OCTOBER 28, 2015
THERE IS a shocking moment in David Mitchell’s fourth novel, Black Swan Green, when we recognize that an old woman Jason Taylor meets is someone we are already familiar with from the “Letters from Zedelghem” section of his previous novel, Cloud Atlas. It is not the fact that a character recurs that causes the surprise; we have already encountered this, for instance, when Luisa Rey, the author of a series of crime fictions, makes a brief appearance in Ghostwritten and then reappears as the heroine of a series of crime novels in Cloud Atlas. Indeed, there’s a certain pride that comes with knowing Mitchell’s work well enough to recognize such references. No, what shocks is the way that Mitchell so cavalierly smashes through the supposedly impermeable walls of genre.
Black Swan Green is clearly autobiographical. It tells of one year in the adolescence of someone who is the same age as David Mitchell, with the same stammer as Mitchell, growing up in someplace very like the town where Mitchell spent his youth, and learning to become a writer much as Mitchell did. The coming-of-age tale is a familiar type of fiction, and though we recognise that it is fiction — that it departs in its details from the facts (here the viewpoint character is called Jason Taylor, not David Mitchell) — it nevertheless depends for much of its effect upon the impression of truth in the telling. Yet here, in this one moment, Mitchell explicitly links the truth telling of Black Swan Green with the non-truth telling of Cloud Atlas, a novel that revels in its fictionality, that at every stage undermines the truth of what has gone before.
This has been a feature of his work ever since Ghostwritten: playing with genre to the point of destruction. But it is not what has caught the eye of most readers and critics, who have found themselves mesmerised by the fact that, although his novels range across time, the same characters keep appearing. Charts are drawn up to trace characters and places from book to book across time and space. The fictional Belgian town of Zedelghem (not to be confused with Zedelgem, which was the site of a World War II prisoner-of-war camp) gets a passing mention in Slade House, for instance, the third novel in which it has appeared after Cloud Atlas and Black Swan Green. The three disparate novels are thus made to seem as if they belong together in some curious unity because of this repetition. In fact, there is not one of his seven novels that does not share at least one character with at least one other novel.
This sequence of oblique linkages suggests a continuity between the books that we have been primed to expect since Ghostwritten, especially given how much of Mitchell’s output consists of short stories or novellas linked (often indirectly) by secondary characters or recurring images — such as the comet-like birthmark found in both Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas. And yet, the linkages between novels are not as coherent as such a reading of the books would suggest. The post-collapse Ireland so brilliantly described in the “Sheep’s Head” section at the climax of The Bone Clocks does not necessarily belong in the same future as the technologically advanced Korea of “An Orison of Sonmi,” in Cloud Atlas. Still less does the appearance of Mo Muntervary, in that section, match up with her apparent death in Ghostwritten, under very different circumstances.
I have gone this way with Mitchell’s work myself, considering his books in terms of the metafictional patterns he weaves between the different volumes. But with the appearance of Slade House, which is considerably shorter than any other novel he has written to date, I find myself convinced that this is not necessarily the most productive way to approach his work.
More interesting is to examine the ways he uses genre. Slade House is clearly a pendant to The Bone Clocks. Iris Marinus-Levy, one of the central characters in that earlier novel (as well as being pivotal, with a different name and sex, in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet), is also one of the major players here. And the story concerns both the quest for immortality depicted in The Bone Clocks and the battle between humane and inhumane approaches to that quest. Although Slade House extracts characters and themes from The Bone Clocks, however, it could not fit within that novel; it is not of that world.
Like all of his novels, The Bone Clocks mixes narrators and narrative approaches. The first section, “A Hot Spell,” for instance, has echoes of Black Swan Green in its account of a teenager just coming into her life. Later, we get a typical contemporary war narrative in “The Wedding Bash,” and in “Crispin Hershey’s Lonely Planet” we enjoy a comedic take on the current publishing scene through the eyes of an anti-hero, which calls to mind the similarly comic portrayal of the publishing world in “The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish,” from Cloud Atlas. Underlying all of this, and again disturbing the conventions of these different types of mainstream fiction, is a science fiction story concerning two warring tribes of immortals. But when the war reaches its bloody climax in “An Horologist’s Labyrinth” (which has attracted far and away the most criticism), he twists the genre conventions again: the battle is fought out not as science fiction but as fantasy, a genre he handles with somewhat less assurance than usual.
