Madness and Paranoia

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Review of 'Looking for Jake', China Miéville, Macmillan £17.99

Short fiction tends to get short shrift in publishing. Stories are treated like stopgaps or by-products to be swept up into collections like this. But what's clear from Looking for Jake and Other Stories is that there is huge scope to develop style, genre and themes in short story collections. Having not read any of Miéville's books before, what's impressive about this collection is how eclectic it is, and yet it remains coherent.

The first two stories, 'Looking for Jake' and 'Foundation', are lyrical in style. I usually find this type of writing frustrating, but as I read 'Foundation' the broken, imagist prose increasingly made sense. About a real-life massacre of Iraqi soldiers, 'Foundation' mimics the broken mind of an American soldier.

Madness and paranoia crop up several times in the book. In 'Details' a young boy living on a decaying estate talks with a mad woman, Mrs Miller, through the crack in her door. She's obsessed with 'the details' of life. If you stare at an object long enough a nameless horror begins to form, like shapes out of television static, a horror which pursues you everywhere.

The following story, 'Go Between', is about Morley, who receives mysterious instructions in the things he buys. At first he tries to avoid getting these messages, then follows them faithfully. He imagines he is a small cog in a big machine that's driving world events. One day, in a fit of panic, he defies an order. The next day there is a gas attack on London, and it's all his fault.

As is usual, stories about the mind are matched with stories about the body. There's a wonderful little shortie called 'Entry Taken from a Medical Encyclopedia' that comes complete with footnotes. It's about a disease called 'Buscard's Murrain' or 'Wormword', origin Slovenia (probably). It causes slow mental decline, accompanied by various states of mind - torpid, prefatory and grandiloquent. During the mad grandiloquence phase the sufferer continually repeats the 'wormword'.

The disease was first discovered in a priest who, when reading to his master one day, found a slip of paper in the book with two words on it. The priest read one word out loud, the wormword. This triggered a process, turning the nerves in his brain into parasitical, self-organising clusters. Despite long research into the condition there is no known cure, except perhaps the other word on the page, which has long since been lost. Very funny, very Burroughs.

The stories are mostly set in modern London. The two bookending pieces, 'Looking for Jake' and 'The Tain', are both apocalyptic and yet strangely revolutionary, in the sense that a single act or event can transform people's lives and perceptions, the familiar and unfamiliar suddenly becoming yoked together.

One story is set in New Crobuzon, the location of Miéville's novels. 'Jack' is chatty and slightly overblown, similar in ways to Charles Dickens. It's all about a master criminal, a 'remade', a person condemned by the state to mutilation. Normally the remade are outcasts, but Jack Half-a-Prayer has become a folk hero. There is a wonderful scene where Jack taunts the 'clodhopping militia', who chase him across the rooftops of the city. News spreads quickly and soon people leave their homes to cheer him on.

It turns out his greatest admirer was the man who 'remade' Jack in the first place. While Jack is free he gives hope to the people of New Crobuzon: 'If [he] weren't there, and all them angry people in Dog Fenn and Kelltree and Smog Bend [had] no one to cheer on, gods know what they'd do.'