Slade House by David Mitchell

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“Tonight feels like a board game co-designed by M. C. Escher on a bender and Stephen King in a fever.”

Slade House is a lovely looking home. People come from all over to visit, and it has two wonderful hosts. There’s a catch, though: it shouldn’t exist, and the people who enter never leave.

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If you feel like you’ve heard that summary before, that’s the point.

It’s safe to say haunted houses are firmly established as the great places for creepiness in stories. They’re the go-to for ghosts. With Slade House, though, Mitchell veers closer to the fantasy of Lev Grossman than, say, the difficult to comprehend horrors of House of Leaves, which may surprise readers due to the setting.

This isn’t a frightening novel; it’s not really trying to be. It wants to excite, and does so with spellbinding ease. The pages practically turn by themselves. Originally posted to Twitter, it’s tightly-plotted and fast-paced, with some great twists and carefully developed characters.

Mitchell’s eye for convincing details from modern England is sharp, and he smoothly draws you into well-trod ground by taking conventions you think you know and twisting them just enough that your expectations are subverted.

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The prose is less ornate than in previous Mitchell works, but still lively and occasionally profound.

The characters are engaging, of various classes and temperaments, and feel fresh, as they are far outside of the traditional haunted-house-protagonists template. It’s gratifying to watch as these characters navigate Slade House thanks to this uniqueness, as you just don’t know how they will react

For example, an autistic teenage boy on Valium finds his nightmares coming to life. How could that not be fascinating?

So why is it so unsatisfying?

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Despite its strengths, Slade House is unambitious when it comes to anything outside of of trying to excite the reader. It’s like fast food when you were expecting a three-course meal: still tasty, but lacking in nutrition, and unsatisfying if you were licking your lips in anticipation of prime-rib steak. The narrative and thematic weight which anchors Mitchell’s other books just isn’t here.

It’s difficult to examine why I was left so unsatisfied without going into the ending, so consider this a warning for spoilers.

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Having your supernatural menace be defeated stopped by a never-before-seen hero entirely unknown to the reader is far too close to a Deus Ex Machina for my tastes. Marinus’ appearance may not be surprising to readers who have already finished The Bone clocks, but it’s tonally inconsistent and jargon-loaded.

With such an incredibly powerful protagonist to end with, events which lead up to the character Marinus’ become comparatively pointless. He’s a psychic demi-god, basically; we aren’t relieved when he defeats evil because he expect it.

Normal people don’t matter to the climax of this book. Prior attempts to save themselves without magical assistance were made to seem important, like the dropping of a character’s hairpin, but compared to Marinus’ overwhelming superpowers they simply weren’t.

Any clever solution is shoved aside in favour of psycho-voltage explosions.

The Grayers were particularly fearsome antagonists because their methods were mystical, but their desire for immortality was  understandable. Extraordinary people with selfish motivations being defeated everyday people with extraordinary motivations (i.e. love, peace, and all that jazz) would have been thematically and narratively satisfying.

Instead, we get a psychic showdown. Exciting, but not particularly rewarding.

This ending, put simply, lets out all the novel’s carefully built tension and makes it flop like a deflated balloon.

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The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

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“I had plenty of anguish after that extraordinary moment, but I had, thank God, no terror.”

The Turn of the Screw tells a ghost story set in a haunted house. Good. Our protagonist is a woman who has been given charge of two unsettlingly perfect children, and she may or may not be going mad. Great!

So what happened? How did Henry James create the literary equivalent of Nyquil out of such an exciting premise?

There is, buried deep, a chilling story here, with plot-twists, difficult choices, and keen lines which express the constantly frayed emotions of our dismayed protagonist. This would be easier to review if nothing had happened plot-wise, because then the utter boredom a book as fast-paced and psychologically insightful as this would have had a stylistic point that could be blamed.

The problem is that sentences wind and curl around what they’re trying to say until you’re too distracted to care anymore. After ten pages, you’re confused; after fifteen, you’re irritated; after twenty, you’re asleep.

