Sunday, June 24, 2007

China Mieville - Looking for Jake and other stories

I was recently advised by Toby Litt (after he read one of my stories) to read China Mieville. I have to confess I'd never heard of him, but I checked out some stuff in the library and borrowed the one Toby recommended, "Looking for Jake and other stories."

It's a "stunning, imaginative force... very possibly greatness," according to the Boston Globe. The Times Literary Supplement calls the stories "powerful tales of paranoid complicity." The Scotsman, once my favourite newspaper (if only for Robert Conisburgh's crosswords) reckons that "energy and imagination abound here." The BBC says "utterly, utterly compelling." Wired (never heard of it) claims it's "the year's best short story collection."

Wow, praise indeed. I couldn't wait to start it.

I was worried that the first story, the title story, "Looking for Jake," was a trifle thin. In fact, it is incredibly thin. In fact, it is dull to the point of predictable. It even ends, God help us, with it being "the last letter," written before the MC sets off on the journey that he knows will kill him.

One of the first rules is no dead narrators. One of the next rules is don't be a smartarse and have an about-to-be-dead-any-second-now narrator, because every hack wannabe writer who ever switched on a laptop has written one of those. I have several on my hard-drive.

Next we have Foundation, which is an admittedly creepy idea, though the truth on which Mieville based the story - that American troops bulldozed live Iraqi soldiers into the ground, is infinitely more creepy than what Mieville imagined.

There is the same story told twice, in Details and Different Skies. This is something that fantasy is very bad at doing, dressing up the same mundane idea in fancy clothes so you think you are reading something new. All these two stories boil down to is that there is something out there, in a kind of parallel universe, and it has some way of leaking into ours and some poor schmuck unleashes them and they take over. Yawnity yawnity yawn.

Entry taken from a medical encyclopedia is all style no substance. It is interesting enough but remains, frankly, puerile. The Ball Room is pure Roald Dahl. Reports of certain events in London is intriguing, a curious idea about feral streets that roam the world and the centuries, but unfortunately it just fizzles into nothing.

'Tis the season was unreadable. The author was so determined to be ironic-witty with all his ChristmasTM and YuleCo and Coca Crissmas and stuff it became utterly intrusive. There was AUTHOR all over this story. You couldn't escape him, or the fact that he thought he was being incredibly humorous. Stuff like the Gay Choir singing "We're here, we're choir, get used to it," is a funny first draft line, gives the writer a chuckle. But then it has to come out because it's just silly and intrudes.

As with a lot of this sort of writing, it owes a huge debt to Do androids dream of electric sheep, especially the story Jack, with its Remades and fReemades and alternative life forms.

What these stories lack is any real point. So fucking what? Yes, Mieville can turn a decent phrase, though he is singularly unfrightening, to be honest. But what really strikes me about this collection is how completely shallow the stories are. They do nothing. They're unambitious, lazy, predictable, undergraduate musings. What do they say about life? Even the so-called political one, inspired by reported American atrocities in Iraq: did I read that and immediately feel outraged, or even mildly provoked? Alas not, I thought "mmmm."

I was reading Michel Faber last night, from his "Some rain must fall" collection, and there was a story called Fish. Fantastic. Such precision, such clear writing. Faber effortlessly conjures a dystopian world where fish have taken over. There is no smartarsery, no author showing off, no invention of puerile FishCo type words to ratchet up the strangeness. It simply tells a story straight and draws the reader into it with complete ease. This is what Mieville should be aspiring to. This is real writing.


Lazlo Toth said...

Oh, for god's sake, all you're doing is elevating your own personal tastes to the level of cosmic literary imperative. This review itself is absolutely tedious, and while I'm sorry you apparently don't enjoy stories of memetic horror like the "Entry," you provide absolutely no useful information about why you feel this way, much less why we should -- all you do, like the very basest and most perfunctory of critics, is assign some slightly large words to your gut reaction. That's not only not criticism, it's not even analysis. It's a scan of your hindbrain. Pitiable effort.

Tom Conoboy said...

Well, I think it's a bit rich being accused of using large words by someone who manages to shoehorn "cosmic literary imperative" and "memetic horror" into one little paragraph. Memetic - I had to google that, and I take it you're referring to the Dawkins concept of cultural self-replication? Hmm, using big words without explaining them runs the risk of leaving the reader behind and is never a good idea, is it?

I was quite interested to re-read this review, because it is from a couple of years ago, before I started the research I'm currently doing, and I agree with you, it's a weak piece of analysis.

The book itself was so poor I have now pretty much forgotten it, and so even I, who wrote the review, would have liked more detail on, for example, "Entry from a medical encyclopedia" to explain why I thought it was so bland.

I do get towards some idea of analysis at the end, when I accuse Mieville's work of being shallow and pointless, pointing out the blandness of his story apparently inspired by the Iraq war. No sense of political or philosophical analysis struck me in the work, and I was left with the feeling that it achieved nothing.

But yes, I agree, for it to be a good review I would require much more of the book and much less of my response. Alas, I have no intention of wasting my time by re-reading it, so the review will have to remain as it is, and I will use it as a silent admonishment to self to try harder.