Reading David Mitchell’s new novel Slade House in one guilty-pleasured gulp is tempting. Coming quickly on the heels of The Bone Clocks, his epic 600-plus-pages 2014 Booker Prize nominee, Slade House is an all-but-unputdownable adventure told in a mere 200 pages.
You may, however, lose a little sleep in the process. Pivotal to the story is “a small black iron door.” Pass through it and enter the vast Mitchellian cosmos.
Slade House is a little like Alice Through the Looking Glass gone Goth, with dark, supernatural elements evoking The Monkey’s Paw — “a deeply disturbing story,” murmurs the bestselling author, who recalls it kept him awake as a child. In Slade House, the wall between the living and the dead “is thin,” as one character says, and time is fluid. People who lived centuries ago are capable of reaching into the present to suck your soul — or save your life.
“Are we not touched by people we haven’t met, people from the past, from many, many years ago? Doesn’t that happen?” asks the English author, who appears Thursday at Miami Dade College as part of Miami Book Fair. “We go to museums to be touched by long-dead artists. I watched Bonnie and Clyde on the plane to Chicago. It’s from 1967. I don’t know if the artist’s still alive. It’s their work that provides an emotional response. Aren’t we lucky? Isn’t that brilliant? Technology makes this possible. It allows people to communicate beyond the grave.”
Technology plays a role in this interview, with Mitchell speaking by phone from his home in Ireland, where he lives with his wife and two children. Technology also played a role in the genesis of Slade House. It began as “a perverse challenge” says Mitchell, who wrote what would become the book’s first section, The Right Sort, via a series of tweets. Two hundred and eighty of them.
“Writing in tweets, you’ve got 140 characters. They all have to count,” he says. “There’s so many things you can’t do. You can’t write Benedict Cumberbatch — there’s a quarter of your tweet gone.”
The experience was the opposite of writing The Bone Clocks or his other mega-masterpiece, Cloud Atlas.
“It was writing a long, fast string of pulses rather than looking down on the narrative with a slower, more leisurely view,” Mitchell said. “I found that it was asking more questions than it was raising. In the end, I couldn’t resist translating it back to more conventional prose, oxygenating it more than Twitter was allowing me to.”
Not only did Mitchell add oxygen, he also added story. What he’d intended to be a freestanding short story “turned immediately into five — a five-parter, the fastest, quickest thing I’ve ever written,” he says.
It’s the latest in a series of Mitchell novels, each of which may be read independently but which are part of a larger, overarching narrative. Influenced by Tolkien, Mitchell has dreamed up an otherworldly realm. Like spotting the small black door hidden in plain sight, he has an ability to see and articulate the magic — whether black or bright— that we overlook.
As with The Bone Clocks, Slade House starts with an engaging character who narrates in first person, this time young Nathan Bishop. The story starts in the 1970s, encompasses five decades and perhaps many more to come. The novel is concise but the story seems to expand “like a deep well with no bottom,” as Nathan puts it. It’s an elegant, Escherlike creation and not Mitchell’s first. His ingeniously constructed Cloud Atlas comprises six different story lines that span centuries, their narratives intersecting and opening into each other, sometimes in midsentence.
“I’m a structure geek,” confesses Mitchell, whose seven previous novels have earned five Booker nominations. It’s not enough for a novel’s architecture “to just kind of work. I’d rather it not be a gimmick. I want to optimize its impact by thinking about how it can best serve the story, how it can improve the idea. I even take a solitary pleasure thinking about these things.”
This is not, Mitchell notes, the surest method of getting girls. The girl he got, KA Yoshida, is not only his wife but also the translator of his nonfiction book The Reason I Jump. Yoshida is also Mitchell’s first reader and perhaps the moral compass in his fiction. After she read an early draft Slade House, “I got into trouble with my wife,” Mitchell says. “She said, ‘How on earth can you do that, killing off these quite likeable people?’ ”
Ah, yes, the killing. Fans of The Bone Clocks will welcome the return of Mitchell’s Atemporals, characters who exist outside mortality, who hop bodies, continents and centuries as easily as summoning Uber. Some Atemporals are benevolent while others may turn on the charm only to prey on unsuspecting mortals. There are warring factions and an element of good versus evil, but even the baddies “want what every sentient life form wants — survival.”
Mitchell seems to have insured his own survival, at least in fiction, having mapped out storylines and characters for books to come. Does that make him an Atemporal, at least on the page? He laughs. “I love it when people use my jargon back at me.”
Despite an avalanche of accolades, including being named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people, Mitchell has “no delusions about my work having immortal status. But writing narratives informs the illusion I exist in someone else’s skin, am seeing through their eyes, smelling through their noses.”
He’s happiest living “within the confines of the text, within this peculiar magic of words and ideas, and will be happy doing it for as long as people want to read me.”
Meet the author
Who: David Mitchell
When: 7 p.m. Thursday
Where: Miami Dade College Wolfson Auditorim, 300 NE Second Ave., Miami
Info: Purchase a copy of ‘Slade House’ from Books & Books and get a voucher for two; www.booksandbooks.com or 305-442-4408.