David Mitchell

Slade House in Review(s)

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A new novel from David Mitchell, Slade House, was published in October 2015. Following up on a 2015 special issue  of the journal SubStance devoted to Mitchell’s extraordinary works of fiction, Paul Harris and Patrick O’Donnell previewed Slade House in a pre-publication discussion. Now that the novel has received its early critical response, Harris and O’Donnell review the reviews.


 

Paul Harris

Paul Harris

PAUL HARRIS: As we suspected, the reviews of David Mitchell’s Slade House seem quite cleanly divided between two types of responses. Either the novel is a “devilishly fun … fiendish delight” fit to devour in a single sitting like the twins sucking down another soul, or it is dismissed as “soul-sucking mumbo-jumbo” registering too high on the “wackometer” to enjoy, let alone take seriously.

The most positive reviews see it as an entertainment given substance by the “human warmth” of its characters or the philosophical questions it raises: John Boyne calls it “a highly effective, creepy and witty ghost story, designed to unsettle the reader and raise questions about what all of us might do in our quest for immortality.” The most negative assessments see Slade House as a letdown, or even a betrayal: for Scarlet Thomas, the novel moves Mitchell from exemplary author (“what would David Mitchell do?”) to one “writing [his] own fan fiction.” Thomas criticizes Mitchell for moral and political disingenuousness: the novel sounds “hefty themes” but transfers “meaning and purpose” from the real to the “supernatural” and ends up offering only a “Bill and Ted philosophy” that we should all “be excellent to one another.”

 

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Patrick, do you see a third alternative to these views, an excluded middle that gets us out of the muddle of either seeing Slade House as a lite fictional funhouse or a shrill failure without much value? In considering this question myself, one avenue that I’ve thought about is genre. Reflecting on the many reviews I read, I realize how critical the lens of genre is in the reader’s reception of Slade House. The novel has garnered ubiquitous comparisons to Henry James’s Turn of the Screw for giving the ghost story a new twist, while also being lauded for its Lovecraftian integration of horror and science fiction. Others, though, diagnose Slade House as over the top in its deployment of genre(s) and heavy-handed in explaining or laying bare the rules of its fictive world.  I found science fiction writer and critic Paul Kincaid’s review the most informed, persuasive take on this issue. Though the novel as a whole sounds the horror note, Kincaid points out that in each section Mitchell “sets up genre expectations and then upends them in a very deliberate and calculated way.” This pattern is what makes Mitchell so successful: Kincaid concludes that Slade House “works, as all of Mitchell’s novels have worked, because we start out reading one thing and end up reading something very different indeed.”

Mitchell both explodes the boundaries of genre (by refusing to stay within the confines of distinct classes of fiction) and implodes them (by miming a genre and then turning it inside out).

Kincaid’s review made me appreciate Mitchell’s constant upending of expectations, but it also made me wonder whether the game can reach a point of exhaustion. Mitchell’s fictional arcs can abruptly shift dimensions, it seems, because it is all fiction—it’s all made up, so you are free to make anything up and keep changing the rules; once this is the case, ultimately there is nothing that can be trusted and nothing that cannot be done.

Slade House seems to assert this view of narration or fiction most explicitly or literally. The twins have infinite fiction-creating power dressed up in Lacuna-Operandi-Orison stagesets, but they SO free to compose the scene and inhabit characters that there are no rules left. Behind the world being constructed is an omnipotent wizard who can wave a wand at any time, without any need to justify matters. The orison of the Fox and Hounds pub featuring Jonah commandeering Fred Pink in the novel’s penultimate section felt the most contrived; the sudden shift left me more ticked off than tickled. This reversal then sets up the final turning of the tables, at yet another level of abstraction, when Marinus’s powers prove even more infinite than the Grayers, and time enters the Lacuna. As readers, we should be able to see this coming because that final section is narrated by Norah, and each section has shown the destruction of unsuspecting narrators who think they are in one world with one set of rules but turn out not to know who or what they are up against.

Returning to one strand of our previous discussion, I am left wondering what Slade House tells us about the house of fiction. If the rules of conjuring have no rules, or all genres and conventions can be flouted at any time, then there is not enough suspense or tension left to warrant our entering into a state of suspended disbelief—put differently, with nothing to believe in, there is nothing not to believe in, and hence no disbelief either.

What are your thoughts about this very basic but also encompassing question of the rules for constructing houses of fiction?


 

Patrick O'Donnell

Patrick O’Donnell

PATRICK O’DONNELL:  Like you, I am not terribly surprised by the bifurcated responses from the reviewers, though I think those that regard Slade House as a minor entertainment really miss the mark. Many of the responses that you cite proceed from a set of expectations regarding both David Mitchell (a major novelist in mid-career) and the fictional genres that he characteristically engages—or rather, the fictional sub-genres (as they are often viewed) of  fantasy, science fiction, horror.  The combination of “major novelist” and “sub-genre” poses a dilemma for reviewers who have a hard time putting together the notions of serious literature and popular genres, despite much important Anglo-American fiction since the 1960s closing the gap between “high” and “low” art.”

