The David Mitchell Übernovel: Brian Finney Reviews “Slade House”
By Brian FinneyDecember 5, 2015
Slade House by David Mitchell
Mitchell’s use of fantasy in the interests of psychological realism has continued to infuriate some reviewers while receiving enthusiastic applause from others. I am sure the LARB reader whose comment on my lengthy review of The Bone Clocks — “Despite whatever rationalization you want to make, in the end the book is a disappointing piece of shit” — will not change his mind after reading my review of Mitchell’s latest adventure into a world of spiritual cannibals. Obversely, many reviewers have already greeted this book with claims such as, “David Mitchell is the best thing to happen to narrative since Daniel Defoe” (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette), and “Slade House is the ultimate spooky nursery tale for adults” (Huffington Post).
Like all Mitchell’s novels, Slade House belongs to the same Übernovel he has been constructing from the beginning while it remains a self-contained unit. Characters from previous novels reappear in later ones. As Mitchell explains, “each of my books is one chapter in a sort of sprawling macronovel.” The author has indicated that a third volume will complete this particular sequence.
Like most of his novels Slade House is a page-turner, fast paced, hard to put down. And yet it is tightly constructed, offers a cast of varied, vividly portrayed characters, and has buried in it an ethical stance familiar to readers of the earlier novels, especially the persistence of predation in the history of civilization. This is what makes Mitchell so unusual: he combines literary sophistication with a talent for telling the kind of gripping story we normally associate with popular novelists. Rather like his American counterpart Stephen King, he offers the best of both fictional worlds. This readability is what probably has prevented him from winning the Man Booker Prize, while qualifying for the longlist five times, and the shortlist twice.
The origins of this novel are interesting. Urged by his publisher to create a Twitter account to promote The Bone Clocks, Mitchell ended up publishing a short story, “The Right Sort,” told in 280 tweets over seven days. It occupied the same universe as The Bone Clocks, in that two kinds of immortals, one that preys on mortals and another that defends them, are battling one another. In order to justify — or make best use of — Twitter’s disjointed form, Mitchell has his child protagonist, Nathan, swallow some of his mother’s Valium, which, he explains, “reduces the bruising hurly-burly of the world into orderly, bite-sized pulses.” Mitchell then reshaped and added to this story, which became the first of five sections that make up Slade House.
As is the case with Cloud Atlas (2004) and The Bone Clocks, Slade House offers a mix of genres and voices that all exist within a structure as compressed as the alley that leads to the house of the title. As Mitchell told The Sydney Morning Herald in April, “I think in terms of originality, in terms of straitjackets and escapology. The tighter the straitjacket, the more singular the act of escape has to be to get out of it.” Slade House spans 36 years — from 1979 to 2015 — in the life of the immortal Grayer twins, who every nine years lure an unsuspecting person down a narrow alley to a small metal door, the side entrance to a London mansion that is hidden behind a brick wall, a mansion known as Slade House. Each episode takes place on the last Saturday in October (close to or on Halloween) and is narrated by a new victim.
As Jason Sheehan said on NPR, the appeal of this repetitive structure lies in “seeing different people make the same mistakes over and over again.” Mitchell, who calls himself “a structure geek,” has written that he uses structure as “a kind of plot in its own right, running parallel to the narrative-plot.” In this case, the novel’s structure works to negate chronological time with its repetition of (almost) the same events every nine years. As one character says, “There’s no such thing as ‘a long time ago.’” Or, as the words inscribed on the grandfather clock in Slade House spell out: “TIME IS, TIME WAS, TIME IS NOT.” Here Mitchell reveals once again his midlife obsession with the question of what happens to the soul after the death of the body. Does time simply obliterate us? Or do we continue to lead some form of afterlife, just as a work of fiction does?
