DECEMBER 12, 2015
KNOWN FOR LONG, kaleidoscopic novels that teem with characters and stories, David Mitchell is one writer you might not expect to dabble in Twitter fiction, the writing of a story in tweets, each no more than 140 characters or around 28 words. Mitchell’s geographically wide-ranging novels generally weigh in at over 500 pages (approximately 6,000 tweets), so what would the author of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet and Cloud Atlas want to do with the social media platform he has described as a “diabolical treble-strapped textual straitjacket”? The answer of course: a different form offers him a chance to write a different fiction. This challenge spurred Mitchell to write his newest — and shortest — novel, Slade House, which began as a 208-tweet tale. “Scenes grew, bred and sprouted new scenes,” Mitchell says, until the story became the first section of a five-part novel.
Slade House is a haunted-house story, or five interlinked haunted-house stories, spanning from 1979 to 2015. Although a departure for Mitchell, the structure follows the same system as Mitchell’s most recent novel, The Bone Clocks (2014): chronological leaps between first-person narratives that share characters and ideas. Slade House is a compression of the author’s hallmark form. It measures time through music, fashion, politics, recreational drugs, and video games. Mitchell’s spot-on period detail, along with a diverse musical soundtrack ranging from Scarlatti to Supergrass, helps to define each era. Mitchell also examines the meaning of time both for atemporal ghosts and, by contrast, for mortal human “bone clocks.” The novel that started as the condensation of form and time that is Twitter fiction thus offers an examination of immortality and the perils of expansive temporality.
The stories in Slade House all share the ingenuity, fluidity, and humor for which Mitchell is so well known, while Mitchell builds real pathos even as the narrative momentum builds. The first story in Slade House is narrated by Nathan, a teenager with behavioral problems, who is tripping on his mother’s Valium. She is a piano teacher looking for a big break, thrilled at the prospect of playing at a lady’s residence, where Yehudi Menuhin, assembled musicians, and local gentry will be in attendance. For his part, Nathan is just trying to mind his manners and steer clear of dogs. He is a wonderful narrator — curious, unreliable, funny — and the Valium he has taken makes his mind more nimble, compressing his thoughts into tweet-sized nuggets that capture how Nathan apprehends the world. “Shrubs tremble blurrily like they’re being sketched in as we watch,” he observes, as the house and gardens begin to take on surreal power.
Mitchell draws from a deep well of supernatural horror that has inspired writers from Henry James to Shirley Jackson and films from Poltergeist to The Blair Witch Project. The result is a chilling, gripping ride through a haunted house, rife with harrowed personal histories. Every nine years, a visitor finds a “small black iron door” and enters the eponymous house, formerly a Georgian rectory. Inside the house, visitors find themselves stuck in a wish-fulfillment phantasmagoria, directed by Jonah and Norah Grayer, twin “soul vanishers,” who must eat the soul of an “engifted” person every nine years in order to survive.
As the ghouls reveal themselves, they resemble the feuding sects of immortals that face off in The Bone Clocks — Anchorites, who power their immortality by slaughtering innocents, and Horologists, who are eternally reincarnated — plunderers versus recyclers. But where the battle becomes cosmic (and comic) in the longer novel, the connecting tissue in Slade House is the brick and mortar house, albeit furnished with psychically projected objects and populated by ghosts. “It’s the oldest dream,” says Fred Pink, Slade House investigator-cum-conspiracy theorist, who was the last person to see Nathan and his mother alive. “It’s why religion got invented and it’s why religion stays invented,” Pink explains. “What else matters more than not dying?” Indeed, where the “psychosoteric” procedural elements sometimes bog down The Bone Clocks with generic sci-fi chatter (“I got glimpses of the Script, Marinus, about the First Mission”), they feel more real and more rooted in Slade House (“Souls are as real as gall bladders, Miss Timms”). While first-person storytelling does not always add much to The Bone Clocks, the breadth of voices in Slade House establishes character and adds nuance to the menace. That is, after the first story, the creepiness and suspense comes from knowing we are inside the head of someone likely to meet his or her end.
For all its psychovoltage, Slade House succeeds, because Mitchell handles the human marrow of the book — friendship, yearning, grief — with delicacy and a light touch fitting the scope of the novel. Because he individuates each seeker and packs stories with twists, Mitchell avoids the pitfalls of a mere Halloween haunted house, in which the spooks are the same every time one opens the door. The episode of Nathan and his mother is followed by that of Gordon Edmonds, a down-on-his luck, gruff cop living alone, who welcomes the invitation of a beautiful grieving lady, “quite a looker, even in her wellies.” Next is a lonely undergraduate, Sally Timms, who visits Slade Alley with her university’s Paranormal Society, happens upon a Halloween party, and disappears. Freya Timms, Sally’s older sister, returns to the scene of the crime years later, still consumed with the idea that her sister might still be alive, locked in an attic. “Grief is an amputation,” she observes, “but hope is incurable hemophilia: You bleed and bleed and bleed.” In the last section, the “engifted” Dr. Marinus-Levy, a Horologist, poses as a psychiatrist who specializes in abduction psychoses, so she knows more than she is letting on. Even the twins, immortal soul vampires though they may be, have a sibling relationship rife with conflict and fueled by love.
The Twitterization of David Mitchell, if it can be called that, is not so much social media-specific fiction as it is compression of form. The novel owes as much to James’s The Turn of the Screw (with its own “big, ugly, antique, but convenient house”) as it does to any Twitter meme. For Mitchell, compression has two happy consequences: more voice and more velocity. Slade House is mini-Mitchell, the work of a virtuoso literary ventriloquist stretching his wings by shortening them: same voice, same form, same pathos, more velocity. Is David Mitchell taking up artistic residence in the Twittersphere? Unlikely. The tweet is gone, but the thrill remains.