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I’ll simply note in this regard that one of Mitchell’s fictional mentors, Haruki Murakami, received a similar set of binary responses to 1Q84. Reviewers, in the main, weren’t particularly happy with that novel’s engagement with what they perceived as a chaotic mix of realism, mysticism, fantasy, and various shaggy dog pyrotechnics.

There seems to be an equal amount of difficulty with the expectation that each succeeding novel by an acknowledged, important novelist and prolific writer must somehow “top” everything that has come before, or offer some kind of visible, steady advance (“the best David Mitchell novel yet!”) in an ever-rising career trajectory.

I’m quite sure there is a large excluded middle between viewing Slade House as either a delightful (but minor) entertainment or a “fan fiction.” There are many ways seeing the novel that do not rely so much on the expectations I’ve mentioned.

I’m in complete agreement with you that examining what Mitchell is doLost in the Funhouseing with genre in Slade House, and throughout his fiction, offers one way of getting at what is at stake in this newest work. Some of the reviewers seem to suggest that nothing important is at stake, particularly those who are disappointed that Mitchell seems to be trading off his investment in the “big themes” of human greed, exploitation, colonialism, mortality, historical inevitability, or historical change, etc., for sheer fun, fantasy, and entertainment (or lack thereof).  And, I think you are quite right in suggesting that the novel is constantly turning the tables on itself and on the expectations of its readers by positing that its own fictional rules are constantly changing and subverting their own tenancy. I’m reminded of the line in John Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse: “for whom is the funhouse fun?”

For you, it seems that the suspension of belief in the rules that undergird the suspension of disbelief results in a kind of mise en abyme of infinite play and a loss of semiotic power that, for those unhappy with certain putative versions of postmodernism, signals a dead end of sorts.

I’d like to pose another possible way of seeing all of this.  The novel—quite seriously, I think, for all of its esoteric claptrap, as well as its fractality and generic hybridity—poses the questions of who is making the rules, and what are the hidden or manifest agendas of their making?

How do those in power (the rule-makers) stay in power, and what do power-mongering and rule-making—which in Mitchell’s fiction has everything to do with the enforcement and construction of a supposedly orderly and stable “reality” that enables those in power to remain empowered—have to do with our sense of what constitutes human identity?

Michel Foucault has performed for us the crucial work of explaining how power operates in relation to knowledge: he poses and answers a series of complicated epistemological questions. But he doesn’t get at what power has to do with us ontologically, and I think that is what Mitchell is trying to get at in his work, including Slade House, with its soulsucking semi-immortals and its rebirthed “saviors” like Marinus, who operates not as a deus ex machina but as a last-ditch interventionist embodying the unforeseen good luck of those who will not be destroyed by the Grayers in the future (though that’s not to say something else won’t come along to take their place). The novel might then be seen as extending the fantasy of empowerment, perhaps to its absurdist limit, enabling us to ask some key questions: what happens if everyone is in on the lie of this fantasy that disguises the real fragility and vulnerability of the empowered? What happens if we see that power, with all of its seductions, is the opposite of what constitutes (or should constitute) life and being? What if the construction of reality is put into the hands of the multitude and not the hands of the one per cent?

Let me put the ball back in your court, Paul: How do you see Slade House in relation to Mitchell’s previous fiction: as an advance, an extension, a repetition, a refutation—or, if none of those, how can we regard it?  Is there any way to tell where Mitchell goes from here?


 

PAUL HARRIS: Pat, you just hit the refresh button on Slade House for me: I look forward to rereading it to watch how empowerment is linked to world-making and see how it plays in these terms. You’re right to remind Mitchell readers that, just as he collapses serious and popular genres, he also sounds heavy themes in seemingly light stories.

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As for how Slade House relates to Mitchell’s previous work, in form and structure it most clearly resembles Ghostwritten, Cloud Atlas, and Bone Clocks. All these texts are divided into discrete sections with different narrators set in different decades/centuries. The obvious difference is that Slade House takes place at one setting, while the episodes in the other novels span the globe. Just as the spatial setting doesn’t change, Slade House also generates a more static image or concept of time than those other novels. Even though its episodes move forward nine years each time, each plays out the same scenario, so there is not the same kind of plot advancement as in the other texts.

