David Mitchell is a thrilling author who weaves his works like a knotted ball of string; there is an end and a beginning, but the reader is seemingly on their own when it comes to everything in the middle. Because of these works, Mitchell is an award-winning and bestselling author who, according to his website, was named by Time Magazine as one of the 100 Most Influential People world-wide. His novels are stand-alone explanations of these awards.
Slade House is one of his twisted novels, where Mitchell’s knotted ball is never fully unwound. The novel’s basic structure is simple. There are two twins who inhabit Slade House, a time-warp of sorts. The twins, Norah and Jonah, are soul-sucking psychics who gain a life of immortality by devouring the soul of an “Engifted” once every nine years. If this is accomplished, their spirits become free to dwell in other’s bodies until the Enchanted soul is depleted and the cycle begins again––strange, but simple.
The novel’s plot line is not so, dare I say, linear. Mitchell is a wizard when it comes to organized chaos, a phrase that could not better capture the feeling of this novel. His unique structure does not with many readers, because their expectations of novel progression are defied: there is not an immediate orientation, there is not a linear development of a protagonist, and there is not an explanation of the story’s key aspects when they are wanted by the reader in order to make sense of events. Or, is there? While Mitchell seems to deny his readers of these typical novel elements, he eventually proves that these are purposeful tools to deliver his irregular message of both form and theory, and force the reader to learn at set intervals.
The end of chapter two elaborates on the twin’s system a little more, and we are introduced to the terms “orison,” “operandi,” “lacuna,” and “banjax.” We learn that their “orisons” are a manifested hallucination that each Engifted, a person with psychic abilities, experiences before their soul is harvested by the twins. Then, they must be successful in luring each Engifted victim into their lacuna, the place where the twin’s bodies are “freeze-dried against world-time, anchoring [their] souls in life,” ready to devour an innocent soul to extended their own lives (Mitchell 79). Got all that?
In the first chapter, we are introduced to Nathan Bishop, a young, struggling teen who seems to be self-drugged by valium. For forty-three pages, we follow Nathan and Jonah through conversation and activities which seem to make unexplainable leaps. Nathan goes through a variety of strange events after entering Slade House, which the reader is led to attribute to his double dose of sedatives.
For example, upon their first meeting, Nathan is unable to account for how Jonah, “sitting on a wall, about fifteen feet up” is suddenly on the ground next to him. “How did you get down so quickly?” he asks, but then responds to himself, saying, “I know he jumped really” (Mitchell 11-13). It is easy to glance over this upon first read. But, fifteen feet? Jonah jumped off a fifteen-foot wall without making any noise or motion that would have been noticeable to Nathan or his mother who was standing next to him?
At this point, it is difficult for readers to discern what is reality and what is illusion because of the narrator’s undependable state of mind. Actions that should have a clear cause and effect, don’t. This is where the reader begins to understand that they will not be gently placed into the novel’s opening setting, because there is no setting to be placed into. Throughout the entire first chapter, Mitchell has yet to create an orientation for the reader to help them navigate the novel.
Instead, Mitchell aims to keep the reader in the victim’s seat throughout chapter one, and for some readers, the majority of chapter two. Readers expect him to provide a setting and then be led through the actions, but Mitchell introduces these the other way around. Some people are turned off by this sequence, as they feel that he does them a disservice by releasing information in this order. However, not immediately providing a description of the time warped mansion––or the fact that we are even in a time warped mansion––gifts the reader with the opportunity to experience what it is like to be a victim of the Grayer twins.
This is the only chance we get. If we know how the twin’s system works, then a later shot at pretending to be the victim would have a meaningless effect in comparison. Even the knowledge of their being a role of victim and a role of predator changes the game. Mitchell knows that we are confused, because we are supposed to be. Mitchell knows that we want to know more, because we are supposed to want clarity. He withholds the explanation of key aspects on purpose, and all he asks is that we give him the chance to show us why it is so ingenious.
Another critique that readers have about Slade House is its seeming absence of a linear, continuous protagonist that develops from cover to cover. Each chapter is told through the eyes of a new character, which makes this conclusion understandable, but incorrect. Again, Mitchell refuses to entertain our wants of a typical novel and hides our beloved protagonists in the background, cloaked with capes of malevolent destruction.
Who? Who other than the Grayer twins themselves. Sure, they are not in the spotlight of the novel, but they run the entire show. Each chapter opens with an introduction to the unfortunate Engifted whose soul will be sacrificed at the end, and this is perhaps what leads readers to think that the protagonist is supposed to be the victim, but divided up into four different characters across time. But, the twins are the reason we are introduced to each specific person, because all were strategically chosen behind the scenes of the novel.
In each chapter, after a redundant introduction to the new victim, we walk through the orison that entices each of these Engifteds. The obvious understanding is that the twins are sitting, waiting for the orison to conclude so that they can feast on the acquired soul. However, the twins have constructed every corner, every person, and every conversation of this hallucination, and leave the perfect trail to an ultimate demise. In essence, the twins are the entire orison for the majority of each chapter, because it solely exists from their being. They are present throughout the whole chapter in this way, not just perched at the end.
The conclusion of each chapter, excluding the last, involves the death of the relative Engifted and a conversation between the twins. This is when we can best see that every step up to that point has been crafted from their wicked hands. We find that the true story being told by Mitchell is not one of innocent people losing their lives, but the pursuit of immortality by the Grayer twins. Mitchell uses the up-front characters to tell the story of the twins, who are the creators, owners, dwellers, and masterminds behind the infamous Slade House. It’s backwards, but it works.
There is a common literary suggestion of “show, don’t tell,” where authors lead their readers through a work, careful to not to spell out every thought and action. Mitchell creates a new expectation of this idea in Slade House. Not only does he refrain from telling his reader, he only shows pieces at a time when he feels they are necessary, not wanted.
If there is anything to take away from this novel, it is that Mitchell shows us that we are needy, self-centered readers. We expect authors to provide us with information when it makes sense to us, so that we are comfortable in our reading experience. Instead, Mitchell challenges us with an irregular novel form that requires us to trust him as a writer to complete his story, but question his authority in giving the true answer like a self-thinking reader should do.