Slade House, by David Mitchell

Well, he didn’t—revert to the world of reality in this 2015 novel. Except, he did, but only during the wonderful opening pages, as he introduces us to thirteen-year-old Nathan Bishop, who is accompanying his mother Norah to Slade House, where she has been invited by Lady Norah Grayer to attend a musical soiree, and where she also hopes that she will be invited to perform. What we encounter is a beautiful portrait of a curious boy, his down-to-earth relationship with his parents, and his precocious reaction to the world he encounters.

But Slade House, which is entered down a dark alley, where a small hidden door opens to reveal a fancy garden in front of an impressive mansion, is not what it appears to be. It is not the site of a simple musical soiree. Not when the garden begins to disappear, and not when Nathan discovers a portrait of himself that shows him in his exact current clothing. And certainly not when Lady Norah Grayer becomes much younger, and Jonah Grayer, formerly a teenager who greeted him in the garden, is suddenly old enough to be a twin of Lady Norah. Whereupon, Nathan looks into a candle flame, and feels himself disappearing, indeed being swallowed up.

This is the first episode in what will become a series of stories about immortality, about certain family members desperate to achieve it, and about others who are their unsuspecting victims. In a way, it is a horror story; but the horror is not quite palpable, because it belongs more to a world of fantasy than to the real world around us. What is driving this desire for immortality is also not clear. It does hark back to the previous novel, The Bone Clocks, however, a work in which Mitchell also relates a series of separate stories. Indeed, the author uses this technique in many of his novels, especially in his well-known Cloud Atlas.

In this novel, the author offers four stories of victimhood, and these stories happen to repeat themselves every nine years. The second episode occurs when Inspector Gordon Edmonds calls at Slade House to follow up on the disappearance of the Bishops, mother and son. The police have been approached by a certain Fred Pink, who was hit by a cab and was sent into a coma for nine years, but who now remembers that he had met Nathan Bishop and his mother just before their disappearance. And so the policeman is asked by his superiors to call at Slade House to see if he can learn more about the pair’s visit to the mansion and their disappearance. There, he meets its new owner, Chloe Chetwynd, a mysterious woman who seduces him, and then somehow turns into Nora Grayer.

Whereupon, nine years later, a student group calling itself the Paranormal Society, investigates Slade House and the disappearances of Nathan, his mother, and the policeman. We follow this group through Sally Timms, who develops a crush on fellow student Todd but then loses him and searches for him through room after room, rooms that also keep changing. Until Todd reveals himself as Jonah Grayer, and Sally endures the same fate as the boy and the policeman.

After three such scenes, we encounter Sally’s sister, Freya. She is a journalist and seeks out Fred Pink in order to learn the fate of her sister and her paranormal friends. Fred has done considerable research because he also lost his nephew with the paranormal group. From Grayer family memoirs, Fred has learned the history of Slade House and its family. And why so many visitors to that house have disappeared. His long conversation with Freya explains the origin of the immortals, as well as the events of the three early sections—and reads much like the extended dénouement of a complicated mystery. But it contains little drama until a final moment of action, when Fred turns into Johan Grayer, argues with his sister, and then is attacked.

An interesting aspect, by the way, but really a sidelight, is the constant debate between Norah and Jonah Grayer as they confront each of their victims. They are working together, but each is also making his decisions from a different perspective. Like many a brother and sister, they are comfortable at teasing one another, even as carping at each other also reflects a certain rivalry.

In the final section, a disguised Norah Grayer hosts a psychiatrist, Dr. Marinus, to bring the story of Slade House and the Grayer twins to an end. It is a satisfying conclusion in one sense, for the physical collapse of Slade House is highly dramatic. But there is no revelation to reward the reader for pursuing this mysterious, complicated, and repetitive story. The fantasy Slade House simply collapses out of a lack of human energy. Yes, with a promise that the story will continue one day, but this is the familiar non-ending that many a novelist relies on to continue the story in the reader’s mind. One thus comes away with the sense that it is the journey that mattered to the author, not the final explanation with its tacked-on future.