The game afoot is to defy mortality: the Grayers persist in a Lacuna where time doesn’t pass, and they consume engifted souls to keep themselves from aging.  The narrative time thus progresses in a recursive loop; each nine years a new narrator enters a new Orison, but the modus operandi remains the same. The novel’s temporality reminds me a bit of a video game, where a new player enters and tries to beat the villains. It is reminiscent of the film Run Lola Run (explicitly framed as a video game sequence, run three times through), except that not all characters remain the same through the iterations of the game-time. As in that film, here there is Run Lolalearning, or shared information, that accumulates in the game’s iterations: knowledge and weapons are passed forward. For the reader, each section makes us increasingly familiar with the plot routine (enter the house, consume Banjanx, go upstairs, soul is consumed). So, as we make our way through it, the novel seems to become more and more suspended in the ghostly time of its fictional house. Of course, like all Mitchell novels, it ends with a new beginning. Instead of Norah’s death closing the deal, she transverses into a fetus and vows revenge on Marinus—and surely we can anticipate seeing this confrontation in a future novel.

This brings me to the other question you posed: what direction Mitchell might take from here. Mitchell is particularly fun to play this game with, because he keeps defying expectations and exploring new territories. In imagining Mitchell’s career trajectory, I don’t think about his work as a single arc or linear process. I’ve written before that it seems more fitting to imagine his texts as iterations in a fractal imagination. The recurring characters, themes, and genres prompt me to picture his “übernovel” as a sort of strange attractor; each text marks a recursive movement—both returning to familiar sites and opening new terrains—that simultaneously fleshes out and fills in more and more of his fictional universe. With each textual iteration, the overall shape and contours of his übernovel become increasingly clear and its constituent parts more densely interwoven.

If we conceptualize Mitchell’s work this way, then speculating where Mitchell’s work will go next would entail running the strange attractor simulation through its next iteration. Stanislaw Lem actually thought about authors’ work in this way in his brDostoevskyilliant “History of Bitic Literature” thought-experimental essay published in 1973. (Lem is a “Prescient” if ever there was one!) Lem imagines computing machines capable of “bitic mimesis,” machine-written imitation of writers. He describes a novel by Pseudodostoevsky, created by a computer processing all existing Dostoevsky novels as information in “the space of meanings” and modeling his corpus as “a curved mass, recalling in its structure an open torus, that is, a ‘broken ring’ (with a gap). Thus it was a relatively simple task (for machines, of course, not for people!) to close that gap, inserting the missing link” (58).

At first sight, it seems much harder to model Mitchell’s writing in that way than Dostoevsky’s; the latter seems to have an internal stylistic and generic consistency that Mitchell purposely eschews. But with each successive novel, his corpus seems to gain coherence and consistency, assuming some sort of discernible shape. If I tried to model Mitchell’s work, I wouldn’t start from “the space of meanings” in the words, but rather I would list a set of recurring elements—island or city settings, cats, types of characters (angry writer, gifted rebellious teen)—and a template for form, such as every ending a beginning, stand-alone episodic stories serving a larger plot, etc.

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Putting aside this digressive line of speculative unreasoning, one could make a more educated guess at predicting the shape of Mitchell’s future work by following the clues he himself has laid down. In her excellent piece about The Bone Clocks, Kathryn Schulz reports that Mitchell mapped out his next several several texts: “These include further adventures with soul-eating villains, a trio of linked novellas set in New York in the late ’60s and early ’70s, a return to historical fiction (different hemisphere this time), and a fictionalized biography of an 18th-century person you’ve probably heard of. The final installment of the Marinus trilogy will follow all that. Mitchell is also toying with an idea for what will by then be his 12th novel. It is set 250 million years in the future.”  It will be interesting to see if Mitchell adheres to this plan or if he cannot stop his restless imagination from going in other directions. Regardless of what Orisons Mitchell sends from his Operandi though, I confess that I’ll always eagerly eat the Banjanx he serves up, as long as my psychovoltage holds out.

I have suggested that Mitchell might serve readers well by publishing serially rather than in novels. Wouldn’t it be great if we could ‘subscribe’ to him, and receive his novels in installments, rather than waiting for the whole work to be done and consuming it all at once?  This would make reading Mitchell much more fun; not only would we endure shorter breaks between new Mitchell texts, but we would also stay in suspense much longer when one section ends, and have time to wonder what is coming next. This would also prevent book reviews from spoiling the surprise of reading his novels, the problem we attempted to mitigate in our first exchange.

I find reading his books now comparable to binge-watching seasons of a TV series. Just playing with this scenario, if the storylines of several novels are already set, one could even imagine a point where Mitchell could hire ‘writers’ to execute textual episodes in the ongoing übernovel saga. This turnabout on himself would even be fair play in some way.  Mitchell has been a kind of authorial noncorporum who infiltrates the minds of narrators, styles of authors, and conventions of genres, and speaks through them. He does more than allude to other writers; it is like he dons their modus operandi and produces a new version of them: number9dream is like Murakami as done by Mitchell; Cloud Atlas is like Mitchell does Defoe, Melville, Nabokov, Hoban, etc.  So why not see if talented writers could ‘do’ Mitchell?