Mitchell plays cleverly on the reader’s expectations, both fulfilling and undermining them. His use of different genres (or, subsets of the genre known as fantasy) for each episode adds to the density of his fiction. Reviewers of the book have tended to label it either a haunted house or a ghost story. Mitchell prefers to call it “a compendium of ghost story outcomes.” In fact, each episode employs a distinct variant of fantasy. The opening section appropriates some of the characteristics of science fiction, a genre that Nathan, the protagonist is drawn to. Nathan asks the evil twin brother, who has assumed the shape of another boy, whether he ever thought he “might be a different species of human, knitted out of raw DNA in a laboratory like in [H. G. Wells’s] The Island of Doctor Moreau.” He also evokes two sci-fi novels by John Wyndham — his dad greets a new day with “The Kraken Wakes,” and the twins look to Nathan like Midwich Cuckoos (and Lucy Skywalker from Star Wars). These accumulated references invite readers to treat the entire episode with the same indulgence they give to science fiction.
The second episode is told by a detective and makes sardonic use of TV detective serials, recalling such luminaries as Bergerac, Cagney and Lacey, Columbo, and Kojak. Sardonic, because this detective is not that bright (but then how bright is the average TV cop?). His macho disposition makes him easy bait for Norah Grayer to seduce and overcome. When he admits that he’s been dumped by his wife, a disguised Norah tells him, “All the best TV detectives have complex domestic lives.” In effect the detective genre gets absorbed by the macabre-mystery genre as the detective succumbs to the supernatural powers of his antagonists. He completely underestimates the potency of their world when he accuses Norah of watching too many episodes of Tales of the Unexpected. Kojak and company prove no match for Roald Dahl.
Episode three borrows from the conventions of the horror movie. Told by an insecure female undergraduate who is a member of a university paranormal society, she and they find themselves in a Slade House Halloween party that becomes increasing spooky, ending, of course, with the young woman’s soul being stolen from her, and the other five members of the group disappearing with her. Like the detective, the students at first mock the possibility of danger. “Proper X-File, this is,” says one of them. Another sees the flickering lamp outside Slade House as “Always a bad sign … Anyone seen Candyman?” A third comments, “Slade House looks more Rocky Horror Picture Show than ‘a membrane between worlds.’” Partygoers sit around watching The Exorcist. These frequent references to horror movies simultaneously serve to frame and yet justify the novel’s use of the convention of the supernatural — horror really is present and proves deadly.
The fourth episode is told by a journalist named Freya and reads like a reporter’s attempt to ascertain facts. Naturally, she has a jaundiced view of supernatural events and explanations. She tells her informant, “This is all a bit Da Vinci Code for me,” and blames her sister (the undergraduate of episode three) for “playing Ghostbusters in unfamiliar backstreets at night.” Yet as the episode draws to an end her world of verifiable facts turns surreal. The Fox and Hounds, the pub in which she has been interviewing Fred Pink, the window cleaner who witnessed Nathan’s mum entering Slade Alley in chapter one, turns out to be, like Slade House, an “orison,” or hallucinatory dreamscape, designed by Norah as a perfect copy of the pub. Fred Pink turns out to be the body commandeered by Jonah to trap the journalist by offering her the scoop of her life. She discovers that Jonah’s story, which she has been dismissing as a fiction told by a psychotic, is unfortunately nonfiction (within the confines of this fiction).
The fifth and final episode comes closest to pure fantasy as it enters a world of psychic forces battling one another. Norah hides in the body of Bombadil who happens to be a character (“the Green Man leprechauny one”) in The Lord of the Rings. (Incidentally, in September Mitchell tweeted several times a day under the alias of @I_Bombadil). As Mitchell’s editor described it, the author is making his own Middle Earth. Mitchell calls it “an exercise in world building and cosmology.” This episode is an unashamed manipulation of the fictionality of fiction. Like the fifth section of The Bone Clocks, the finale enters a mode of existence the rules of which have been largely predetermined in the previous novel, where the twins fight their adversary by “glyphing up a pyroblast” that Marinus reflects back at Jonah, incinerating him with his own weapon. At times there is too much explication of the supernatural cosmology put in the mouths of the twins who already know what they are telling one another. Still, it’s good, clean fun. And simultaneously Mitchell uses it to represent serious psychological and ethical issues.
