Read China Mievillie’s “Looking for Jake” over the weekend, having adored the New Crobuzon novels (stop by Perdido Street Station if you haven’t already been).
One of the best stories in the anthology is “The Ball Room” – not at all what I’d expected from the title, and which at one point gave me goosebumps. Am sitting on my hands as I type so as not to give anything away, though I will say that it’s one of only a handful of stories to name the narrator / protagonist – and that only comes some way in.
“An end to hunger” is not alone in letting Mieville (who stood at the 2001 General Election for the Socialist Alliance) rave about something political, challenging some comforting ideas about what the Internet can do. Like “The Ball Room”, it’s implicitly about how companies really work – succeeding by winning us over. I also love the idea of a “hide engine” to disappear Jack Straw.
“Tis the season” is another fun political one, a satire on the commercialism of Christmas, with the kind of wheeze and wild violence of a one-off Judge Dredd. A reversal with a singing Messiah took me nicely by surprise.
“Foundation”, about the structural integrity of buildings, is also about real abuses by “our” military in Iraq – as Mieville’s keen to point out in the acknowledgements. “Go Between” is perhaps the most explicit about our having to take responsibility for things happening in front of us, asking how we are complicit.
“Reports of certain events in London” is told by Mieville himself, caught up in a strange-but-true tale like Paul Auster often is. It’s a collection of documents about an odd kind of streetfighting, though that only becomes clear some way through. The glimpses of a squabbling enclave of enthusiasts works very well – Mieville can play it funny as well as freakish.
“Jack” takes us back to New Crobuzon to explain what happened to the famous bandit referred to in other books. Must admit my brain has muddled Jack Half-A-Prayer with Neal Stephenson’s similar Jack Half-A-Cock, so I probably missed some of the effect. But it’s a good story, again with insight into the politics of the mob.
The other stories are all good, too. The comic strip needs close attention to follow (I think, but then I am dim), and I felt again what I did when I first read the novella “The Tain” as a small-press paperback (which I think I’ve gone and leant someone ‘cos I can’t find it again now) – that I’d get more from it were I better read. It does rely on knowing some Borges, being all a bit unfathomable until that quotation at the end.
Though the stories range in subject and scope, they all have a similar, dark feel. Though often about everyday, recognisable things and people, they’re all full of strange, vivid imagery and a growing sense of disquiet. And then he’ll drop something downright nasty on you, in a flash.
The tone is a bit too samey across the anthology; more a book to dip into than read in one go. That said, it’s a very strong collection, with plenty to change how you see some things.
He’s also not one for spoon-feeding answers, and several of the stories end leaving you on tenterhooks, wondering how events played out. You're never quite sure if the author wants you to suss it out for yourself, or just can't be bothered.
(I got criticised for exactly that in my own "An overture too early", but one day I might explain all. Maybe. Conceivably. If you're lucky...)