What Mitchell does accomplish here is not, for me, the horror he creates as these arbitrary victims gradually confront their fate worse than death. Rather it is, as he says, “the idea that you can no longer trust your mind…[which is] about the most frightening thing there is.” This occurs here when the interior of Slade House keeps changing, even disappearing, on its own, and these characters have no frame of reference for what is happening.

But the apparent resolution to these characters’ fates, their sudden absence, and the implication that there is no life after death, is not felt by the reader. Perhaps because the drama itself depends more on those who seek to be immortal than on those whose fate is decided.

Considering the blend of the real world and the world of fantasy, the review in The Independent of the U.K. sums up the book author Mitchell surely envisioned: “Against the cursed privilege of the immortals, [he] helps us love the time that dooms us.” That is, with the inevitability of death.

But he has not achieved this for me, because the finale is driven more by the immortals than by the supposed fate of their doomed victims. And so I continue to be reluctant to explore more of this author’s work. Yes, it is provocative; but it fails still again to be satisfying. (June, 2019)

The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell

This 2014 work is a difficult novel to evaluate. Is it a straight novel, or a fantasy novel? For its first four of six sections, it is a realistic novel that tells the stories of real people, with a bit of fantasy hovering in the background. It is quite enjoyable. With the fifth section, however, it becomes a pure fantasy novel, with confusing characters whose unique powers relate more to each other than to the humans we know. And one concludes that creating this fantasy may be the real purpose of the novel.

What is revealed in the fifth section is that a war is going on between two different beings for the control of humanity. When one being, the Horologists, die, they are reborn forty-nine days later inside a child about to die. They thus live for many generations, many centuries. The others, the Anchorites, never age and never die, as long as they can kill and absorb a normal, living person. The former are the good guys, the latter the bad guys.

The confusion begins when the fantasy characters, throughout the novel, hide within either other fantasy characters or in the human characters. This occurs with Holly, an innocent young girl who will appear in many of the sections as she grows into an adult, even becoming famous when she writes about fantasy visions she sees of the future. Plus, early in the novel, she unwittingly agrees to have an Esther Little hide inside her. Eventually, this Little turns out to be an adored Horologist and a mentor to many others.

Each of the six sections is related by a different narrator. The first narrator is Holly, who, betrayed by her boy friend, runs away at 15, has visions, including of her beloved brother Jocko, then is assaulted, and finally is found by a schoolmate, Ed Brubaker. He says that Jocko has disappeared, and she must return home. The second section’s narrator is Hugo Block, a student and thief who flees to a Swiss resort, meets Holly as a bar girl, and falls temporarily in love; then, just as he believes the police are on his trail he meets two men who promise escape and eternal life. With the Anchorites.

The third narrator is Ed Brubaker, now married to Holly and with whom he has a child, Aoife. Ed is a war correspondent in Iraq, and the author contrasts his unworldly adventures there with the fantasy creatures who pop up at a sedate wedding at home. Ed finally accepts Holly’s visions when he naps, his daughter disappears, and he finds her in a hotel room with numbers that Holly speaks in a trance.

In the fourth section, the narrator is Crispin Hershey, a failing novelist who tours the world trying to resurrect his career. In his travels, he meets Holly, now a popular author because she has written of her mysterious visions. Crispin confronts his fate when an unknown poet declares that mysterious beings are taking over mankind, and she wants Crispin’s help in revealing this.

In the fifth section, the world of fantasy truly arrives. The narrator is Marinus, a Horologist who once cured Holly of her earlier visions. These fantasy characters live in our world, but there are new relationships, all seen from a different perspective. The result: confusion. Finally, Holly learns her brother Jocko has been possessed by a Horologist leader, Xi Lo, and to find Jocko she joins Marinus in his fantasy world effort to destroy the Anchorites.

In the sixth and final section, the narrator is again Holly. She is now in her seventies, living in Ireland, and the world around her has collapsed. Global warming and authoritarian governments have brought flooding, storms, the rationing of power, and the failure of communications, world manufacturing, and world trade. And most disappointing, this author, a grand story teller, does nothing but describe Holly’s adjustment to this new and unsettled world of deprivation and violence.

