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“High-dork mumbo-jumbo”: David Mitchell's Slade House

For all its terrifying, exciting moments, Slade House is at best a compulsively readable lark, too in thrall to its own eerie cosmology.

David Mitchell’s freaky new novel traces a four-decade arc of mysterious evildoing and unsolved abductions taking place at a grand old house that suddenly appears once every nine years down a dark alley. The book features worlds-within-worlds, stories within stories, shape-shifting bad guys and good guys, and an amazingly believable phantom mansion, all of which will come as no surprise to Mitchell’s many devoted readers. Indeed, Slade House is a short and fast sequel to his fantastical magnum opus from last year, The Bone Clocks.

The natural question is whether this book stands on its own terms. The answer to that largely rests on symptomatic back-to-back moments that occur part-way through the book. On the first page, a journalist is conducting an interview with a local eccentric who claims to know a great deal about paranormal occurrences that have taken place in the nearby Slade Alley. The journalist is secretly seeking clues to the disappearance of her sister down this same alleyway on Hallowe’en night 1997, nine years earlier.

The old man goes on and on about semi-immortal, malevolent twins called Norah and Jonah Grayer. They suck up the souls of unsuspecting people who possess certain kinds of psychic energy, apparently including the journalist’s sister. She is predictably sceptical, not just about the semi-immortals but about the very existence of the soul, sourly observing: “Nobody’s ever held a soul or X-rayed one because . . .” Her interlocutor counters, “Is a mind X-rayable? Is hunger? Is jealousy? Time?”

The old man may be crazy (or not) about much else, but here he has a point, and through this exchange Mitchell delivers a cogent critique of the mundane confines of our contemporary imaginations, which are so willing to assign meaning and reality to certain things unseen, such as the mind, yet just as easily dismiss others, such as the soul. A page later, however, the man explains how the twins prey upon their victims and we get this:

“. . . their modus operandi . . . runs off o’ psychovoltage. The psychovoltage of Engifteds. Every nine years the Grayers have to feed it. They have to lure the right kind of guest into a . . . kind of reality bubble they call an orison. The orison’s their fourth breakthrough, by the way. Once the guest’s there, the twins have to get them to eat or drink Banjax. Banjax is a chemical that shrivels the cord fastening the soul to the body, so it can be extracted just before death.”

This sort of grave, high-dork mumbo-jumbo talk – of which there is far more in this novel than the simple and wise matter from the previous page – is plainly hard to take meaningfully unless you’re already hooked on it by liking similar formulations in The Bone Clocks. Regardless, you can take it seriously within the context of the novel only if you’re willing to suspend your disbelief at reading a renowned writer of literary fiction trafficking so much in this kind of stuff.

Mitchell has long had an interest in the supernatural, whether in a minor-key way, as in Black Swan Green, or full-bore, as with The Bone Clocks. The basic problem of Slade House, however, is that its offering of artful world-making and affecting storytelling – a combination that shows off Mitchell’s most distinctive and enviable capacities – is too fully captive to the novel’s fantasy-cosmology and the related battles between good and evil semi-immortals who differ sharply on whether human life is inherently valuable, or merely consumable.

If that debate had been given more attention, this might have been an important new novel from David Mitchell. Instead, Slade House is at best a compulsively readable lark, thanks to Mitchell’s cleverly patterned series of sliced narratives, in which a set of random-seeming people from late 1979 to 2015 find themselves inside the grand and alluring “Slade House”. There, they go through experiences that range from child’s play to boozy partying – but all of this ends up in unsettling confusion and reality-bending captivity to the Grayer twins. Until, that is, the twins finally meet their match . . . or do they?

To offer anything more than these details would neutralise the novel’s frequently terrifying and flat-out exciting elements, of which there are many – perhaps even a few too many for readers expecting more than fantasy-fiction dramatics and dork gravitas from the great David Mitchell. 

Slade House by David Mitchell is published by Spectre (£12.99, 240pp)

David Mitchell will appear at the Cambridge Literary Festival on 29 November

Randy Boyagoda’s latest novel, Beggar's Feast, is published by Penguin

This article first appeared in the 29 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Israel: the Third Intifada?

Photo: LYNSEY ADDARIO
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What Happened reveals Hillary Clinton as a smart thinker – unlike the man who beat her

Those asking why she blames everyone but herself for Donald Trump clearly haven't read the book.

Hillary Clinton is smug, entitled, dislikeable, hawkish, boring. She was unable to beat a terrible Republican presidential candidate. Why doesn’t she just shut up and sod off? Bernie would have won, you know. Sexism? There’s no sexism in opposing someone who left Libya a mess and voted for the Iraq War. Also, she had slaves.