In Slade House he takes the same basic material but recasts it, this time, as horror. Again, this is not the dominant mode of the novel but rather the underlying bass note, which sounds regularly throughout the book. Strictly speaking, the timeline of Slade House fits with the timeline of The Bone Clocks. The first of the six sections that make up The Bone Clocks is set in 1984, when the spirit of Marinus takes refuge in Holly Sykes; but the set piece of “An Horologist’s Labyrinth,” when Marinus comes into her own, takes place in 2025. The first part of Slade House takes place in 1979; each subsequent section is set exactly nine years later, culminating in 2015, which is when Marinus comes into the picture. The time frames of the two books therefore overlap and do not overtly conflict with each other, but that does not mean they fit together. The spirit and affect of the two novels differ markedly; in The Bone Clocks immortality, by either method, is an extraordinary but natural attainment; in Slade House it is achieved by magic and ritual.
The sense of ritual underpinning the book extends into its very structure. The five sections mirror each other to a remarkable degree. Someone is drawn to Slade House, which can be reached only down a narrow alleyway, where the low iron door in the wall is easily missed. Once through that doorway, however, we are in wonderland, an extensive garden and a large house that are both far too big for the crowded corner of London they supposedly occupy. Here, in a place outside of time and space, the visitor undergoes an unsettling escalation of experiences that build into a sense of being trapped (helplessness is a fundamental part of the horror Mitchell is constructing). Finally, the visitor climbs a stairway lined by portraits, the last of which proves to be a self revelation, and instantly they are immobile in an attic where their soul is extracted to feed the evil twins who control Slade House.
Only two things keep this pattern from becoming dully repetitive. Structurally, Mitchell introduces a slight variation at each climax, a message passed on from one victim to the next that progressively disrupts the wheel of time. More interesting is the range of voices and narrative styles that Mitchell employs. Mitchell has always been an excellent ventriloquist, but even the distinctive voice of Jason Taylor in Black Swan Green may not stand up against young Nathan Bishop in the first part, “The Right Stuff.” Mitchell’s own son is autistic and he has translated a non-fiction book about autism, The Reason I Jump, by Ka Yoshida, so he has some experience with what he is writing here. But even so the inspired pedantry of Nathan’s narration makes this perhaps the funniest thing that Mitchell has written. Until the mood darkens, that is. What he does here is what he has done so often in his career — he sets up genre expectations and then upends them in a very deliberate and calculated way. For Mitchell, no genre, no narrative device, is ever allowed to stand unchallenged.
If the other narrative voices are, perhaps inevitably, less distinctive than Nathan, they are still vivid and well developed characters, and Mitchell again rings the changes of genre and style. “Shining Armor” tells of a budding if unlikely relationship between a plodding and possibly corrupt policeman and a lonely young woman, but it also incorporates elements of a ghost story (though it fails to become as spooky as we might expect of a ghost story). The horror, however, does not stem from the revenants; they are more suggestive of life than of death. “Oink Oink” gives another unexpected twist to the narrative voice and style. This time we follow a young student who is overly conscious of her weight and her sense of isolation. She is drawn to Slade House as part of a psychic investigation but there finds a wild Halloween party, which draws her in but becomes increasingly bizarre until she finds herself watching television reports of her own disappearance. Nine years later, in “You Dark Horse You,” it is her sister, more confident but feeling obscurely guilty, who takes center stage. Here she is an investigative reporter interviewing a potential informer but getting an odd sense that time is passing more quickly outside the room than inside. Only in the final section, “Astronauts,” does the focus shift from victim to perpetrator, and the tone of the novel shifts again, this time taking the form of a tense psychological duel, a game of bluff and counter-bluff.
Five sections, five voices, five narrative styles — each one starting light, often humorous, but getting darker. And whatever expectations we might have from how each section reads are subverted partly by the constant undertone of horror, but mostly by the way Mitchell breaks apart the genre patterns. Of course it is possible to read this book as part of some ongoing multiverse, as a set of familiar characters to be picked up and placed within some grander scheme, but that approach actually tells us little about the book. We can construct a satisfying pattern from the way familiar names crop up again and again at different times and in different places; but it is more fruitful to examine the pattern that is broken, the discontinuities within the storytelling. The novel works, as all of Mitchell’s novels have worked, because we start out reading one thing and end up reading something very different indeed.