David Mitchell book tour

David Mitchell

Of course, I don’t imagine or expect that Mitchell would ever outsource his stories to other writers. But I do think that he and his editor/publisher/agent might consider alternative delivery systems beyond print novels. He has already migrated into twitter; why not break new ground in publishing fiction?  I actually suggested this to Mitchell a year ago; he simply responded in conventional terms, saying that he would continue to follow the existing process. This occurred at a book tour stop for Bone Clocks, so maybe it wasn’t the right context for him to consider other options.

So, I’ll bounce it back to you—where do you see Mitchell going from here, and what do you think of his moving to some sort of serial publication, adapted to the contemporary historical context?


 

PATRICK O’DONNELL:  Thanks, Paul, for this lively speculation on where Mitchell might go from here. I completely agree that his fictions, as they unfold across the time of their writing, are “iterations in a fractal imagination”—that’s a terrific way of viewing his work incrementally. Doing so, as you suggest, leads to many interesting possibilities for reading him in the future (as well as considering what his writing in/of the future might look like).

There are “personalities” like Marinus to consider, who appears to be an amalgamation of tendencies or projections, a wavering needle on the scale that runs from protagonist to antagonist.  Then there are all the atomistic shapes and designs of Mitchell’s work, taken fractally as a non-totalizable totality—rooms, islands, fortresses, cities, avenues, pathways, landscapes, artifacts, assemblages of all kinds. One finds all of these and more in any novelist of Mitchell’s encyclopedic demeanor, but in observing these iterations across—now—seven novels, we definitely get the sense that each of these shapes and designs bear striking similarities but are radically different from novel to novel.

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One of the pleasures taken by many of Mitchell’s fans is playing “Where’s Waldo?” with his novels as they appear, focusing on the transmigratory characters of the novels. It’s rather like spotting the various manifestations of Tom Hanks in the film adaptation of Cloud Atlas (which, by the way, despite some dismal reviews, provides to my mind a compelling and precise visual rendering of Mitchell’s sense that civilizations across time are made up of transmutable identities, forms, and objects in continuous collision with each other). But to play “Where’s Waldo?” with the novels largely misses the point, because doing so overdetermines character as the primary element of his fiction.

I know there are some who read the repeated/rebirthed characters of Mitchell’s novels as generating some concept of transcendent human identity, or as a comment about the survival of “the human” over the reaches of time and amidst the collapse of civilizations and cultures, but I don’t quite see it that way. The repeated identities of his novels, to me, are simply one set of elements among many that circulate molecularly through his fiction: his game is terrain, not identity, and thus he is always moving—at times sequentially, at times randomly—between generated worlds always in the process of formation. This is another reason why I think the Wachowskis/Twyker adaptation of Cloud Atlas was so successful while being true to its materiality as a visual experience:  while probably difficult to understand “thematically,” especially for those not familiar with the novel and thus challenged to follow the intertwined plots of the film, visually, it captured perfectly Mitchell’s sense that history “happens” in a fragmented, non-linear fashion, that cultures and identities evolve fractally, and that the “whole” of reality is an illusion for which we generate partial narrative patterns and signifying chains as compensations.

David Mitchel ghost

David Mitchell

Given all of that, I agree entirely that the future “Mitchell” may well try out different forms and kinds of writing made available as the digital age progresses. As we know, writing and thinking are being radically transformed by the advent of social media, and there are several contemporary writers beginning to experiment with those forms in interesting ways.

The origins of Slade House in Twitter certainly indicates that Mitchell may well be moving into this territory. It will be interesting to see what happens along these lines given that, predictably, he will continue to be strongly tied to the notion of the book and the narrative traditions that have emerged in the post-Gutenberg book culture. (For many, “the book” is done, though not, I think, for David Mitchell.)  As you suggest, Mitchell may well move into a form of serial publication that somehow replicates both the novel’s traditional seriality (think of the apocryphal crowds waiting on the Brooklyn docks for the arrival of the latest number of The Old Curiosity Shop in the nineteenth century, and yielding up a universal moan when readers collectively came upon the death of Little Nell) and the new serialities of the digital age: semirandom, occasional, serendipitous, wherever Google takes us.

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But I think as well that Mitchell may in the future be exploring both other media and new ways of viewing how human cognition and behavior work, made available by the fast-moving advances in neuroscience and genetics currently taking place. The two indicators of this for me are his recent collaborative work with his wife, KA Yoshida, on the English translation of Naoki Higashida’s The Reason I Jump, and the “3-D film-opera,” The Sunken Garden, with Michel van der Aa. I think it’s quite possible that Mitchell will be engaging in future collaborative projects that mix media (as he does genres in his novels) or that involve collaborative writing projects of some kind.