As Paul Kincaid wrote in the Larb, Mitchell “sets up genre expectations and then upends them.” He never simply uses a genre’s conventions. He always questions and challenges them, “playing with genre to the point of destruction.” At the same time his work as a totality comes to assume a genre all its own. As Patrick Flanery wrote in his Spectator review of the novel, his books “often surprise with the depth of their insights into the psychology of quite ordinary people who find themselves trapped in fantastic situations.”
In each episode, Mitchell uses a different narrator with his or her distinct voice rendered in the first person. As Mitchell told an interviewer, “the best character-builder is not description but voice […] All those different ways of saying the same thing.” Nathan Bishop, the boy who narrates the first episode reminds one of Jason Taylor, the 13-year-old narrator of Mitchell’s Black Swan Green (2006), a bildungsroman. Mitchell’s command of an English schoolboy’s jargon in 1979 is as accurate as it was in the earlier novel: “Bang on;” “Are you taking the piss?” “I’m dead jealous;” “If Gaz Ingram or anyone in his gang sees me in this bow-tie, I’ll find a poo in my locker, guaranteed.” Where today’s kids use “cool!” he uses “epic!” Nathan proves an easy victim, “warm, confused, afraid.” Mitchell uses his childish innocence to naturally alienate the reader from the twin villains at the start of the novel.
Detective Inspector Gordon Edmonds narrates the second episode. In his heavy-handed way he is investigating the disappearance of Nathan and his mum. Charged with assaulting his ex-wife, and suspected of using excessive force in the findings of a report, he proves putty in Norah’s seductive hands. “Dressed like a cop from Miami Vice,” his conversation is filled with jargon, such as “’Ello ’ello ’ello. What’s all this, then?” (a cliché used by Dixon of Dixon of Dock Green — a BBC TV police series that ran from 1955 to 1976). When a disguised Norah accuses him of flattering her, he resorts to police jargon: “What motive could I possibly have for flattering you? None. There. Case dismissed.” He is what he calls himself, a “plonker.” This detective’s slow-wittedness leads him to misread all the clues until it is too late. Unlike his TV models, he ends up as a murder victim while the murderers emerge reinvigorated after swallowing his soul. Once again Mitchell upends the generic conventions he makes his tale of.
Sally Timms is an insecure overweight first-year undergraduate who has joined her university’s Paranormal Society. A loner, she wants to make friends. She is attracted to another member of the group, Todd, who turns out to be Jonah in control of Todd’s body. When the group sets out for Slade House, “lardy-arsed Sally Timms,” as she calls herself, finds herself “bringing up the rear. My customary place.” All horror movies require a naïve young woman to turn up the note of horror. Sally even thinks in horror movie terms. Propositioned by another guy in the group with dandruff who pongs of hamburgers, she comments, “Frightmare on Elm Street or what?”
The next episode is narrated by Sally’s sister, Freya, a lesbian journalist who works for an American magazine, Spyglass (previously featured in Cloud Atlas and The Bone Clocks). Intent on discovering what happened to Sally, she interviews Fred Pink (the uncle of the leader of the paranormal society in the previous episode) who has himself been researching the Slade House disappearances. She shows all the skepticism of a hardened reporter when confronted with anything supernatural. When asked whether she has a problem with telepathy, her “nutter-detector glows amber.” She has acquired a transatlantic way of speaking; so another time she sees “the whackometer needle climbing.” She constantly demands facts, proof, and cross-corroboration. Freya plays along with Fred while pigeonholing him as a conspiracy theorist who is delusional. The irony is that his fantastic story is proved right at the expense of her soul.
