (p.162)—and both climax with their protagonists planning to cross a threshold into the unknown. Second time around the execution is perhaps a little less sure, but what’s most striking about the two stories is how they highlight an interest in alienation from contemporary landscapes. And this isn’t something that got shouldered aside once Bas-Lag came along: new story “Go Between,” for instance, is brilliantly unsettling in its depiction of a man who receives cryptic instructions from an unknown source at random intervals. The psychological unravelling of the narrator, as he oscillates between pride at being chosen and fear at what he might be a part of, is expertly handled; it could be called Kafkaesque if it was not so solidly tied to contemporary international politics. Even the (perhaps inevitable) Cthulhu-mythos tale “Details” (2002) is light on the squamous and rugose, focusing instead on the grimy reality of everyday life. The Lovecraftian sense of the truth of the world as debilitating is present and correct, but is somehow subsumed into the reality of an old woman in a run-down apartment building who appears to see a literal devil in the details of things.

The third and last of what might be called the early stories is “An End to Hunger” (2000). Like “Different Skies,” it has rough edges; the plot, which concerns a genius marxist/anarchist who seems to have hacked the protocols underlying the world wide web, is fairly cursory; Aykan’s vendetta against An End To Hunger (a transparent stand-in for the real-world click-to-donate outfit The Hunger Site), while entertaining, never really hits the right satiric register. It’s notable, though, as the first of the overtly political stories. “Tis the Season” (2004), which when the book is read sequentially is the next story, is clearly the work of a much more confident writer: here the satire is shamelessly exuberant, centering around a father’s attempts to give his daughter a genuine YuleCo. Christmas(tm), and not just a generic MidWinter Event. The climactic set-piece, in which the two are caught up in a Christmas Day riot in Central London, protesting against the privatization of the season, is a joy. How many other stories can you name, after all, in which the day is saved by the Gay Men’s Radical Singing Caucus? And it makes the shift into New Crobuzon for the next story, “Jack” (2005), that much more effective. New Crobuzon, of course, is custom-built to make place and politics inseparable, and “Jack”—which relates the story of Jack Half-a-Prayer, the nearest thing that city has had to a Robin Hood—is an unarguably political story. But as with many of Mieville’s later stories, the politics are the bones of the tale, not the flesh. The narrator admires Jack, or maybe what Jack stood for or what he achieved, but is unable to say so publicly; he has to maintain a separation between his personal life and his political life. Like and unlike the go-between, his sense of being connected allows him to value himself, but he knows where he stands, which side he’s on. I said that “Looking for Jake” emerged from the book as the most typical China Mieville story; “Jack” is what I expected a typical China Mieville story to be when I started. It is swaddled in rumour and hearsay, and couched in a rough, forcefully baroque argot.

A similar intensity marks two of the best stories, “Familiar” (2002) and “Foundation” (2004), although both take place in our world. The former, first published in the New Wave Fabulists issue of Conjunctions, seems almost to be an experiment in how descriptively dense a story can be without imploding. The plot is schematic in its simplicity—witch creates familiar from his own flesh; witch is creeped out by familiar but can’t kill it so dumps it in the river; familiar grows; familiar and witch have a showdown—and the strength of the story resides entirely in the presentation of the familiar. “Its power was change,” we are told, with “no way of knowing except to put to use.” (p.86) And it uses everything:

When the familiar emerged from the water with the dawn, it was poured into a milk-bottle carapace. Its clutch of eyes poked from the bottleneck. It nibbled with a nail clipper. With precise little bullets of stone it had punctured holes in its glass sides, from which legs of waterlogged twig-wood and broken pens emerged. To stop it sinking into wet earth its feet were coins and flat stones. (p.87)

It learns well; it learns London. It becomes, in fact (in a nice moment of dark humour) a Londoner—as much a native of its city as the narrators of “Looking for Jake” or “Jack” are natives of theirs. It’s impossible not to notice, in fact, that most of the stories that evoke a strong sense of place do so by associating an urban environment with life, or death. In “Foundation”, a modern city has been built on a mass grave, and the protagonist is vividly haunted by the dead. Mieville points out in the acknowledgements that in the past the US army has actually buried Iraqi soldiers alive, and that it is such an act that gives the story its bones and marrow. But although that truth can be excavated from the text with a little work, it too is buried; rightly, I think, both symbolically and because it allows the story to stand alone. “Foundation” works as a demonstration of the moral power horror can achieve: it is possible to read it as the delusional experience of a man complicit in a terrible crime, but it is more powerful to read it as truly fantastic. To do so gives the dead a voice. More literal still, however, in its conflation of city and life, is “Reports of Certain Events in London” (2004). Like “Foundation”, and “Familiar”, and a number of other stories in the book, there is in some senses relatively little substance to the tale; it is entirely about decryption, trying to work out from a succession of found documents exactly what has happened, or is happening. To say that it’s a story about feral streets, and a Brotherhood that tracks their appearance and disappearances across London, is to describe both its premise and almost all of its revelations. Mieville’s narrative sleight-of-hand, however, entraps the reader even on a second or third reading; carelessly bland phrases like “certain events took place” gain a thrillingly cold edge.

