Archives » The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

Slade House by David Mitchell

Sceptre, 2016, 236 p, plus 32 p of the Bombadil Tweets.

 Slade House cover

Slade House, accessed from Slade Alley (itself dank and narrow, with a bend, and easy to miss from its connecting streets) through a small iron door in the wall, which appears only once every nine years. Slade House, bombed to rubble in 1940 and its grounds built over since, yet still able to effect the disappearance of Rita and Nathan Sharp in 1979, Detective Inspector Gordon Edmonds in 1988, Sally Timms along with her paranormal investigation group in 1997 and then her sister Freya in 2006. Slade House, on whose walls certain visitors will find portraits of themselves and whose stairs lead only back to whence you came. Slade House, inhabited by Norah and Jonah Grayer (who can both take up all sorts of appearances, inhabit others’ bodies,) adepts of the Shaded Way from whom they wish to keep themselves hidden. Slade House, wrapped in an orison. (The word means prayer but the Grayers have adopted it to describe a bubble out of time.) The later sections tend to invoke Fred Pink, who saw both the Sharps outside Slade Alley just before he was hit by a car and went into a coma. Trying to fill in the gaps in his life years later he recognised the Sharps in newspaper photos from the time.

Mitchell’s story – an off-cut of his previous novel The Bone Clocks – is narrated in five sections by Nathan, Gordon, Sally and Freya as they make their visits, with the final section (set in 2015) from the viewpoint of someone calling himself Bombadil (whose uploads to Twitter from Monday 7th September to Saturday 31st October, 2015, act as an appendix to the book) but whose body has been taken over by Norah. Five different narrative styles, six if you include the tweets. Each internally consistent and – until the strange stuff begins to happen – realistic in tone.

In the guise of Pink and much to Norah’s dismay Jonah Grayer reveals to Freya they were Victorian twins with telepathic ability, taken under the wing of a medium called Cantillon who hustled them off to the Atlas Mountains for tutoring in the Shaded Way by the Albino Sayyid of Aït Arif, toured them round the world, then went too far by proposing to reveal their secrets in a book. Their longevity has been ensured by enticing ‘Engifted’ to Slade House and stealing their souls, a process which needs topping up every nine years. Mitchell’s facility with fantasy and SF is underscored by reference to the Midwich Cockoos among others.

As ever Mitchell is totally in command of his material and the read is never less than entertaining. There is a sense, though, of marking time, of promise unfulfilled. Perhaps it’s unreasonable, though, to expect another The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.

Pedant’s corner:- “Wolverhampton Wanderers play in black and orange” (black and gold in fact. Orange and black, though, recur as a motif in the book,) occasional missing commas before pieces of direct speech, liquified (liquefied,) lasagna (lasagne,) Tinker Bell (x4, Tinkerbell,) smidgeon (smidgin or smidgen,) Timms’ (x2, Timms’s.)

Number9Dream by David Mitchell

Sceptre, 2001, 428 p.

Number9Dream cover

The difficult second novel. In his, Mitchell seems to have taken the decision to throw any number of things at the wall to see what might stick. It has its moments certainly but while being easy enough to follow on the level of the prose is not quite a straightforward read. It is told in nine sections; Panopticon, Lost Property, Video Games, Reclaimed Land, Study of Tales, Kaiten, Cards, The Language of Mountains is Rain.

The thread it hangs on is the search by Eiji Miyake for his father, who abandoned his mistress, mother to Eiji and his sister Anju, when they were young. Eiji has come to Tokyo from the sticks (an island called Kagoshima) to make himself known. We first find him in a café opposite the PanOpticon building waiting to meet his father’s lawyer, Akiko Katō, an encounter he fantasises about several times. The shifting ground of the novel starts here. From that point on the reader can never be entirely certain which of the incidents we are presented with are supposed to be occurring only within Eiji’s mind and which are meant to be “real”. But his burgeoning relationship with part-time waitress and proficient musician, Ai Imajō, the nape of whose neck is perfect, does give something to grab on to.

We follow the ups and downs of Eiji’s search, through an unfruitful meeting with Ms Katō, another with an ageing admiral from whom he learns his father’s family name is Tsukiyama, and also with his father’s wife and daughter, not to mention his falling into the orbit of the Yakuza and out again. His motives aren’t mercenary. But others find that difficult to believe.

