Saturday, 11 September 2010

Looking for Jake by China Miéville

This book was given to me by my not quite uncle Alan. Alan married my Mum's sister in the sixties when I was a wee baby – the tale of me vomiting all over everyone has been retold many times both by my aunty and my Mum. They were regular visitors to our home when I was a kid living in the UK and seemd seemed impossibly glamorous and interesting to me. They were somewhat younger than Mum and Dad and were the sort of couple who always knew about the cool interesting things. They were always fashionably dressed – leather jackets or Afghan coats, Chelsea boots and granddad shirts, the whole thing. Birthday presents were always interesting and quirky – unusual children's books or odd toys perhaps from their travels in exotic places, and whenever they came to visit – or when we went to visit them – it always an interesting and exciting time.

I knew Alan for the first eight or so years of my life and, aside from my Dad, Alan was the other ideal of manhood that my little six year old brain latched onto. Dad liked show tunes and trad jazz, Alan liked The Beatles and Bob Dylan. Dad was patrician and dignified, fashionable in his own way, of course, but a little staid and old fashioned, while Alan was zany and trendy and made a big impression on me.

Mum and Dad decided to return to NZ in 1975, and I didn't see Alan for a long time. My aunty came over in the 80s, when my grandmother died, and when she went back, she and Alan broke up. Since I came to live in the UK in 1995, I've met Alan a few times. It's a bit strange because for him, of course, I'm not really part of his life. I'm just his ex-wife's nephew from thirty years ago, but my wee plastic mind was imprinted with something that it can't quite shake. I'm not even a hundred percent sure what it is, and it's certainly something difficult to articulate to him in those strange stilted kinds of conversation you have with those people on the outskirts of the family.

Well, my cousin, the daughter of Alan and my aunt, got married in June this year, and they had the reception at Alan's house. I had a good long talk to Alan about books and stuff and he still has eclectic and curious tastes in his sixties. It was just after the Clarke Awards and we talked about The City & The City and, of course, Alan was already a few moves ahead of me. As we left the reception (which was at his and Antoinette's place, very brave of them, I thought!) he very kindly gave me his copy of Miéville's story collection Looking For Jake.

I came late to China Miéville. I read Perdido Street Station around about the time it won the Clarke Award but I didn't take to it, for various reasons I have outlined here before. None of the other Bas Lag novels appealed to me, I have to say, so I had more or less decided he just wasn't My Thing. No harm in that – wouldn't be the first popular author I didn't like, probably wouldn't be the last.

This year, I read The City & The City, as I read the whole Arthur C Clarke short list this year because... well, I'm not sure why, really! Anyway, The City & The City really impressed me. I thought that the central idea was beautifully sustained and full of all sorts of interesting metaphorical hints and whispers. The murder mystery plot was maybe not all it could be, but it was in most respects a superb book and a worthy winner of the award, and it made me reassess my opinion of Miéville. I was therefore very interested to read these stories.

I think the collection starts of a bit shakily – the titular story, which opens it, is probably the weakest – but quickly gains strength. What Miéville does so well here is place the eerie elements of the ghost story into the real, mundane world. The Ball Room, for example, is a very traditional ghost story set rather brilliantly in an unnamed big-barn furniture shop, clearly modelled on Ikea. The writerly aspects of ghost stories are easy top do, IMO, but what takes real skill is to find the new places in the modern world where ghost stories can take place, and Miéville does it again and again here. The allotments shed witch in The Familiar, the ominous online charity website in An End to Hunger, a window onto another world that's not entirely unlike ours in Different Skies – all these stories portray eruptions of the unreal into our world.

The best story – the one that not-quite uncle Alan insisted I MUST read – is Reports of Certain Events in London. This one's not quite a horror story, in that it doesn't have the dark ending stories like The Ballroom or The Familiar or Different Skies, but a kind of transcendent horror, with the protagonist embracing the unreal and rather than being broken by it. The difference between being broken and being transformed is a fine one, of course, and I think these stories are best when they admit that the change might be good or bad. Clive Barker's shorts in the Books of Blood had a great line in this, but I always found his novel-length works came down too decisively on the side of transformation (with the exception of The Hellbound Heart, although maybe that shies too far to the other side, keeping the cenobites horrorific).

I think H P Lovecraft was groping towards this sort of story, too, but hadn't quite made the mental shift before he died. His Dreamlands stories especially hint at that sort of transformation, at the end of Dreamquest for Unknown Kadath, for example, or The Gate of the Silver Key. Ultimately, I think Lovecraft was hedged in by his own prejudices that made him abhor transformation, but maybe if he'd had a hit or two of acid and some dirty sex, who knows? (That's a joke, NB, not a prescription.)

I'll mention all this to Alan next time I see him, and hear what he has to say. He's bright guy (an academic, in fact) so I'm sure the conversation can go on. This is how you make connections, I think, by building on small foundations. The foundations I left back in 1975 couldn't be revived and it took me a while to find where to lay the new ones.

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