Slade House: A Novel
“There’s nothing particularly wrong with Slade House but, sadly, there’s nothing especially right.”
David Mitchell doesn’t think like anyone else. He sees things that we don’t, or at least that’s what his books strongly suggest. Each of his previous six novels is a masterpiece—five technically complex, intertwining multi-plot epics and one rather conventional story. His latest is, on many levels, an exception. It’s short, it was quickly composed, it’s non-epic. There are several plots, cleverly interwoven, that reach backward and forward in time, but Slade House is no masterpiece.
Graham Greene wrote two kinds of extended fiction: Novels and Entertainments. This second descriptor was used, one senses, as a preemptive strike. Greene felt compelled to admit, before his critics did, that some of his fictive works were lighter and less serious than others. Stamboul Train, for example—magazine thin—is a rather flimsy Christie-esque mystery. Nonetheless, Entertainments such as Travels With My Aunt are every bit as substantial and novelistic as The Heart of the Matter or The Power and the Glory. In fact, it’s more of a Novel than many of his novels.
Slade House could use a similar proviso. He could call it Ghostmodernism. Unrealism. Séance Fiction. Whereas each of Mitchell’s previous novels deployed elements of science fiction and fantasy, leavened with healthy doses of realism, the preponderance of Slade House is magically unreal.
Mitchell could also call this an unNovel because it’s nothing new. Slade House is a blooper reel or series of outtakes from The Bone Clocks, his preceding novel. (I hesitate to write prequel because the book’s teleological and ontological framework is too murky for discrete boundaries between “before” and “after.”)
By the second of Slade House’s five sections, we realize that we’re back in the conceptual space of The Bone Clocks, with Crispin Hershey, orisons, suasioning, all manner of chimerical phenomena—as if deleted scenes from that novel got up off the floor, started walking around, and formed their own novella. The plot, though serpentine and make-believe, is painfully simple: every nine years, a set of immortal twins beckons an unsuspecting “sensitive” person to eat—verb choice is perpetually oblique—his or her soul.
As ever, Mitchell’s writing is exquisite, especially the dialogue, which displays a Salingerian ear for the nuances of ordinary human, or perhaps ectoplasmic, speech. There are several genuinely exciting action scenes as well. The Haruki Murakami influence is still pervasive, yet Mitchell isn’t weighted down by it. In fact, he usually writes much better novels than his Japanese mentor ever could.
There’s nothing particularly wrong with Slade House but, sadly, there’s nothing especially right. More than anything, it feels unnecessary. This novella is a pleasant little diversion, for a few moments, but it probably wasn’t worth publishing—not for so slight and unsatisfying a work. We got all we needed of this material in The Bone Clocks and nothing terribly compelling was added. The book’s publication smacks of obsession compulsion. Just one more little expositional detail about those soul-slurping immortals I told you about a few years ago . . . you’ll really want to hear this. I’ve “fleshed out” their origin story, the mechanics of wormholes, and other can’t-miss technical minutiae . . . Slade House also smacks of an editor who can’t, or won’t, say no. Hopefully, this slim, spectral work isn’t a sign that Mitchell has run out of ideas, or of artful ways to harness them.