I must say I’ve read a fair bit of Japanese fiction and the characters here – Yakuza perhaps aside, but gangsters are gangsters the world over – don’t follow the behaviour, or speech, patterns of those in books written by Japanese authors. When Mitchell returned to Japan, in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, it was to the country well before its opening to the West, in Napoleonic times, and his Japanese characters seemed to me to behave as such.

You could call Mitchell’s approach playfulness. Or you could call it irritating. At one point Eiji is hiding out from the Yakuza in a house where a novel’s manuscript is lying about. He of course reads it and so we are given extracts. Its main characters are called Goatwriter (himself a writer,) Mrs Comb (one of those “comedy” earthy charlady types with non-received pronunciation,) and Pithecanthropus. Here we are vouchsafed the information that due to a gentleman’s agreement soldiers never fight each other – “They might get hurt,” – and that, “The purpose of war is to kill as many civilians as possible.’” Also, “‘Writing is not about ‘fulfilment!’ Writing is about adoration! Glamour! Awards!’ …. ‘I learned the language of writers, ‘coda’ and ‘conceit’ for ‘ending’ and ‘idea’; ‘tour de force’ instead of ‘the good bit’; ‘cult classic’ instead of ‘this rubbish will never sell’.” This is a novel wherein is made literal the sentence, “Goatwriter’s words stuck in his throat,” and contains the line, “‘A stream of consciousness’ he rejoyced.” All well and good, but it seems more designed to show off the author’s facility with word-play rather than advance either the plot or knowledge of human relationships.

In Number9Dream Mitchell seems to have pushed his conceits as far as he thought he could get away with. (And possibly beyond.) Still, I’d never thought to see the word zwitterion in a literary novel; hats off to that.

Episodes of seriousness do intrude. A Yakuza tells Eiji that straight citizens of Japan are all living in a movie set. “A show is run from the wings, not centre stage. …… In most places the muscle is at the beck and call of the masters. In Japan, we, the muscle, are the masters. Japan is our gig.’”

A hint that this may be considered an altered history comes in an entry in an exquisitely written, intriguing, realistically toned journal supposedly from 1944 of a Tsukiyama ancestor who was a pilot on the kaiten project (the submarine equivalent of the kamikaze) which makes reference to someone who threw himself under a Russian tank with a bomb and also mentions stories of the Soviets’ cruelty in Manchūkuo. In our world the Soviets didn’t declare war on Japan till after Hitler was defeated in 1945. But in a work such as this where so much is invention in the narrator’s mind this could be another example. On the other hand it could simply be a mistake by Mitchell. There is not much solid ground to hang on to here. This is particularly so when, within the ‘present day’ span of the book a huge earthquake strikes the Tokyo area. This, of course, has not happened in the reader’s time-line.

To back this up, towards the end of the book a truck-driver says to Eiji, “‘Trust what you dream. Not what you think,’” and an old woman tells him, “‘Dreams are shores where the ocean of spirit meets the land of matter. Beaches where the yet-to-be, the once-were, the never-will-be may walk amid the still-are,’” which could be Mitchell describing his methods. Later we are told, ‘A dream is a fusion of spirit and matter.’

It turns out Eiji’s favourite John Lennon song is #9Dream “‘It should be considered a masterpiece.’” He fantasises a meeting where Lennon says it’s a descendant of Norwegian Wood. Both are ghost stories. The title means “the ninth dream begins after every ending.”

In a variation of the man stepping into the same river some time later conundrum Eiji thinks, “A book you read is not the same book as before you read it. Maybe a girl you sleep with is not the same girl you went to bed with.” Is this taking philosophical speculation too far?

If you were counting earlier there were only eight named sections. The ninth is untitled and contains solely a blank page. Presumably the dream.

Which only leaves the question, is Number9Dream a ‘tour de force’ or perhaps a ‘cult classic’?