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David Mitchell and Michael van der Aa

And—given Mitchell’s fascination with childhood and adolescence (revealed most fully in blackswangreen but visible throughout his fiction), combined with the cognitive and learning processes of children that he directly engages with personally and in the act of co-translating the memoir of an autistic teenager—I would not be at all surprised to see Mitchell writing young adult fiction, or, in another dimension, exploring the ways in which narrative operates cognitively for different minds. In this, as in all of his work, I believe his focus will be not upon the universal, but upon the differences, the fractures in the surface and the gradations in the terrain, however we stumble upon them.


 

PAUL HARRIS: Patrick, this has been a great pleasure.  Thank you for contributing your perspectives on David Mitchell to SubStanceI look forward to reading more of your work and perhaps resuming this conversation when “Season 8” of Mitchell’s übernovel comes out.


 

Paul Harris

Paul Harris

Paul A. Harris is a co-editor of SubStance and a professor of English at Loyola Marymount University. He served as president of the International Society for the Study of Time from 2004-2013 and edited the recent SubStance issue David Mitchell in the Labyrinth of Time.  His current project is The Petriverse of Pierre Jardin.

Patrick O'Donnell

Patrick O’Donnell

Patrick O’Donnell is a professor of twentieth- and twenty-first-century British and American literature at Michigan State University; he is the author and editor of over a dozen books on modern and contemporary fiction, most recently, The American Novel Now:  Reading American Fiction Since 1980 (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), and A Temporary Future: The Fiction of David Mitchell (Bloomsbury, 2015).  He is currently working on a book about Henry James and contemporary cinema.

 

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Not a review of David Mitchell’s new novel *SLADE HOUSE*

Previewing the book without preempting the pleasure of reading it

A conversation with Mitchell scholars Paul A. Harris and Patrick O’Donnell

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The University of Wisconsin Press journal SubStance published a special issue earlier in 2015, edited by Paul A. Harris, devoted to the extraordinary fiction of David Mitchell. A new novel from Mitchell, Slade House, debuts October 25, 2015.

Traditional book reviews of novelist David Mitchell’s writing inevitably spoil the pleasures of discovering what turn this genre-bending author’s latest work has taken; even a cursory account of plot, characters, and structure tells many Mitchell fans things they’d rather not have known. Here, Mitchell scholars Paul A. Harris and Patrick O’Donnell engage in a critical conversation about Slade House, in the hopes of piquing readers’ curiosity without making them feel piqued or PO’d.

This conversation will resume in early November, when Harris and O’Donnell will assess and respond to reviews of Slade House after it appears October 25.

PAH Patrick, I am delighted that you agreed to discuss Slade House prior to its imminent arrival (October 25) in bookstores and the mailboxes of Mitchell fans. I cannot help but point out that the opening lines of your own book on Mitchell (A Temporary Future: The Fiction of David Mitchell) fit his next novel perfectly: you cite W.G. Sebald character Austerlitz’s belief that “all the moments of our life occupy the same space, as if future events already existed and were only waiting for us to find our way to them at last, just as when we have accepted an invitation we duly arrive at a certain house at a given 9781441171221time.”  Since those lines seem almost literally accurate in describing Slade House, I have to wonder what your immediate reaction was when you finished the text.  Did it seem like what you would have expected of his next novel, or does it break new ground?

For my part, I have to confess that at first the book left me a bit flat; it felt like The Bone Clocks ‘lite’ (in terms of both literary density and weight). As I read the novel, I kept anticipating/imagining the negative reviews it seems likely to receive from canonical- and avant-garde-minded critics alike. But as I flipped around in it and thought more about it, I concluded that Slade House is even more successful than Mitchell’s prior books at managing to be both accessible and complex, popular and academic. It’s a really fast read that keeps you engaged, but on reflection it seems meta-literary in complicated, interesting ways.

POD Thanks, Paul, I am delighted to join in this conversation with you about David Mitchell’s newest novel. As  you suggest, it is no surprise that Mitchell would write a novel about a house—in this case, a haunted house. The interior spaces of Mitchell’s novels are typically freighted with the past, the history of the events that have taken place therein, the memories or remnants of the characters that have inhabited them. I think Slade House is in many ways an intensification of Mitchell’s interest in the ways that time and space intersect, or perhaps a better way to think about it is that his “global” interest in those intersections has been given a specific location in a London back alley. Indeed, many of the stories that circulate through Slade House will seem familiar (if inevitably uncanny) to Mitchell’s readers as we encounter motifs and figures writ large in The Bone Clocks and percolating through all of the other novels. But I completely agree with you that what is happening here goes well beyond a continuation of the same esoteric narrative about the wars of the atemporals. I’d be interested to hear more about what your views about the metaliterary tropes and ideas of the novel.9780812976823

