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)

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The Keep, by Jennifer Egan

This 2006 work is a strange novel. We read mainly about Danny and Howie, two cousins who have a back story in which Howie has a reason to resent Danny. Now, Howie is wealthy and invites Danny to join him at a castle in Central Europe that he is restoring and from which he has deliberately removed all forms of modern communication. Danny has offended some gangster types in New York and needs to escape, so he is grateful for the invitation. But when he arrives at the hotel he is uncomfortable at losing communication with the outside world. He is also not sure whether he should trust Howie. Has his cousin invited him abroad because he finally is out for revenge?

But just as we get into the intriguing and realistic story about their relationship and about the castle and its keep, their story is interrupted, and more than once, by a first person narrative of Ray, a convict confined in a maximum security prison for violent offenders. Who is taking a course in creative writing under a teacher named Holly. And it is difficult to see the connection between these two stories.

But of course they do come together at the end. Except, in a strange way. They come together as mutual stories of confinement and escape, of victimization and imagination. Moreover, only one of the stories is real, even though both have been presented in vivid detail, especially that of the partly restored castle, which is built over hidden tunnels, and otherwise is dark, is falling apart, and houses a mysterious and elderly, albeit seductive, baroness.

One sees such disjunction as characteristic of Egan novels. Which often jump back and forth in terms of place and time and culture. They keep the reader working, keep him off balance, presumably to get him more involved in her work. But there is also a playfulness here, almost a taunting, as if she wants to keep one step ahead of the reader. To say, this is my world, my story. Not yours. Not what you may be accustomed to.

This is illustrated most openly by the voice of Ray that keeps popping up out of nowhere to address the reader. It may be about how a certain transition is achieved. Or it will reveal a character in one story becoming a character in another story. Which certainly pulls the reader up short, pulls him out of the world he is reading about and prompts him to ask: what is going on here? What is this novel trying to say?

The realism of the castle and the keep provide the basic solidity to this novel. And at the same time, we feel ourselves in a world of the unworldly, of the preternatural if not the supernatural. When Danny meets the resident baroness, the novel captures the medieval magic of the past. When Danny explores the tunnels, we feel the desperation of an adventure story. And when the hotel’s entire staff is trapped in the tunnels, we feel immersed in a world of horror and fantasy.

Egan uses most of her creative energy writing about the castle and the keep—which explains the title. And Danny’s adventures there are what most interested me. But those adventures end up being more metaphors for the meaning of this novel than the actual meaning. And the meaning itself is elusive. Is it in Danny’s story or in Ray’s story? For Danny, it involves the abandonment he feels at having lost contact with the outside world and its sources of information. And his adventures at the castle, with its mysterious swimming pool, with its hidden and closed-off tunnels, require a survival therapy. Which he needs, being entirely dependent upon himself, and feeling powerless in an unfriendly world.

But is the castle’s world real? Beginning with the night he spends with the baroness. What, in fact, is reality? And what must he do to escape this form of reality? Especially when Danny suspects that Howie’s banning of all tools of communication serves to control him, even to prevent him from leaving. The novel suggests one answer. That his imagination offers Danny an escape from his sense of detachment and powerlessness. Indeed, his gothic adventures contrast the world of fantasy and magic with the familiar world of technology, and suggests this as the means to open the door for his escape.

Egan herself, offers an explanation during an interview published by The Writer: “I was interested in the ways technology has altered, or questioned, our sense of what is ‘real.’ Though I hadn’t planned it consciously, the gothic environment was the perfect place in which to explore that question.”

Inevitably, this search for what is real leads inward, and to self-reflection in the presentation of this novel. Which places Egan in the literary world of metafiction. Usually, I am intrigued by such awareness than an author brings to his or her work. But, here, the particular world of the castle is so real that the self-reflection kept coming between me and the world I was immersed in. Indeed, the author seemed to be jumping out in front of her characters, distracting me from them.

Madison Smart Bell’s positive review in The New York Times cites the novel’s ”Escherian architecture, replete with metafictional trapdoors, pitfalls, infinitely receding reflections, and trompe l’oeil effects” along with its “unusually vivid and convincing realism.” And this certainly captures my perspective. Except, I place more value here on the realism and less on the effects. And do wonder about the similar literary awareness that the author reportedly brings to her later novel about the Goon Squad. Will the emphasis there be on the characters and their story, or on the meaning of the story?

The Kirkus Review reaches a conclusion similar to the Times. “The beautiful prose doesn’t entirely disguise how wildly improbable the novel’s events are, but the characters’ emotions are so real, the author’s insights so moving, that readers will be happy to be swept away.” And, indeed, I was swept away, but by Danny’s story rather than Ray’s, and by the adventure rather than by the search for meaning.