Pedant’s corner:- not every often (very often.) “An aviary of telephones trill” (An aviary trills.) A missing comma before a piece of direct speech (x 3,) vocal chords (vocal cords.) “‘What would me pictures be doing there??’” (my pictures,) soccer (it’s football,) “the twelve-yard box” (no such thing in football. Penalty box, or eighteen yard box at a pinch,) Eiji scores a goal direct from a goal-kick (that wouldn’t count, goal kicks are indirect free-kicks,) “the enemy goalposts …. enemy player(s)” (the opposition goalposts …. opponent(s).) “A queue of the hippest people wait outside” (a queue waits.) “Daaimon tells the girls a long story … that make the girls shriek with laughter” (tells a story that makes the girls shriek,) hiccoughs (hiccups; it’s not any kind of cough,) “we are in miniature planetarium” (a miniature planetarium,) “and flashes and enamel smile” (an enamel smile.) “A garage band rehearse” (a band rehearses.) “Inside are a whole row of” (is a whole row,) “‘And will his trousers needing pressing’” (need.) “The string section bask in the applause” (the string section basks.) “The clatter and glitter of cascading silver balls hypnotize the ranks of drones” (the clatter and glitter hypnotizes.) “The crowd drain away” (the crowd drains away,) eidelweiss (edelweiss,) “he tobaggoned down the crater” (tobogganed.) “How do you write a letter a real private detective?” (to a real private detective,) “with an cane” (a cane.) “A coven of wives blowhole laughter” (a coven blowholes laughter.) “None of are eager to” (None of us is eager to,) “life-sized statute” (statue,) “I saw than Shiomi’s eyes” (that,) military bace (base,) “we all knew knew” (omit a “knew”.) “He neck is” (his neck,) “a crowd of very busy people surge in” (a crowd surges in,) “‘people use to build Tokyo’” (used to,) vortexes (vortices.) “One set of hands frisk me while another set holds my arms” (note that failure of subject to agree with verb in the first clause with no such failure in the second clause; it ought to be ‘one set frisks me’,) “the three men also sat at the card table” (the three men seated at, or sitting at,) “wracked with relief and guilt” (racked,) “handwriting is an clear as malice” (is as clear,) “the enemy are tracking me” (the enemy is tracking me.) “A row of men in uniforms occupy the urinals” (a row of men occupies the urinals.)

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

Sceptre, 2015, 620 p, plus 4 p notes on reappearing characters and 4 p author interview.

 The Bone Clocks cover

In The Bone Clocks Mitchell is essaying something similar to his earlier novel Cloud Atlas which also had episodes spanning over time into the future but the six first-person-narrated-in present-tense novellas here are not enleaved within one another nor returned to later as they were in that earlier book but rather follow in chronological sequence; 1984, 1991, 2004, 2015-2020, 2025, 2043. The narratives of Hugo Lamb, Ed Brubeck, Crispin Hershey and Dr Marinus (in the guise of Dr Iris Fenby) are bookended by two from Holly Sykes, who appears in every novella and whose overall life story the book therefore chronicles.

We meet Holly at fifteen years old when she is in the throes of her first love affair, besotted with car salesman Vincent Costello, and at odds with her mother. In her childhood, until treated by Dr Marinus, Holly had heard voices, whom she called the Radio People. Her much younger brother Jacko is also touched by strangeness, old beyond his years. The crisis of this first section is precipitated by Holly’s discovery of Vince’s faithlessness and subsequent running away from home. Classmate Ed Brubeck brings her back with the news that Jacko has disappeared too. Mitchell’s delineation of the teenage Holly and her character is so immersive that the fantastical elements of Holly’s existence feel like intrusions, as if coming from some altogether different story.

Jump to 1991 where “posh boy” Hugo Lamb is holidaying in a Swiss ski resort with his even posher mates. He boasts to them he has never fallen in love (despite having had many lovers) but his meeting with an equally commitment-shy Holly after an accident on a ski-slope changes all that. A happy ending is precluded, though, when Lamb is recruited by the Anchorites of the Chapel of the Dusk of the Blind Cathar of the Thomasite Monastery of Sidelhorn Pass, practitioners of the psychosoterica of the Shaded Way. These fantastical aspects appear almost shoe-horned in so at odds are they with Lamb’s (again brilliantly rendered) persona.

By 2004 Holly has a child, Aoife, fathered by third narrator Ed Brubeck, by now a lauded war journalist. When Aoife disappears from their hotel room at a wedding bash, Holly has a fit of sorts and channels a voice, which resolves the situation. The dynamics of Ed and Holly’s relationship are superbly depicted as are the chaos and exigencies of war-torn Baghdad.

The fourth narrator is Crispin Hershey, once the Wild Man of British Letters but struggling to make a living. He comes across the now single Holly (Ed Brubeck’s luck in bomb-dodging having run out) at writers’ events after she has written a book of memoirs titled The Radio People. Deeply sceptical about her experiences Hershey also witnesses one of Holly’s channelling episodes.