PAH Let me return to your unexpectedly apt introductory words in A Temporary Future. You wrote that “The ‘certain’ house at which one arrives in reading Mitchell—the novel one holds in one’s hands—is typically composed of many parts and genres, the architecture being neither carpenter’s gothic nor that of the sedimented multinovel, but a capacious assemblage of narratives connected to each other in differential patterns. Those patterns, detected by readers through variable acts of attention, can shift and fluctuate depending on the circumstances of one’s reading, the narrative thread that draws one’s notice at a given moment, the emergence of a sequence that compels one to recall something in a given novel’s ‘past,’ or something that seems to be lurking in its ‘future.’” These words not only apply literally to Slade House, but could also describe Mitchell’s ‘house of fiction’ as a whole. Simply put, one could say that Mitchell’s ‘house’ (Slade House and oeuvre alike) has only an ambiguous physical location and elusive materiality; one could say that it doesn’t exist in space but rather persists in time. I suppose that on one level this is true of all fiction; what would you say makes Mitchell’s work different in this regard?

POD  I really like the notion of the house of Slade House as analogous to Mitchell’s “house of fiction” as a whole, and the idea that this house persists across multiple genres and temporalities but, in effect, floats in space. We could compare Mitchell’s house of fiction to the famous figure Henry James put forward in his preface to The Portrait of a Lady, where he says that the house of fiction “has in short not one window, but a million—a number of possible windows not to be reckoned, rather; every one of which has been pierced, or is still pierceable, in its vast front, by the need of the individual vision and by the pressure of the individual will. These apertures, of dissimilar shape and size, hang so, all together, over the human scene that we might have expected of them a greater sameness of report than we find. They are but windows at the best, mere holes in a dead wall, disconnected, perched aloft; they are not hinged doors opening straight upon life.”  James’s figure is primarily epistemological and perspectival: reality is complex, and we perceive it, and know it, via multiple apertures, each framed by the position of the viewer and her/his “will” or capacity to see what is out there. Mitchell’s house is, by comparison, ontological, an incarceration of time and space that frames the condition of our being-in-the-world. I think one of the great attractions of a novel like Slade House is that Mitchell is enable to dramatize the immensely complex relationship between time, space, and being through an array of popular narrative genres and highly readable stories. The stories do not simplify the philosophical issues involved, they illuminate them, as light through a stained glass window illuminates religious mysteries.

But that brings me to a question for you that I think the novel raises as a continuation of the “Shaded Way” narratives that 9780375724503have been circulating in Mitchell’s novels since they were first hinted at in the Mongolia chapter of Ghostwritten: what do we make of Mitchell’s ongoing interest in the connection between science and religion, or science and the “other-natural” (as compared to the “supernatural)?  Any thoughts?

PAH Pat, thank you for bring in the very apposite James passage; I completely concur with the contrast you draw between his perspectival-nuance view and Mitchell’s constructive-ontological narrative poetics. I would add that it feels like James is always looking over the shoulders of his characters; that he gives us the world from their viewpoint but he is constantly “piercing” their windows onto the world, and actually he has difficulty allowing a character’s “individual vision” or “will” to take over the narrative. Mitchell, by contrast, seems to have full-blown voices in his head that he transcribes onto the page. He is invested in getting speech, language, allusive details, and tone exactly right for the multiplicity of characters he creates, the figures who become the reader’s guides through the global tours of his books. At the Los Angeles stop of his Bone Clocks book tour, when two young aspiring novelists asked him what one should do to become a better writer, his immediate response was to listen to people, to hear acutely and precisely how people speak—the locutions and accents and diction. I remember thinking, yes, one sees that in his books; it’s just easy to forget how quickly he immerses us in his characters’ voices, because when we think about his texts, it’s the innovations in form, settings, and intertextuality that stand out, plus the philosophical/cultural questions he raises (mortality, power, genocide, predation). There are inevitable echoes across his different voices—I recall one reviewer somewhat snarkily stringing together similar-sounding quotes from characters across Bone Clocks—but the passages were all the kind of pithy riffs/aphoristic formulations that Mitchell excels at and understandably (in my view) cannot resist writing. It’s not the case that all his characters speak in similar voices in general.

To me, Mitchell’s ability to transcribe voices onto the page operates in an interesting way—sometimes I think he is a ventriloquist; at other times it seems as if he’s the dummy.  This connects to the question you posed, because I remember that my first response to the noncorporeal intelligence of the Mongolia chapter in Ghostwritten was that it was a simple, literal embodiment or allegory of narration—particularly Mitchell’s narrative mode, ‘transmigrating’ from one mind to another as he changes chapters.  In Temporary Future you neatly characterize that character’s consciousness as “an assemblage of overlapping and differentiated cognitive maps, languages, fragmentary memories, and partial histories,” and read it as a metaphor for connections among strangers across time and space, as well as a figure for the fractured nature of identity in Mitchell.  I agree with this and by comparison what I saw is quite basic—the transmigration is a map of the narration’s itinerary, an image of Mitchell’s own constructive, creative journey from one person-place to another.