This is a small sample of the reactions I’ve had since tweeting that I was reading Clinton’s memoir of the 2016 campaign. This is one of those books that comes enveloped in a raincloud of received opinion. We knew the right hated Clinton – they’ve spent three decades furious that she wanted to keep her maiden name and trying to implicate her in a murder, without ever quite deciding which of those two crimes was worse. But the populist candidacy of Bernie Sanders provoked a wave of backlash from the left, too. You now find people who would happily go to sleep in a nest made out of copies of Manufacturing Consent mouthing hoary Fox News talking points against her.

One of the recurrent strains of left-wing criticism is that Clinton should apologise for losing to Trump – or perhaps even for thinking that she could beat him in the first place. Why does she blame everyone but herself?

Perhaps these people haven’t read the book, because it’s full of admissions of error. Using a private email server was a “boneheaded mistake”; there was a “fundamental mismatch” between her managerial approach to politics and the mood of the country; giving speeches to Wall Street is “on me”; millions of people “just didn’t like me… there’s no getting round it”.

Ultimately, though, she argues that it was a “campaign that had both great strengths and real weaknesses – just like every campaign in history”. This appears to be what has infuriated people, and it’s hard not to detect a tinge of sexist ageism (bore off, grandma, your time has passed). Those who demand only grovelling from the book clearly don’t care about finding lessons for future candidates: if the problem was Hillary and Hillary alone, that’s solved. She’s not running in 2020.

Clinton marshals a respectable battalion of defences. Historically, it is very unusual for an American political party to win three elections in a row. The Democrats (like Labour in Britain) have longstanding problems with white working-class voters outside the big cities. Facebook was flooded with fake news, such as the story that the Pope had endorsed Trump. And besides, Clinton did win three million more votes than her Republican rival.

Added to which, it is now hard to deny that Russia interfered heavily in the US election, with Trump’s approval – “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” he told a press conference in July 2016 – and perhaps even with the active collusion of his campaign. The next Democratic candidate will have to reckon with all this.

The election outcome would have been different if just 40,000 voters in three key swing states had flipped, so there are dozens of potential culprits for Clinton’s loss. But perhaps one of the reasons that many in the US media have been so hostile to the book is that it paints them as such villains. Even now, it is common to hear that Clinton “didn’t have an economic message”, when a better criticism is that no one got to hear it.

In their mission not to be accused of “elite bias”, the media desperately hunted for bad things to say about Clinton, when none of her offences came close to the gravity of a totally unqualified, unstable man with no government experience going on a year-long bender of saying mad shit and boasting about sexual assault. In both the primary against Sanders and the general election, she was treated as the obvious next president, and held to a different standard. (Incidentally, there is surprisingly little criticism of Sanders in here; she credits him with helping to write her policy platform.)

The book is at its best when it reflects on gender, a subject which has interested Clinton for decades. She calculates that she spent 600 hours during the campaign having her hair and make-up done, as “the few times I’ve gone out in public without make-up, it’s made the news”. She writes about the women she met who were excited to vote for a female president for the first time. She mentions the Facebook group Pantsuit Nation, where 3.8 million people cheered on her candidacy. (Tellingly, the group was invite-only.)

Yet Clinton was never allowed to be a trailblazer in the way that Barack Obama was. That must be attributed to the belief, common on the left and right, that whiteness and wealth cancel out any discrimination that a woman might otherwise suffer: pure sexism doesn’t exist.

The narrative of the US election is that Clinton was deeply unpopular, and while that’s true, so was Trump. But where were the interviews with the 94 per cent of African-American women who voted for her, compared with the tales of white rage in Appalachia? “The press coverage and political analysis since the election has taken as a given that ‘real America’ is full of middle-aged white men who wear hard hats and work on assembly lines – or did until Obama ruined everything,” she writes.

Clinton faces the uncomfortable fact that whites who feel a sense of “loss” are more attracted by Trump’s message than Americans with objectively worse material conditions who feel life might get better. That is an opportunity for the left, and a challenge: many of those Trump voters aren’t opposed to benefits per se, just the idea they might go to the undeserving. Universal healthcare will be a hard sell if it is deemed to be exploited by, say, undocumented immigrants.

Yes, What Happened is occasionally ridiculous. There’s a section on “alternate nostril breathing” as a relaxation technique that a kinder editor would have cut. The frequent references to her Methodism will seem strange to a British audience. The inspirational stories of the people she meets on the campaign trail can feel a little schmaltzy. But it reveals its author as a prodigious reader, a smart thinker and a crafter of entire sentences. Unlike the man who beat her. 

What Happened
Hillary Clinton
Simon & Schuster, 494pp, £20

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left