I am still interested in Egan’s other work. Next on my shelves is Good Squad. But I do hope that from now on subsequent novels will be closer to the reality of the recent Manhattan Beach than to the fantasy inherent in this novel. (May, 2019)
Continue reading “The Keep, by Jennifer Egan”

Angelica, by Arthur Phillips

This is a puzzling novel from 2007. And deliberately so. It is billed as a ghost story, and it certainly is. And usually I do not like ghost stories. But as I began this work, I had to admit at how enjoyable it was. Even though it also had a suggestion of horror, which I like still less. But I realized I was enjoying this novel because it is so beautifully written. And it was also a family story, which I also relate to, a story of the tension between Constance and Joseph Barton, as well as between each of them and their daughter of four, Angelica.

Their story unfolds in the London of the 1880s, and is related from four differing viewpoints. First, from that of the wife and mother Constance, who believes the ghosts she sees are also being experienced by her daughter. And who sees these ghosts as serving the needs of her husband, who, she decides, wishes to win from her the affection of their daughter.

The next section is from the viewpoint of Anna Montague, a spiritualist who makes her living advising people how to get rid of ghosts. She is a very practical woman, whom this reader accepted at face value, as she makes the purpose of these ghosts seem, like her, more down to earth, more practical than mystical.

The third section we see from Joseph’s point of view. He is a research scientist who seems truly in love with his wife, and who appears to be a normal man legitimately puzzled by his wife’s new conduct, so different from that of the charming girl he married. And the final, and short, section is from the viewpoint of a mature Angelica as she tries to analyze what happened between her parents when she was a child.

But like Henry James, Phillips appears to want to turn the screw on his readers. Because before he begins his novel, the author quotes Sir Everett d’Oyly: “Haunting can emerge from the forgotten depths of our own past….Memories and ghosts are not so easily distinguished as previous generations have assumed.” And this is the fulcrum on which Phillips has poised this novel. Are the ghosts real? Are they only in the mind of Constance? Or should the memories of both parents be challenged? And what exactly are these apparitions that are distorting the reality of their lives?

The emotional lives of Constance and Joseph dominate this household. After giving birth to Angelica, and then suffering three miscarriages, Constance is warned that she risks her life if she has another child. So she has withheld herself from her husband for more than three years. Which prompts both anxiety in her and frustration for Joseph. And culminates in her leaving her marital bed in order to sleep in a chair in Angelica’s room, standing guard over her. For Constance has seen a ghost hovering over her sleeping daughter at night, a ghost which suggests her husband’s presence, and which seems to signal his sexual designs on the young girl. A conclusion which is re-enforced when Angelica tells Constance she wishes one day to marry her father.

The story then takes on a more practical bent. Anna Montague enters the house and offers Constance her practical advice on how to defeat these apparitions. She acknowledges to herself that Constance will be a fruitful client, but she persuades her, and us, that she believes there are truly ghosts to be removed from the house and that, in doing so, she will not take advantage of Constance Barton’s wealth. She also supports Constance’s belief that husband Joseph is likely behind these ghosts. One should note that in the novel’s time frame of the 1880s, spiritualism and ghosts were a commonly accepted presence in this Victorian world.

Joseph, on the other hand, is not aware of these ghosts, only that his wife is acting mysteriously. He is also persuaded by a Doctor Miles that women in general are flighty creatures and need to be handled firmly by their husbands. While this novel subtly probes the psychology of this family from a modern novelist’s perspective, this is the one point where it truly reflects the psychological beliefs held about women in the male world of London in the 1880s.

Thus, the first section ends with the reader suspecting that Constance is trending toward insanity out of sexual repression, but also not being sure whether there may or may not be real ghosts. The second section ends, however, with the practicality of Anna convincing the reader that either these are real ghosts or that she and Constance truly believe that the ghosts are real. While the third section convinces us of Joseph’s reality, that there are no ghosts, and that all is in the mind of Constance. Whereupon, the final brief section, from the viewpoint of a mature Angelica, tries to have it both ways. She has convinced herself, she says, that “there was a ghost,” and that her mother “struck down the man who invited that ghost into our home.” Which act “evicted” the ghost as well.

Indeed, that early scene in which Constance drives a knife into the ghost is perplexing. For we later realize that the three sections, of Constance, Anne, and Joseph, cover the same time frame and the same events—but are being described from their three separate viewpoints. The problem arises when the sections from Constance’s view and Joseph’s view seem to end so differently. First, because Doctor Miles, who has been called to the scene, seems to act differently. And, second, because the author introduces Third, a mysterious friend of Anne, who suggests, if only symbolically, the final act. But is it by Constance or by Dr. Miles and his colleagues? Which is why, although normal literary logic is on the husband’s side, Angelica has to convince herself in her quote above what she believes truly happened. And that Arthur Phillips uses her conclusion, in turn, to convince the reader. Or at least to understand what he, the author, has intended. Or does one? For Angelica says she has no memory of being abused, wondering if Constance pretended seeing the ghosts rather than admitting her husband’s actual abuse.

One reads this novel, first, because it is so beautifully written. And, second, to learn what is going on. The blend of memory, psychology, spiritualism, and family intrigue is also fascinating to the modern reader. But the resolution, as with James, is confusing. For if one has a sense here of what the author intended, he also makes sure we are not certain. (April, 2019)