In terms of the question of the ‘other-natural,’ it does seem puzzling that Mitchell repeatedly disavows belief in anything beyond the material or natural, yet repeatedly returns to fantastic elements in his fiction that suggest otherwise.cover_sub  I think it might be possible to sort of invert the question: it is precisely the ability of narration to move magically, fantastically, across time and space, to inhabit other minds, to bring them to life and let them expire, or to have them hop into another head instead—‘other-natural’ elements or dimensions would just be an extension of these powers of narration. When I asked him about this issue in the interview for SubStance, he said:

“Maybe it’s worthwhile to note that a novel is a zone of near-infinite possibilities, where contradictory elements can co-exist, including temporal ones. The Bone Clocks is about mortals like us . . . as well as pseudo-immortals like the Anchorites . . . as well as the Horologists, who have a ‘Serial Repeater’ time-scale; and that’s okay, assuming you think the novel works. If The Bone Clocks was an astrophysics dissertation, I’d have my academic ID revoked and be escorted to the campus gate by security, and quite right too. Because it’s a novel, I get away with it. The other handy thing about novels is that while they explore, they don’t have to arrive at tidy conclusions.”

So, to me, Mitchell’s work invokes the ‘other natural’ as a possible world as a function of fiction’s power to produce infinite possible worlds. Maybe I am just using Mitchell’s ducking of the question to duck the question. . . . Bringing this back to Slade House, I felt that the way that the antagonists construct characters and the house clearly maps to Mitchell’s sense of the unlimited powers of the author to make up anything at any time, and to change the game as he or she sees fit.

After all that, then, I can only echo your unanswered question back to you: what do you make of Mitchell’s ongoing interest in the connection between science and religion, or science and the “other-natural” (as compared to the “supernatural)?

POD  I’m really intrigued by your statements about Mitchell’s ventriloquism, and I quite agree that he has an amazing capacity to capture and throw an assemblage of voices in his novels. This reminds me of Dickens, who knew a good deal about ventriloquism in the nineteenth century, and who was observed by his daughter, Mamie, to be “practicing” the voices of his characters before a mirror. Like Dickens, the convincingness of Mitchell’s voices have to do not just with matters of pitch and locution, but also with location—the planetary spaces that Mitchell is able to evoke both in the past and in the future. One of the things that would distinguish him from a Charles Dickens—picking up on your point about Mitchell’s character—and worlds-hopping—is his invocation of multiple worlds in adjacency, the multiple realities or, as Ursula Heise would put it, “chronoschisms” that Mitchell’s readers are encouraged to inhabit as stories and as formal structures. In a sense, both James and Dickens are after a kind of mastery—James (especially late James) to represent the totality of a consciousness or perspective, Dickens to trace the master plot behind all of the subplots and seemingly disconnected narratives of urban cacophony. I think the difference in Mitchell is that, as an author, he is not interested in mastery: as you elegantly put it, he brings plots, worlds and characters to life and allows them to expire, often in medias res. This may be going a bit out on a limb, but one of the great attractions of Mitchell’s narratives is their stories, made up in a very traditional sense of compelling characters and interesting, suspenseful plots; however, as an author (and of course this is something of a trompe d’oeil) he is far less anxious than Dickens or James about forsaking his authority over them; he seems not particularly worried about the form of singularity that we term “author,” though of course he has attained great visibility and, even, celebrity status despite his self-effacing authority. In other terms, he generates multiple, partial worlds and stories that make room for readers to connect, recall, and retell; in effect, he forsakes his authority, or alternatively, he allows readers the sense that they are co-authoring the work.

Bringing this back to Slade House, you’ve already suggested a number of ways that we could view this novel as a series of stories that entail metanarrative consequences for Mitchell’s own “house of fiction.” Not too fancifully, I think, we could consider all of Mitchell’s novels as “slade houses” (with the obvious pun on “slade/slayed”) through which his living-dying characters circulate in time. While, as devotees of “the Shaded Way” (adding a third resonance to “slade/slayed/shade”), the antagonists of Slade House seek immortality via the obscene consumption of souls, they fail over time—time itself is their enemy—as do the vampiric “immortals” of The Bone Clocks, Cloud Atlas, and Ghostwritten; in the end, they die, every single one of them. And the protagonists in this metaphysical battle, the Atemporals, also can and do die; in fact, death is essential to their being, as is the case with Marinus, who makes his/her reappearance as a psychiatrist from Toronto in Slade House. I think through all of this that Mitchell sees mortality, the fact of death that comes to us all, as the primary condition of being human, and all of our attempts to circumvent death (and time, for that matter), as the engine behind the construction of empires, the accumulation of wealth, the quest for power, and the recurrence of war—as if, in the latter, we can defeat death by incurring it everywhere.

