China Mieville is known for rich, immersive fantasy novels, brilliant world building, and characters of rare depth and reality. Rather than sacrifice that depth in his collection of short stories, Looking For Jake, Mieville has shortened the time needed to immersion. Reading a Mieville novel is like slowly walking into a deep lake, feeling the water rise gradually. Mieville’s short stories are as deep and inarguable as the center of the ocean, full of unseen life. The very brevity of the trip means that there is no escape in sight, no certainty that the water has a shallow edge and no shore in sight. Even the most ambitious novel has to follow a certain form; in these short stories, there’s no preordained arc, and their endings, while never forced, are often surprising.
Most of the stories take advantage of the short tale’s necessary incompleteness. “Looking For Jake” is a one-person view of a strange apocalypse. The narrator can never know the whole story, and the story draws well on the shared sense of confusion between narrator and reader. “Go Between” also makes use of limited perspective in the life of a man who just happens to receive packages for reasons never explained. “Reports of Certain Events In London” and “Entry Taken From A Medical Encyclopedia” are hardly stories at all in the traditional sense. They offer no beginning or end, only the unnerving testimony of artifacts and unmotivated fact, but the limits of their knowledge serve to highlight the size of their stories.
“The Ball Room” is a more orthodox ghost story, even if the megastore setting is far removed from the usual atmospheric old houses and historic graveyards. The story ends in the expected manner, but then lasts long enough to add an unexpected twist. “Details” tells of another haunting, one strange enough to haunt even devoted fans of the weird. Both add the charm of locked-room mystery to the already strong allure of the haunted room.
The greatest departure from Mieville’s usual storytelling is “On The Way To The Front,” and unfortunately, it’s also the most disappointing story of the lot. Told in the form of a mostly wordless comic book, “On The Way To The Front” appears to follow the story of a man who keeps himself at a remove from the war that surrounds his society. The story suffers largely from the artwork, which never makes the characters visually distinct, and possibly from Mieville’s own lack of experience with the pacing of sequential storytelling.
“The Tain” is a novella with a novel’s worth of story, and the accelerated pace makes it feel like one of the shortest stories in the book. “The Tain,” a tale of supernatural apocalypse and the strange history leading to it, is a sort of long-form cousin to “Looking for Jake,” surrounding the worlds in between with an inescapable sense of finality. Along with “Jack,” which tells the whole rise and fall of Mieville’s magically deformed rogue Jack Half-a-Prayer, “The Tain” will have the most familiar feel to fans of Mieville’s New Crobuzon stories.
Looking for Jake has another half dozen tales-- stories of evil charities, of the demons that will not leave, of holidays gone too far and worlds bound by a pane of glass. All share the essential sense of mystery that colors even Mieville’s longest novels. Encyclopedia entry or novella, every tale in Looking For Jake is only a glimpse of a wider story, limited by the knowledge of a narrator or the length of their time. The stories found here are never omniscient or complete, and they are never enough. But that brevity makes them captivating, demanding full attention to catch a glimpse of worlds that are always enchanting, even in the midst of collapse.