The fifth segment contains the book’s climax as narrated by Dr Iris Fenby Marinus, the latest incarnation of Dr Marinus. She/he is an atemporal, or horologist. When she/he dies he/she will wake up in a new body forty-nine days later, usually with a sex-change. Among horologists’ attributes are telepathy, suasion, hiatusing others, scanning minds and everlasting life (with terms and conditions.) The atemporals are in conflict with the Anchorites of the Blind Cathar who can only achieve immortality by draining the psychosoteric energy of adepts and drinking the Black Wine so produced. Holly aids in the final conflict with the help of a labyrinth in a pendant left to her by Jacko. This is the most fantastical of the six novellas and stands in contrast to the others as its focus lies mainly on action.

The last, 2043, section adds nothing much to the overall story but finds Holly retired to Ireland and looking after her two orphaned grandchildren. It does, though, succeed in portraying a very believable post-oil, globally-warmed, electricity deprived world fallen apart (unless blessed with geothermal power plants as in Iceland.)

The Bone Clocks manages to contain its own critique: at one point Lamb thinks, “‘The Mind-walking Theory, plausible if you live in a fantasy novel.’” Then there is the quote from a review of Crispin Hershey’s come-back novel where Richard Cheeseman says, “the fantasy sub-plot clashes so violently with the book’s State of the World pretensions, I cannot bear to look,” and “what surer sign is there that the creative aquifers are dry than a writer creating a writer-character?” – which is precisely what one could say of Mitchell here except that Mitchell’s writing is superb, mellifluous and engaging – each narrative drags you along – but the gradually uncovered fantastical elements are too in conflict with the realistic treatment, seem too tagged on to be credible. By the time we get to the meat of Marinus’s section disbelief is all but impossible to suspend and the whole begins to seem a bit pointless. I began to wonder if Mitchell was somehow playing a joke on all his mainstream readers who would not knowingly read a fantasy novel. Mitchell’s touch also deserted him with his use of “device” as a verb for texting somebody (or texting’s future equivalent.) Then too there were the intertextual meta-fictional games in the mentions of Black Swan Green and de Zoet and Mitchell’s laying out in a Crispin Hershey lecture of, “The perennial tricks of the writers’ trade dating back to the Icelandic sagas. Psychological complexity, character development, the killer line to end a scene, villains blotched with virtue, heroic characters speckled with villainy, foreshadow and flashback, artful misdirection.” Hershey also observes, “What Cupid gives, Cupid takes away. Men marry women hoping they’ll never change. Women marry men hoping they will. Both parties are disappointed.”

The 2015 narrative mentions ex-President Bashar-al-Azad of Syria and in the 2043 one the nuclear power station at Hinkley Point has been updated by the Chinese but recently suffered a meltdown. The first (and perhaps now both) of these would turn the book into an altered history.

Mitchell can certainly write and creates compelling characters. The Bone Clocks however does not reach the heights that The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet did.

Pedant’s corner:- must of (must have. OK it was in a character’s voice but even so; authors owe a duty to their readers not to mangle the language unnecessarily,) heat-seeker missile (the term is heat-seeking missile; but again it was in voice,) and and (only one “and” required,) a plethora pass through (passes, but it was in dialogue,) medieval (mediaeval,) Saint Agnès’ (Saint Agnès’s,) “I’ve find I’ve forgotten” (I find,) the the (only one the necessary,) anciliary (ancillary – or was it a confusion with auxiliary?) homeopathy (homoeopathy,) tying ropes around painted steel cleats, “a T-shirt emblazoned with Beckett’s fail better quote I was given in Santa Fe” (reads as if the narrator was given a quote in Santa Fe,) ‘I consider jerking off again’ (the British term is “wanking”,) a Taser (does that need to be capitalised any more?) Hershey narrates his meeting with Hugo Lamb and then Lamb’s redaction of his memory of it; so how could he relate it to us? “A leaf loop-the-loops” (loops-the-loop,) St James’ church (St James’s,) superceded (superseded,) modii (is meant as a plural of modus, so “modi”,) maw (used for mouth, [sigh….]) in the the pram (remove a “the”,) embarass (embarrass,) sailboat (sailing boat.) In the author interview:- “set in Iceland” (it was actually Ireland.)

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