Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Looking for China

Sometime he directed me to one or another of his online projects. That was how I realised that Aykan was a virtuoso of programming. Once, on one of our infrequent rendezvous, I called him a hacker. He burst out laughing, then got very angry with me.

"Fucking hacker?" He laughed again. "Fucking hacker?" Listen bro, you're not talking to some sebum-faced little sixteen-year-old geekboy with wank-stained pants who calls himself Dev-L." He swore furiously. "I'm not a fucking hacker, man, I'm a fucking artist, I'm a hardworking wage slave, I'm a concerned motherfucking citizen, whatever you want, but I'm not a fucking hacker."

— from "An End to Hunger," in Looking for Jake, by China Miéville.

While a friend of mine is sharing her enthusiasm for China Miéville as she discovers Bas-Lag for the first time, I've been experiencing Miéville withdrawal. His next novel is a few months off yet, so I finally turned to Looking for Jake, a collection of short stories that I'd been saving up for just such an occasion.

Ah, it's great to read phrases like, "a bad atmosphere as tenacious as stink," and, "manipulating scobs of gris-gris," again.

A few of the stories are standouts. Namely, "Foundation," "Reports of Certain Events in London," and "Details."

They are cool and original and unsettling. I moved through them relatively slowly, partly in order to draw out the Miéville experience, but primarily to prevent overdosing on the vibe.

The story about the Ikea ball room, for example — I kept returning to it in my mind for days afterward, every time we passed Ikea (twice), every time I received or threw out an Ikea flyer (twice), every time we discussed a potential Ikea purchase, every time the kid mentioned hot dogs, whenever a colleague mentioned having recently been. This to say: the story stayed present, and I will never, ever leave a child of mine to the care of the Ikea ball room, and I want to warn all parents against it. (It turns out, that of all the people I informally polled, none have put a child in the ball room — it was too busy. It makes me wonder who actually enjoys this privilege?)

All this being the effect of a story I didn't even particularly like — the writing style felt off, it dragged a bit. Yet. It creeped me out!

You can't read too much of that kind of thing at once.

When Miéville is being straightforward with the storytelling, when it's about "regular" people in London (as opposed to "creatures" in imaginary worlds), when he's doing dialogue, he reminds me of Doris Lessing. The Londonness, the political sensibility. Banality preserved in even extraordinary circumstances.

A few other stories remind me of Mark Danielewski's House of Leaves. It's hard not to think of Danielewski when structures are imbued with qualities ordinarily reserved for animate things. "Reports of Certain Events in London," for example, uses scraps of documents to tell its story about streets that move. The alleyways, they fucking move! Also, there's a Johnny Truant–like edginess in a couple other stories (see quotation at the top of this post).

I was reminded of one other voice in particular, though it took me a while to identify. Anne Hébert. Every now and again, romanticism rears its ugly head, brought into sharp relief by the urban setting, and it made me think of Hébert's psychologically starved characters in lush surroundings, her vampires.

What you cannot know is how it hurt.

For we who are not, or were not, our bodies: we, for whom flesh is, or was, only one possible clothing. We might fly or invert ourselves through the spines of grass, we might push ourselves into other ways of being, we might be to water as water is to air, we might do anything, until you looked at yourselves. It is a pain you cannot imagine — very literally, in the most precise way, you cannot know how it is to feel yourself shoved with a mighty and brutal cosmic hand into bloody muscle. The agony of our constrained thoughts, shoehorned into those skulls you carry, stringy tendons tethering our limbs. The excruciation. Shackled in your meat vulgarity.

On the whole, these stories weren't completely satisfying. They're too long, or too short, not tight enough. The characters feel incomplete, the ideas haven't been fully thought out. For whatever reason, these short stories don't quite work for me. (Note also that one story is in graphic form, and the ebook interface in this case was not easy. Had I known, I might've opted for paper.)

I like Miéville best when he's discursive and epic, and that's only just hinted at here. He does manage to establish mood quickly and strongly. I almost wish each of them had been sustained for the length of novel.

If you worry that Miéville might be a little weird for your pedestrian tastes, this collection will give you an idea of what he's capable of. Only know that he's much, much better in long form.

Excerpt: "Looking for Jake."
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