James keeps you guessing as to whether the threat is coming from the supernatural or the narrator’s own mind, and you can reverse-engineer the popularization of a number of modern horror tropes to this novel. But maybe its success is why it’s such a slog to finish now, despite the tiny length. If so many modern stories hadn’t plundered the best elements, there might be more to distract from the writing itself; instead, this book becomes yet another example of Seinfeld is Unfunny.  

It’s not simply a product of its time, though. There are authors just as verbose who have managed sophisticated, layered writing without accidentally creating a cure for insomnia. For example, Melville, Dostoevsky, and Eliot are all enhanced by their layered and elevated prose, not smothered in it. As it is, The Turn of the Screw’s fascinating premise was crushed under the weight of James’ waffling.

 

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

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“Beware of asking people to question what’s real and what isn’t. They may reach conclusions you didn’t see coming.”

The Bone Clocks is a decade-spanning fantasy novel about the lies and justifications that result in evil. It has psychics, dimension hopping, and immortal soul-suckers, but everything turns back to the question of why people hurt each other.

Age and its numerous horrors haunt a large cast of characters, and constant time-jumps means their rapid declines become a worry for the reader too. Years fall away like leaves from a dying tree until, before you know it, the people Mitchell is making you care about are rotting in the ground. This gives the previously mentioned immortal soul-suckers some nice thematic resonance.

The characters are, as should be expected with Mitchell, the sturdiest part of this novel’s foundations aside from the handsome prose. Mitchell can make someone flawed but empathetic, and in this the case, the nastier they are the more fun they seem to be to read. More than once I thought, “How have I grown to love this character? They’re a bastard.” They’re rarely unrepentant bastards, though. Combine this internal intrigue with Mitchell’s sharp sense of humour and it’s easy to stay interested.

Your expectations for each section are adjusted as the stories go on. For example, a war reporter was the narrator in one of strongest parts of the novel, but not because of firefights or battle scenes. His struggles back in rural England were about parenthood, and addressed the fear of losing a child in a way that was visceral. I felt my stomach tense over and over again, and this all informed the rest of the novel (which explores a number of strained parental relationships) in interesting ways.

There’s a seriousness about the fantasy narrative that make moments comic relief welcome. The rude, self-obsessed author was an on-the-nose parody of Martin Amis (Mitchell has denied this… but I don’t believe him), and his desperation and self-pity reminded me of Timothy Cavendish’s farcical appearance in Cloud Atlas; the former’s story was more poignant than the latter, though, due to the sad transformation we watched Hershey go through as he aged.

There’s not a lack of personality on display here, then. The problems come back to the plot and pacing.

The structure is less controlled than in Mitchell’s other works. Only the fifth section delves into this War, which is more disconnected from everyday life than the rest of the novel (even the sixth part’s dystopian future), although Mitchell wisely keeps the stakes in this supernatural conflict low scale, at least relative to most fantasy. There are, fortunately, no feeble references to magical macguffins which might destroy the world: a Capital-W-War is ongoing over the right of a small group of powerful people to prey on the weak for sustenance, and this ties back to the way death looms above human lives. It’s interesting, but rushed. The descriptions are less grounded. Instead of just pushing people away with their minds, or something equally simple (if hokey), “[Horologists] pour psychovoltage into a neurobolas and kinetic it [their] assailants”. It feels as though you’ve been blasted into a parody of the earlier, far more restrained musings on the supernatural.

I’m all for ambitious fantasy, but there has to be a balance which The Bone Clocks never manages. The quotidian and the supernatural are firmly kept apart until the later sections, where they merge unsatisfactorily. This is particularly frustrating as Mitchell excelled at combining the genres in other novels. Still, I don’t think a writer who melded the supernatural and mundane as well as the writer of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet would make a change so obviously jarring without specific intentions in mind. The over-the-top elements could even be read as a challenge to “traditional literature” readers who might normally dismiss a novel solely because of its genre. Mitchell would have known all of these elements would alienate people, even if he was hoping they would meld more smoothly than they did.