Except, a deus ex machina arrives, deciding the fate of some human characters. But one asks: why this ending? Its sentimentality seems out of place, as we read about these human we followed but never identified with. And one also asks the point of the war in this world of fantasy. Yes, one side won, but the entire world soon collapsed in on itself. How did this happen, and what does it mean? One suggestion is that concern for the present led to the failure of the future. But the human witnesses did not affect this war, and this reader is left with a novel that seems to have no human rationale.

Yes, this is an absorbing novel, even if long and confusing. Because Mitchell has created a resonant world of reality, and brought it alive through the richness of his writing. Critics have even cited an additional level of richness. As Michiko Kakutani writes in the Times: “Characters and themes from Mr. Mitchell’s previous books also recur here…hints that all his novels somehow link together in a kind of ‘uberbook,’ though at this point, the reverberations and cross-references tend to feel more like clever high jinks.”

But while this approach adds connections, it also adds complexity. And adds neither richness nor depth. Moreover, James Woods cites in The New Yorker an additional distraction—from the humanity of this novel. “What occurs in the novel between people has meaning only in relation to what occurs in the novel between Anchorites and Horologists. A struggle, a war, is being played out, between forces of good and forces of evil, although how humans behave with one another appears to have little impact on that otherworldly battle…. Gradually, the reader begins to understand that the realism—the human activity—is relatively unimportant; it is the fantastical intergovernmental war that really matters.”

And this, I believe, identifies the problem at the heart of this novel. We read it for the story, but without any concern for the characters. Certainly we cannot identify with the all-powerful fantasy characters, but neither can we with the human characters. For they have no real relationship with one another, as they react only to the fantasy world, not to one another. Even the title of this novel separates the reader from these humans. The fantasy creatures call humans the bone clocks to remind them of their inferiority, because they are made only of bone and are subject to time and to death.

In sum, I will hesitate at reading more of David Mitchell’s fiction, unless he reverts more closely to the world of reality. (October, 2017)

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, by David Mitchell

This highly imaginative 2010 novel is far different from Cloud Atlas. There is one setting, Nagasaki, one time frame, around 1800, and one hero, Jacob de Zoet. It offers a rich blend of romance, adventure, and international intrigue in this story of Western vs. Eastern love, slavery vs. freedom, isolation vs. global trade, and a closed vs. an open society, plus the ramifications of murder and revenge, corruption and integrity, and justice and death.

Jacob de Zoet is a Dutch clerk who commits himself to five years in the Orient in order to earn his fortune and be able to marry a Dutch woman back home. But events conspire to keep him on the Dutch island enclave of Dejima, next to Nagasaki. He falls in love with a disfigured midwife, Orito, and fails to act when he sees her kidnapped. Eventually, the guilt he feels will guide has subsequent actions and enforce his later integrity.

Because Jacob has been sent by the Dutch East Indies Company to end the corruption at the outpost and to straighten its books, he becomes involved in the political intrigue there and its power players. As a result, he makes many enemies, and is even demoted when he refuses to accept the corruption of the departing chief. But he does find one friend in Doctor Marinus, a Dutch doctor who was training Orito before she was kidnapped.

Meanwhile, the reader follows the kidnapped Orito to a temple where she helps other kidnapped women give birth to babies that later disappear. This temple life leads to two brilliant scenes. In one, the better, Orito contrives to escape, only to turn back in order to help a close friend through a difficult birth. In the other, her Japanese suitor attempts to storm the temple with a band of armed men, only to be betrayed. His is the first of the deaths that will flavor this romantic tale with a dose of reality.

Reality also includes a conflict between the Dutch and Japanese cultures, and between the Dutch and British empires. The cultural conflict is more significant in literary terms, as it involves tradition vs. innovation and fate vs. risk. The tradition and fate come from the Japanese culture, a culture the author experienced when he himself taught for many years at Hiroshima. (Was it fate when he discovered the actual Dutch island redoubt at Nagasaki?)

The cultural clash is re-enforced by amusing sidebar conversations among de Zoet, who is learning Japanese, and various translators. In this way, Mitchell continually reminds us that his Western and Eastern characters have such different ways of looking at the same world.

