China Miéville – Looking for Jake (Book Review)

Looking For Jake cover

China Mieville - Looking For Jake

While novels are much more popular these days, I enjoy short story collections as well. Freed of the requirement to develop the same ideas for hundreds of pages, the author can toss out many different stories that capture the essence of their writing style. Also, readers tend to expect happy endings when they devote the time to a full novel, but short stories allow for much more unpredictable variety. Looking for Jake, a collection by China Miéville, has these aspects to some extent, but they seem less significant in this case.

For one thing, Miéville already tends to write stories with open, not completely happy endings. That isn’t any different in this collection than in his other works. The main difference is that he’s just setting up situations and leaving the reader to wonder how they will play out instead of letting us get to know the characters before things work out halfway for them. And since some of his novels (notably Perdido Street Station and Kraken) constantly threw ideas at the reader, the variety that these stories offer also doesn’t seem as different as it would for most authors.

The biggest difference is that his novels tend to be set in different worlds than ours, while the stories in Looking for Jake are consistently on modern-day Earth, or in the sorts of post-apocalyptic scenes that could be just a month away. This does create a different atmosphere for his writing. While Miéville’s fantasy/sci-fi “New Weird” blend had a horror influence in the mix, several of these stories could simply be classified as out-and-out horror. And his socially conscious metaphors seem more obvious in this setting, as well. This feels preachy at times (“Foundation” is about the nightmare creatures drawn to a man who participated in a real-life war crime), but is very effective in the best stories (“The Ball Room” begins as a standard ghost story, but becomes more unsettling when we wonder how a profit-driven corporation would react to such a situation).

On the whole, Looking for Jake offers an experience more like a standard Miéville novel than expected. That’s not a bad thing, though. Several of the stories are excellent. Some could have easily been dropped into one of his existing works with little effort: “Familiar” (a sympathetic look at a blob of flesh conjured by a wizard and then discarded) would fit right in to the world of New Crobuzon, and the horrors of “Details” (a creature that appears when your mind makes faces out of the random patterns in cracks or clouds) seem appropriate to the fractured world of cults in Kraken. Others don’t (yet) fit next to any novel, though. The uncertain protagonist of “Go Between”, who follows mysterious orders without knowing if he’s helping good guys, bad guys, or no one, is pure Miéville, but in a new way.

I often believe that short story collections make excellent introductions to an author. (See Neil Gaiman’s Fragile Things or Ted Chiang’s Stories of Your Life and Others.) In this case, though, Looking for Jake doesn’t feel any more like “pure” Miéville than his novels do, and it’s not as consistent as his best. Even if it’s not my go-to recommendation for new readers, though, this has quite a few stories that every fan should experience.

Grade: B-


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