When it doesn’t work it really doesn’t work, but for the majority of its pages I was enthralled. It’s flawed, but not much more so than Ghostwritten—Mitchell’s first novel, often cited as his second-best—as that novel had a jarring sci-fi element, which paralleled my problems with this book. This is a roundabout way of saying I’d rather dive into a very flawed but ambitious novel by Mitchell than a more consistent work by 90% of the living authors I’ve read.

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

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“It now lately sometimes seemed a black miracle to me that people could actually care deeply about a subject or pursuit, and could go on caring this way for years on end. Could dedicate their entire lives to it. It seemed admirable and at the same time pathetic. We are all dying to give our lives away to something, maybe.”

If I were forced to define Infinite Jest in a sentence I would say: It’s the saddest comedy you’ll ever read. That might sound like a contradiction, but it’s also what makes this book special; serious is, after all, not the opposite of funny. This is a powerful, playful, and mind-stretchingly smart examination of addiction and melancholy which is far more fun than its length and vocabulary give it any right to be.

The plot, like many of the characters, is broken into a very strange shape. Page-long paragraphs detail characters’ obsessions, and the narrator sounds like a lexical-prodigy who has been given a mixture of dope and crystal meth. The majority of the action takes place in the late 2000s, and time has been subsidized; corporations bid to name years after themselves. The Statue of Liberty now displays ads.

This is a novel with Things To Say about modern society’s desperation to escape boredom through entertainment, and that might sound like a tedious subject by definition; in fact, the chapter-long diversions and endless footnotes make it seem like Wallace is almost challenging you to view it as such. Trust that your time won’t be thrown away, though, and you’ll see it’s been made with a combination of fearsome talent and moral fire.

The strength of the language is hard to overstate. While some of his short-fiction can be just as meticulous, nothing else I’ve read by Wallace comes close to this in terms of raw feeling and perception. I felt like Infinite Jest showed me the neuroses of the world laid bare:

“What passes for hip cynical transcendence of sentiment is really some kind of fear of being really human, since to be really human […] is probably to be unavoidably sentimental and naïve and goo-prone and generally pathetic.”

While who might be perceived as the main character shifts constantly, the most important in my eyes is Don Gately. He’s a huge, square-headed ex-burglar and current addict who’s trying desperately to believe in sentiment again and put his past behind him. In a novel filled with sly wordplay and postmodern trickery, Gately’s desperation to stay sober stands gives the book a heartfelt centre that keeps more playful elements in check.

Whether or not you’ll appreciate this book, though, may come down to patience. The story’s fractured structure begins to make sense as the final sections reveal what might have been happening in the opening scene, and send you racing back to the start for clarification. It is, in other words, structured like a loop. The end is the beginning is the end. It almost demands rereads, and with its size this will be a turn-off for many.

I think it’s worth the effort, though.

[SPOILERS]

I did some head-scratching to see if I could work out the ending on my own. That’s part of the fun for me in a book-slash-puzzle like this one. Although I’ve since read a few of the treatises on this hulk of a book since I jotted this down, these were my initial impressions:

[REALLY, SPOILERS]

Hal is able to feel, finally, but has been trapped in his own mind, likely by the potent DMZ, and is unable to communicate — except, perhaps, with Don Gately through the wraith of his father. They go on an expedition inspired by J. O. Incandenza to find the Master copy, buried inside his skull. The Separatists already have it. Orin had surrendered his mother to make his own torture end, and so she had already given up the location of the Mad Stork’s grave in the Great Concavity.

Whether or not Wallace’s dystopic-vision of our present falls depends on how much you trust in our ability to resist temptation, and so everyone will have a different ending playing inside of their own mind.

There’s something beautiful in that.