That world also includes the rivalry between the Dutch and British empires, which is brought to a head when a British warship enters Nagasaki harbor with the intent of taking over Japan’s trade agreement with the Dutch. We board the English warship Phoebus and witness the political and military maneuvering of its crew and its Captain Penhaligon. There is also a debate, as in the Dutch enclave, about the integrity of their strategy, which is resolved here somewhat arbitrarily when the captain sees in the courageous de Zoet the image of his own late son.

This is the climax of the novel, which then winds slowly down, revealing the eventual fate of the surviving characters. It is a routine ending that has been the product of a vivid imagination and a fascinating exploration of the contrast between cultures and the different values in those cultures.

Several years ago, Mitchell said in an interview: “My intention is to write a bicultural novel, where Japanese perspectives are given an equal weight to Dutch/European perspectives.” He has certainly done so here, especially when he takes us from the rooms of the Dutch enclave and the cabins of the English warship to the halls of both the villain and the Japanese magistrates. There is a blend of the fantasy of a storyteller and the realism of a historian.

Mitchell has also written: “One of the questions I always try to keep in the front of my mind is to ask why would anyone want to read this…People’s time, if you bought it off them, is expensive. Someone’s going to give you eight or ten hours of their life. I want to give them something back, and I want it to be an enjoyable experience.” And this he certainly achieves in this flowing and fascinating story of an innocent Dutchman encountering corruption, then love, then integrity, and finally courage in a foreign world with a far longer perspective toward life than exists in Western culture. Indeed, the title that refers to the thousand autumns of Jacob also refers to the perspective with which Japan regards its own history—and perhaps to Jacob’s identification with that history.

To sum up, this story of Westerners struggling to survive in a Japanese world of different values is a marvelous achievement. It also required considerable research to bring that Japanese world alive. For it is a world of isolation, cruelty, and fate, and yet a world of decorum and mystery.

It is also a world of fantasy, especially the temple of sacrificed children, as well as a world of reality, such as the English warship that actually entered Nagasaki harbor—although, historically, a few years later. But this later point demonstrates how Mitchell used his research and actual history in order to make real not only the action of this novel but also the cultural context of this strange world in which that action takes place. One critic calls this novel, “the triumph of decorum and honor in a world of corruption and perversion.” It is true, if you understand that the decorum and the perversion belong to both cultures.

As Nathan Weatherford notes in his review, “By methodically showing us at the outset of the novel how outwardly different in custom and costume the two cultures are, he makes the personal similarities between characters on each side of this cultural divide that much more apparent in subsequent chapters, [as] the choices made by characters from each culture all hinge on the same basic fears and loves.” He also calls the “intricately structured” international relations, “a metaphor for the inner struggle going on in each character’s soul.”

This work achieves all of that, blending history and imagination, romance and reality, innocence and evil, and the justice of fate. (November, 2015)

Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell

This 2005 novel is remarkable. But, half-way into it, I was puzzled by the book’s purpose. I was prepared to experience different stories at various time levels, but was not prepared to experience its various genre styles. At one point, I wondered if these different writing styles merely reflected the author showing off.

The story begins with Adam Ewing recording a sea adventure from the 19th century. Then it moves to an introspective study of a composer and his innocent student, Robert Frobisher, suggesting a similar account about a young man and Frederic Delius. Next, we move to a somewhat sinister tale of a reporter, Luisa Rey, who is tracking down a scientist fleeing a powerful energy company, which resorts to violence when the scientist claims its new atomic plant is unsafe. The fourth tale introduces Timothy Cavendish, a publisher who ends up fleeing London, only to find himself locked up as crazy in a rest home.

It is with the fifth tale, however, that Mitchell really suggests showing off. Set up as an interview with Somi-451, an android type, this is a science fiction tale set in a world the reader finds difficult to grasp as it begins underground in a controlled society, a society from which the android heroine attempts to escape to become a human. An entirely new vocabulary (and references) are introduced for the first time.

A new vocabulary continues in the sixth tale, set in a Hawaii of the distant future after a world calamity, for here the narrator uses a blend of slang and a Western cowboy accent to tell of a violent war between two tribes, plus a mysterious woman who may be ready to help the narrator’s side. This is the only tale which is told completely in one take. After one gets past the idiomatic narrative, however, it ends with an exciting attempt to escape across the Big Island to safety.