And this then takes me to responding to your call out on the question of the relation between science and religion in Mitchell. I couldn’t help laughing at Mitchell’s saying that if The Bone Clocks was an astrophysics dissertation, his academic ID would be revoked and he’d be escorted to the exit by campus security. Yet if you read some of the material with which Mitchell is clearly acquainted on quantum physics, the concept of black holes or the many-worlds interpretation would sound no more outlandish to skeptical ears than the idea of an ongoing war between two semi-immortal factions taking place in a parallel universe that, every so often, encroaches upon human individuals in the “real” world. I think Mitchell is interested in the deep connections to be perceived across history between religion and science, both disciplines premised upon systems of belief that offer the potential of extended life or life after death. I can hear the empiricists scoffing at this, but what else is behind the multilayered and extending scientific quests that inform cybernetics (replacing mortal elements with mechanical parts that last longer following an infinite logic of substitution), astrophysics (in the attempt to understand the origins of the universe and the limitations on its near-infinite expanse), mathematics (in the abstractions infinite numbers), or genetics (in the attempt to create a complete DNA map and thus genetically produce individuals who can live longer, and perhaps even be reborn after death through cryogenics). I think Mitchell in his fiction is particularly attuned to how driven we are to find a way to cheat death. Authors do this in their writing (which they hope will live well beyond them in future generations of readers); Mitchell generates a form of writing which takes as a principle theme the good and bad consequences of this “life-drive.”

Paul Harris

Paul Harris

Paul A. Harris is a co-editor of SubStance and a professor of English at Loyola Marymount University. He served as president of the International Society for the Study of Time from 2004-2013 and edited the recent SubStance issue David Mitchell in the Labyrinth of Time.  His current project is The Petriverse of Pierre Jardin.

Patrick O'Donnell

Patrick O’Donnell

Patrick O’Donnell is a professor of twentieth- and twenty-first-century British and American literature at Michigan State University; he is the author and editor of over a dozen books on modern and contemporary fiction, most recently, The American Novel Now:  Reading American Fiction Since 1980 (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), and A Temporary Future: The Fiction of David Mitchell (Bloomsbury, 2015).  He is currently working on a book about Henry James and contemporary cinema.

David Mitchell in the Labyrinth of Time: Review of THE BONE CLOCKS and Preview of an Interview with the Author

As an online preview of a special issue of SubStance devoted to David Mitchell’s fiction, we are posting a review-essay of his book by Paul Harris and an excerpt of an interview with the author. The interview will appear in the special issue in spring 2015.


 

The Bone Clocks coverA Review of David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks
by Paul A. Harris, Editor, SubStance

David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks, the latest iteration of his fractal imagination, follows a central character’s life through six decades in six sections that simultaneously succeed as stand-alone stories. Protagonist Holly Sykes narrates the first and final chapters; in the middle ones, her life is seen prismatically through the lenses of others who cross her path: Cambridge student Hugo Lamb, war journalist Ed Brubeck, bad-boy author Crispin Hershey, and Horologist Marinus. Navigating this narrative proves to be a rollicking ride: the plot is a propulsive page-turner, picking up momentum as it goes; the narrative is kaleidoscopic-episodic, unfolding in a series of juxtapositions and sometimes sudden shifts; the style is protean, skipping skillfully among different rhetorical registers, allusive layers, and literary genres.

At the same time, The Bone Clocks is a tightly woven text that recursively loops through Mitchell’s previous books and ultimately interlaces all his books into an intricate, sprawling intertext. Returning Mitchell readers will encounter familiar faces (Lamb, Marinus), and recognize allusions to his other books (“The Voorman Problem,” a story attributed to Hershey, is from Number9Dream; the “symmetrical structure” of Hershey’s novel Dessicated Embryos can be read as an allusion to Cloud Atlas, and there’s even a comical reference to the movie). Back-stories in The Bone Clocks turn into/out of back-stories to episodes/elements from previous novels (Magistrate Shiroyama’s killing Abbot Enomoto in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet; the Prescients in Cloud Atlas).

More broadly, the form of The Bone Clocks is a synthesis of globe-trotting Ghostwritten and time-traveling Cloud Atlas. In tone and style, Holly Sykes’s rebellious teen sojourn into the countryside is straight out of contemporaneously-set Black Swan Green (she’s a slightly older avatar of Jason Taylor). While each chapter of that novel covered a calendar month over a year, each section of The Bone Clocks is set in a specific decade, beginning thirty years ago and ending thirty years into the future. Eventually, one surmises that the heterogeneous characters and events in The Bone Clocks, and its central plot conflicts, are all always already written into something called “The Script,” a self-reflexive motif for the text itself, and perhaps for Mitchell’s body of work as well. (more…)