Why is the Genre-Bending Experimentalist David Mitchell Playing Safe?

Slade House is a good enough haunted house tale, but it is a mix of Mitchell’s safe styles and for that, a tad disappointing. 

David Mitchell. Credit: Facebook.

David Mitchell. Credit: Facebook.

In 2006, I was introduced to David Mitchell by a friend who was leaving town and let me have the first pick of her books. I was not going to pick it, because I didn’t like the cover, but she recommended number9dream very highly. She knew I liked Murakami and she said this was “that kind of crazy stuff”.

The cover of number9dream by David Mitchell. Courtesy: Random House.

The cover of number9dream by David Mitchell. Credit: Random House.

I fell in love with Mitchell instantly and it was not just because of his rather appealing face. (It is a very Irish face, though, disappointingly, he is British and only lives in Ireland.) The energetic story-telling in the nimble-paced book was gripping, and I will be a tiny bit scandalous and say that number9dream is the closest thing to Catcher in the Rye I have yet encountered. Eiji Miyake is a little bit older than Holden Caulfield but he has the same madness, the same quests and the same pulling power. If you meet Eiji, you will always remember him.

At that time Mitchell was a new kid on the block. He had written only two more books; Ghostwritten was his first and, and then there was Cloud Atlas. I found Ghostwritten’s interlinking stories style fascinating: a common theme running across the seemingly isolated story islands of the book. Even though you knew it was coming, it was still thrilling to spot the link with the previous story. Cloud Atlas was another crazy journey with nested stories, each of the six stories narrated by the main character of the other story. It went all the way from 1800s to the unseen, dreaded, future – a kind of shameless showing off, shall we say, of Mitchell’s talent and imagination.

By then Mitchell had made it big. Cloud Atlas won some major awards and was short-listed for more, including the Booker. It was later adapted into a major Hollywood film, directed by the Wachowski brothers (of The Matrix fame) and Tom Tykwer, famous for Run, Lola, Run and Perfume: the Story of a Murderer. The star cast included everybody from Tom Hanks to Halle Barry, Susan Sarandon and Hugh Grant.

Boy, was I happy to have found a consistently crazy author. Gimme more, I thought. This is when he wrote his best book to date, Black Swan Green, with which Mitchell raced from impressive to special.

What do you expect from an author who clearly has a winning formula? Whose fantasy-blurred-with-reality hungry audience is making regular rounds of the bookstores to check if he has written another one already? You expect them to continue with their formula and laugh all the way to the bank. Mitchell, to his great credit, went the other way.

The cover of Black Swan Green by David Mitchell. Courtesy: Random House.

The cover of Black Swan Green by David Mitchell. Credit: Random House.

For his regular readers, surely, Black Swan Green came as a shock. From high voltage, time-warping crime sets, he slowed down almost to a halt with a mellow tale from an English village; a full family drama about a young boy’s growing-up pangs. It was another coming-of-age story, but though both boys seek answers from the world that aren’t easy to locate, Jason Taylor and Eiji Miyake couldn’t be more different.

Black Swan Green had Mitchell’s trademark references to old works, but it was no Murakami or Salinger. This was a completely different tale, its pace, its story-telling and its softness showing that Mitchell was a truly gifted author, commanding and producing different kinds of narratives at will. Black Swan Green was long-listed for the Booker – seeming to validate the cynical theory that the better the book, the lower its chances at the Booker.

In 2007, after this book, Time called him one of the most influential authors in the world. No doubt a part of the appeal of his writing must have been the Japanese influence. He had lived eight years in the country and it seemed to have marked him and his writing. That influence was strongly on display in his next book The Thousands Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, a work of historical fiction set in 18th century Japan, a romance between a Dutch trader and a Japanese mid-wife.

By now it was a habit to be impressed by Mitchell. The flare and detail of The Thousand Autumns… was mind-boggling – an epic. Any writer would be deeply envious of such a man – who is this creature? What will he stop at? What will he write next? It seemed that Mitchell had decided that he’d had enough of the same stuff, he was going to challenge himself by writing a different style of novel each time. Quiet family story? Done. Flamboyant historical epic? Done. Crazy fantasy tale? Got that covered. What next?

The cover of Slade House by David Mitchell. Credit: Random House.

The cover of Slade House by David Mitchell. Credit: Random House.

This is why I was disappointed by Slade House. (I know he wrote The Bone Clocks before this and I will come to that.) Anyone who reads Slade House in isolation, who does not know Mitchell’s work and likes weird fiction, will like it. It’s a nice enough twist on the haunted house narrative, and is even gripping, with some really exciting moments. It has one of the best book extracts I have read:

I’ve stopped, because the far end of the garden, the wall with the small black door — it’s gone all faint and dim. Not because of evening. It can’t even be four o’clock yet. Not because it’s misty, either. I look up — the sky’s still bluish, like it was before. It’s the garden itself. The garden’s fading away.

When you have writing like that you don’t need a blurb writer (small mercies) – so yes, thrilling in bits and yet, disappointing because Mitchell had fallen back on the same old tricks. The interlinking stories, the magic-realism, the weirdness, the young autistic boy, the time-warping, the story spanning centuries, they are all back – to a, how do I put this, less satisfying result than before. Where his Black Swan Green was hot, Slade House is lukewarm. It is fun without being wow. And Mitchell is capable of wow. We know this.

I first started worrying if this was the beginning of the fall of Mitchell when he wrote the incredibly clunky and highly boring The Bone Clocks (yeah, people loved it obviously, but you can’t trust the people). The Bone Clocks fell back to the interlinking stories/time spanning pattern before Slade House. It was the first one to regress. This is Mitchell’s safe ground: when the book starts in the 19th century and goes on into the 23rd or something, when there is a sly common link, or character, throughout, when Something Weird Happens, when the main character is nice but messed up. That is a David Mitchell plot of yore. It was nice to have it back with The Bone Clocks – to a point, before it became totally unwieldy and tough to keep track of – and it is nice to read it in Slade House too (which is much nicer than The Bone Clocks because of its pared down, spare narrative). But as a fan of his writing, I worry. Is the experimentation over? Have we played all the levels and unravelled all the mysteries and found that we left the princess behind on the fourth level?

No, it’s hard to believe that the best of Mitchell is in the past, but I’ll be watching this space closely. In a recent interview he threatened to write more from The Bone Clocks. Oh well. I will read that too. I’m not giving up yet, and I will wait for his next wow. Meanwhile, if you haven’t read him at all, Slade House is not a bad place to start. Skip The Bone Clocks, and keep going backwards – it will be one hell of a ride.