The other five tales have stopped abruptly, and now they resume, each reaching an exiting climax. As the Times review notes, the narrative sequence is 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, which underlines the deliberate structure of this work.

We return to Somni-451’s search to be human and the adventurous finish— except hers turns out to be a shaggy dog tale, as the author pulls the run from under our feet. Next to reappear is publisher Cavendish, whose fast-paced adventure rises to a climax with his escape from the home, except it then winds down gently.

By now the reader is wondering where Mitchell is going with these tales with the suggestion of a link between them. One link, a comet-shaped birthmark, suggests reincarnation. Another link occurs when, somehow, a book, a film, or letters fortuitously appear that refer back to a previous tale and enable the characters (and the author) to connect the various stories.

The most exciting return is to Luisa Rey, and the reader wonders what has happened to her after she has been run off the road and presumably killed. This return to Luisa Ray demonstrates how well Mitchell can write a clever suspense novel if he wishes. Luisa’s adventures keep moving as she escapes peril after peril, with surprising deaths hindering her along the way. Until, as in most mysteries, the corporate skullduggery is revealed and justice is served. Except, before we leave her Luisa receives a mysterious package with letters Frobisher wrote back in 1931 during his life with the composer.

These letters reveal Frobisher’s frustration both in love and in composing. His tale also reaches a definite, unexpected conclusion, as he culminates his short career with the Cloud Atlas Sextet. Except…he himself has discovered an old book in his room, propping up a bed leg. The book contains the second half of the Adam Ewing tale that began this novel.

Ewing’s tale returns us to his harrowing adventure on the high seas and a threat to his life. It also climaxes with an unexpected surprise, before offering a 19th century conclusion that says life is a struggle, often against evil, but that men must dedicate themselves to doing good and enjoying the fruits of that effort.

So what is Mitchell trying to achieve here? It appears to be a summary of human experience. Through six tales of adventure, he ranges from the 1800s to an unknown distant future. And in each adventure, his heroes and heroines confront evil, sometimes triumphing, sometimes not. Which, of course, is the human experience.

At the same time, Mitchell also decided to challenge himself. He will use different writing styles to relate different stories with different outcomes. The artist in him also suggests those links between the stories—either a comet tattoo, or the letters, manuscript, or film that advances the narrative to the succeeding tale. Except, I think that these links are decoration, an author’s maneuver to justify his six tales being brought together. It has nothing to do with the novel’s meaning.

What makes this book work is its cleverness: its fascinating adventures, its frequent surprises, its believable characters in every era, its shifting styles, its solid reality both in the past and in its world of fantasy. One review sums it up: “Cloud Atlas is a narrative about the act of narration, the ability of story telling to shape our sense of history, civilization, and selfhood.” Or another: “It knits together science fiction, political thriller and historical pastiche with musical virtuosity and linguistic exuberance.”

The one area that did not persuade me was the suggestion of a kind of simultaneousness to these stories, a suggestion that they exist outside of time and will repeat over and over. This is most obvious in a scene in which a bomb blows up an airplane, and a suggestion that the characters will return and meet again. This thought does blend with the idea of six separate time frames joined together in one book. But surely it is much less effective in raising a philosophical point than it is in being a technique to join these stories. Indeed. Mitchell seems aware of this, as publisher Frobisher rejects the mere idea of reincarnation in a manuscript about Luisa Rey

To sum up, I felt it was unnecessary to link these tales through letters, manuscripts, and film. The work does not need this. It is the range of the tales and their similarities that justify bringing them together. One similarity, for example, comes from each character striving against all odds to reach a goal, mostly succeeding, sometimes not. Still another is the narrator always trying to escape pursuers to achieve this. Finally, there is also a similarity, paradoxically, in each tale being related in a different literary style.

And yet the imagination behind this work is truly impressive. Indeed, while Mitchell had to receive pleasure in answering the challenge behind his structure, I cannot help but think that he also sought, through the narrative within each tale, to create maximum pleasure for his readers.

Is there another book like this one? Can there be? It would certainly seem that only this author could top this book. Which makes me truly interested in his future works, even as I suspect that the literary risk that he takes will not always work. Yet I cannot help but salute him for trying. (August, 2013)