The final episode is told by Norah, the evil twin sister whose arrogance leads her to adopt a superior tone of voice toward her intended victim, Iris Marinus, a psychiatrist from Toronto specializing in abduction psychoses. “The Mighty Shrink proved absurdly easy to lure here,” brags Norah. Later, she wonders “how the multilingual psychiatrist with a PhD — first class — from Columbus State University is so easily codded” by Jonah calling out in the voice of Fred Pink. By comparison, Marinus pretends to be timid, cautious, and overwhelmed by the orison of Slade House that Norah reveals to her. The irony of the previous episode is reversed here. Freya’s hubris lies in her dismissal of the unprovable, of the psychic (and fictional) realms of experience. Norah’s hubris lies in her conviction that her occupation of the supernatural realm places her in superior position of knowledge and power over those confined to a mere mortal existence. Her world is brought crashing down after an everyday human implement — a hair pin — is driven through Jonah’s throat by a previous victim.
Marinus is in fact a different kind of immortal — she transmigrates from one existence to another — and uses her opponent’s unwarranted sense of superiority to outwit her.
So what makes this more than a supernatural yarn? In the first instance, Mitchell treats the psychic and supernatural as a metaphor for the material and natural world. As Fred Pink says to Freya, “the Occult’s like any religious order — or any bunch of extremists, come to that.” The same extremism occurs in the psychic realm as in the natural. Throughout the book, we are constantly reminded of the divisions afflicting our modern world with references to Gallipoli, Flanders, the Battle of the Somme, the Blitz, the IRA, Lech Wałęsa, the bugging of the US Embassy in Moscow, the Poll Tax riots, Ukraine, and so on.
At the same time, Mitchell’s images surreptitiously reinforce the view that humans are not in control of their thoughts or actions. In the first episode, for instance, Nathan constantly finds material objects guiding his bodily movements: “The door pulls my palm up against it.” “Currents are pulling us up the garden.” “The banister glides under my fingertips.” When Jonah creates an imaginary scene for Nathan in which his father urges him to drink coffee for the first time (the coffee being Banjax, the soul-stealing elixir the twins have to persuade their victim to consume), instead of drinking the coffee, Nathan ponders whether “whatever’s in there [will start] gulping me down.” Having undermined the reader’s materialist assumptions, Mitchell proceeds to undermine those of the semi-immortal twins. As they are about to consume Freya’s soul, the disembodied shadow of Sally, her sister, appears and drives a hairpin through Jonah’s throat. This material weapon diminishes his ability to successfully create an orison in the final episode where Slade House rapidly crumbles along with Jonah’s supernatural powers. The material takes its revenge on the immaterial. Neither world is impervious to the other. As one of the undergraduates in the paranormal group observes, “All the supernatural yarns need a realist explanation and a supernatural one.”
In the final episode, the twins are revealed for what they represent at large — predators. Cloud Atlas is full of humans preying on others. Marinus, who Mitchell has called “an archive of human history,” offers readers explicit parallels to the twins’ belief that “Might is Right is nature’s way.” She compares the twins’ nine-year murders to prolong their own existence to “feudal lords to slave-traders to oligarchs to neocons.” When Norah accuses Marinus of hypocritically denying the twins the immortal privileges she enjoys, Marinus responds, “What’s a metalife without a mission? It’s mere … feeding.” Behind all the spiritual-cum-psychic conflict lies a basic moral question — do we act simply for ourselves alone? Or do we act with others in mind? Mitchell’s talent lies in his ability to infuse the supernatural with deep human feeling. It is the human in his work that makes those of us who enjoy his fantastic fictions swallow the fantasy willingly.
Those who choke on his fictional use of the fantastic will continue to dismiss his work, as did the LARB reader I mentioned at the beginning, as a “load of horse pucky.”
Brian Finney is a professor emeritus in English at California State University, Long Beach.
Brian Finney is a professor emeritus in English at California State University, Long Beach. He has published seven books, including a critical biography of Christopher Isherwood that won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for nonfiction. Terrorized: How the War on Terror Affected American Culture and Society, was published in 2011. His latest book published 2019 is Money Matters: A Novel.
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