Preview: David Mitchell reading from his new novel Slade House
Author David Mitchell will be giving a reading from his newest novel Slade House this Saturday, November 7, in the sanctuary of the First United Methodist Church, followed by a conversation with author and UM faculty member Peter Ho Davies. Fans of speculative fiction may be familiar with Mitchell through his previous novels including The Bone Clocks, number9dream, and, most famously, Cloud Atlas. This event is sponsored by Literati and University of Michigan Helen Zell Writers' Program.
Slade House is an outgrowth of Mitchell's last novel, The Bone Clocks, set in the same universe. It started as a short story that Mitchell published on Twitter. This story, revised and added to, is now the first chapter of Slade House. It might be this that we have to thank for the fact that this novel is by far Mitchell's shortest and by all accounts his most accessible.
As with several of Mitchell's books, Slade House makes use of multiple narrators and crosses through time, each section set nine years later than the previous. Every 40 pages or so we get a new narrator and the degree to which we are pulled into the life of each protagonist is astounding. A fully imagined character with a complete backstory and well-drawn secondary characters emerges in the first dozen pages every time. Each of these stories has a definite ending before a new narrator takes over, so Mitchell doesn't fall into the trap of Italo Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveler of leaving the reader hanging before moving on, never to return (though perhaps this is only a trap for those of us who want those books-within-the-book to keep going). In Slade House, you understand very quickly where each of these stories is going, and the inevitable ending of each.
To some extent it begins to feel like a procedural, a backwards Law & Order where you know the culprit, you know the crime, you know the ending, and it is the main character/detective (one time a literal detective) and the situation that switches out. The result of this is that by the second story you start reading it like a mystery, looking for patterns and clues (was that jogger there the last time? what's the significance of the grandfather clock? why the portraits?).
Slade House is difficult to classify; at first it seems to be a ghost story. But it isn't quite horror, as it isn't horrifying. And though it starts off with the trappings of a classic ghost story, by the end of the first section, it becomes something else, and by 2/3 through the novel, it is apparent that what you are reading is no less than high fantasy. There is a haunted house, sure, and there are ghosts, yes. But the ghosts aren't the thing to be scared of, and what does the haunting is far less malicious than the house being haunted. The final section of the novel and its ending did not appeal to me, but that's a matter of taste, not a failing on Mitchell's part. A high fantasy ending felt a bit like a bait-and-switch to me, but that's because I want my ghost stories to be ghost stories. Those more in sync with epic battles between forces of light and darkness will be more sympathetic to it.
The biggest failing of this novel may actually be how well thought-out its world is; Mitchell has so much to explain about what is happening that at times it starts to feel like the latest Bond villain laying out his whole plan. But this exposition is necessary as Mitchell needs you to understand what is happening for it all to come together. And it never gets bad enough that all of the magic is stripped out (no midi-chorians here), just enough that you get pulled out of the world by it. But the fact that new worlds are created again and again in the span of 240 pages is in itself an achievement that makes Slade House well worth the read.
Andrew MacLaren is a Production Librarian at the Ann Arbor District Library and the only parlors he haunts are pizza parlors.
David Mitchell's reading takes place this Saturday, November 7, at 6 pm (doors open at 5:15 pm) in the sanctuary of the First United Methodist Church. A copy of Slade House is included in the $30 admission price (this price also includes entry for either one or two people). Tickets are available online.