The last story in the book is the longest, and embodies the virtues of many of the others—it is, for example, an interesting counterpoint to “Looking for Jake.” “The Tain” (2002) is the story of another London apocalypse, but this time the monsters are fully on-screen. This time London is again diminished, emptied of people but filled with its feral conquerors. It is, even more than the rest of the collection, a strikingly visual story. Look, for instance, at the opening paragraph:

The light was hard. It seemed to flatten the walls of London, to push down onto the pavement with real weight. It was oppressive: it scoured colours of depth. (p.229)

To me, this and later descriptions, such as the Thames “matte as dried ink, overlaid on a cutout of London” (p.231), recall nothing so much as the grainy, washed-out style of Danny Boyle’s 2002 film 28 Days Later (and of course both “The Tain” and that film echo John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids (1951), although Mieville’s story also references more gung-ho scenarios such as 1981’s Mad Max 2). The enemies here are not zombies, however, they are a kind of vampire: our reflections, having broken through from the realm beyond mirrors, furious from our millennial humiliation of them, shackling them into our “meat vulgarity.” (p.242) This is not the simple portal of “Different Skies,” but something more strange. These creatures are the fauna of mirrors—the debt to Borges is acknowledged—and they don’t just spill through as whole people: everything that has ever been reflected has been trapped.

Pouting lips fly like butterflies, eyes blink in and out of existence, and manicured hands crawl like rats. Where in “Looking for Jake” the unease came from what was unsaid, here, as in “Familiar,” it appears to be generated by what is on the page. And yet, it is not the narrative that cuts to the bone; it is its implications. The two characters—Sholl, one of those who survived the invasion, and a nameless vampire (or imago) who encounters him in a Tube station—do not follow the paths laid out for them by the story. Sholl’s shotgun-wielding search for the general of the imagos has a logical goal, not an unattainable one; and our imagos’s most profound wish is to escape. Wyndham is revealed as only a starting point (although a particularly apt one), and the vivid menagerie as a diversion, because as in “Foundation” our attention is ultimately drawn to our existence as a privileged enclave: to the peoples on which our civilization is built, and to what they might think of us, if they ever got the chance to break into our lives. It is a point made with superb grace, by a writer who understands how to wield the fantastic both for its own sake, and for ours. “The Tain” knits together Looking for Jake and ensures that at its end, the book leaves us with a thought worse but more important than the one it greeted us with: something has happened, and we haven’t even noticed.

This review first appeared in the Readercon 17 Souvenir Book.

6 thoughts on “Looking for Jake

  1. Interesting. I found it to be a rather disappointing collection, but I think I was hoping for short stories a la the Bas Lag novels, which I most certainly didn’t get.

    He came across as more of a horror writer, which is a genre I’m not greatly familiar with, and hence I may have failed to appreciate the finer aspects of these tales. The Borges-esque parts were fun, but overall it was like reading a very bitter and twisted Jeff Noon, but set in a monochrome London instead of a technicolour Manchester. I was looking for obvious thrills, and I must have skipped the subtleties in the process.

    I may have to give it a second chance, should a reading window open up…so, any time in the next ten years, then! ;)

  2. Ah, see, the only novel I’ve read by Mieville is Iron Council (heretical, I know), and I thought it was only ok (doubly heretical), so I didn’t have any particular expectations about what was going to be in Looking for Jake. Mostly, I think it’s an interesting portrait of a developing writer, as first collections are wont to be. I do also think some of the stories–“The Tain” and “Familiar” in particular–are special, but equally there are a few duds (there’s a reason I didn’t mention, say, “The Ball Room”, although Carl Freedman, in his review for Foundation, thought that was one of the highlights).

  3. I had kind of the opposite experience to Armchair Anarchist because the first Mieville I read was the New Wave Fabulists story. Needless to say I found Perdido Street Station a bit of a change. I’ve not read any of his other short fiction but that story struck me as being rather better any of his Bas Lag novels.

    Oh yeah, and there is nothing heretical about think Iron Council is okay (at best.)

  4. Martin, as it turns out that last point somewhat depends on whether or not you’re Carl Freedman. from his review of Looking for Jake in Foundation 97:

    The current volume is not his first book, but (even leaving The Tain out of this count) his sixth. It is preceded by King Rat (1998), one of the most accomplished first novels in recent memory; by Between Equal Rights: A Marxist Theory of International Law (2005), a scholarly work of profound erudition and theoretical rigour; and, in between, by what is surely his most important achievement to date, namely the three thick volumes of the Bas-Lag trilogy — Perdido Street Station (2000), still probably Mieville’s most popular single production; The Scar (2002), a sterner but ultimately, for many readers, an even more deeply satisfying work than its predecessor; and Iron Council (2004), perhaps the finest instalment of the trilogy and a book that already deserves careful consideration in any general study of the political novel in English.

    So now you know.

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