Slade House by David Mitchell

Return of the Gothic Novel, now with added post modernism!

David Mitchell has again demonstrated just how powerful his imagination is with this powerful, lyrical, suspenseful and, at times, horrifying story of psychic vampirism. This is a novel which will grip you to the very end, an ending which was not the ending I was wanting, but just as Slade House refers back to previous novels, The Bone Clocks especially, it may well be the seed of the next Mitchell work.

While The Bone Clocks is a sprawling, many faceted novel in which the action takes place over five continents, Slade House concentrates within a single London setting. Notwithstanding that the characters may imagine they are elsewhere.

There are five chapters, or perhaps episodes would be a better word, each told in the first person, by the victims, as long as they can… (You did know it was a horror story, didn’t you?) Each narrator is unique and Mitchell has realised them extremely well, from nerdy schoolboy, to hard boiled copper, to neurotic student and sophisticated journalist. Though there is little room for character development. they have a reality which makes them sympathetic at their end, even if not before. Since none of them could have recorded their experience (well not quite true), we are, as if inhabiting the characters, and thus we become them, in some sense then, their experiences are happening to us.

I am not usually very sympathetic to magic and supernatural in a novel. Apart from the obvious violation of physical laws and naturalism they are too often it is used as a deus ex machina, to cover for poor plot structure. However, Slade House has sufficiently tight plotting to induce me to be somewhat more willing to suspend disbelief in this instance. The switch between real world and hyper-reality can be hard to detect, only becoming apparent in hindsight as deception is revealed, though, as the novel progresses, one pretty much assumes that it is all un-real.

On its own terms Slade House is a well crafted jewel, well worth reading. In the context of Mitchell’s oevre, I am driven to wonder, is it a coda or an entreacte?

Soup, beautiful soup

Reading has been on the back burner, except for the book group book, for the last couple of weeks as I have been trying to get the garden, and also the garage, back into order.

The Beauty of Humanity Movement is set in Hanoi Vietnam, in the present and from the perspective of the North. The author, Camilla Gibb, has a social anthropology background and has, no doubt, used her research skills, both in the literature and amongst the Vietnamese diaspora, to produce an authentic sounding portrayal of the city and its history.

The plot is driven by Maggie, a Vietnamese-American woman who is searching for relic of her father, who was a member of the fleeting intellectual movement that emerged just after the Viet Minh victory over the French in 1954. She becomes a catalyst for changes in the characters she encounters, especially Hung the street vendor who “makes the best phô in the city” and Tu, the somewhat buttoned up tourist guide.

Phô, the iconic Vietnamese soup, is the real hero of the novel, as its contents and quality, as prepared by Hung, mirror the tragic history of Vietnam from colonial times through the brief period of hope in independence, the brutal collectivisation, the American war to the current liberalisation. These are narrated in flashbacks, by Hung as he tries to recall any details of Maggies’s father. None of the characters are developed beyond their role in reaching the denouement, which itself seems rather contrived. The language is spare (that’s a compliment) and the author has a good ear, can write some eloquent and moving passages but the characters are too symbolic to be really convincing.

The making of phô is a long and complicated affair of developing subtle flavours in the broth. Some recipes call for the addition of sugar. It is unfortunate that the author has ladled in a large dollop at the end.

Inventing the Individual

The first chapter is on the ancient family, which is almost totally based on work by Fustel de Coulanges, and, if you have no idea who he was, it’s not surprising, as he died in 1889. Immediately, I am wondering why I am bothering read a book that relies on a work more than 150 years old,(La Cite antique, 1864) no matter how seminal it may have been. It appears from the references that Siedentop is a follower of continental, predominantly French scholarship. This is not a bad thing, and could be a corrective to the predominantly anglo-american perspective, though most of the citations I see, at a cursory glance, are nineteenth century. Be that as it may, the idea that Greek and Roman societies and families were hierarchical and paternalistic is scarcely controversial, Siedentop presents the classical family as an absolute dictatorship, founded on religious beliefs concerning the family sacred hearth and their ancestors. “Nor should we suppose that the claims of family piety were much weakened in later historical times, when families were joined in larger associations.” (p 15) But that is not the whole story. The ideology transmitted to us in the texts is that of an elite, and is already idealised.  It is likely that the reality was much more complex.  Our own society stresses individuality, yet nearly all of our institutions are hierarchical to a greater or lesser degree. In Rome there were forces such as the state and the army, even in republican times, beginning to break down traditional social forms. I feel constrained to quote another old French historian, Jérôme Carcopino, from Daily Life in Ancient Rome (trans E.O.Lorimer)

“…the two essential weapons of the patria potestas were gradually blunted: the fathers absolute authority over his children, and the husband’s absolute authority over the wife placed ‘in his hand…”
p 90

” Similarly, after the end of the republic, the emancipation of a child had entirely changed in significance and effect. In ancient days it was a punishment,… Now emancipation had become a benefit.”
p 91

Siedentop’s thesis is that the decisive event, leading eventually to the concept of “the individual”, was the invention of christianity.  I say invention, advisedly, because, of course, Siedentop explicitly believes in the reality of Jesus, and all that that entails. For this reason he is at pains to exaggerate the differences and down play the continuities.

Holiday Reading

I picked up a book to read while we were away, and downloaded two to Kindle, though I didn’t get very far with any of them!

Maggie Thatcher famously said, unless it is apocryphal, “There is no such thing as Society”, to which my reply would be – there is no such thing as the individual. This is true in two senses, the individual can only be conceived of in relationship to other individuals, thus some kind of society, and without the support of any organized society, the fate of the individual would be Hobbesian indeed.

Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism by Larry Siedentop, thus seemed a profitable read, but having started it, I realise I should have read the prologue. It appears to be mainly christian apologetic. “People who live in the nations once described as part of Christendom …. seem to have lost their moral bearings.” Oh dear, grumpy old fart syndrome on the first page. The author is a fellow of Kempe college, Oxford, should have known.

Anyway I am determined to read it through, I wonder if there will be anything at all that I agree with? Actually, there is one statement I can agree with: “…that beliefs are nonetheless of primary importance, an assumption once far more widely held than it is today”, and another which which I agree may be true for some ideas, if not all, “…changes in belief, can take centuries to begin to modify social institutions.” (p 2)

New Book Category

To kick off this new theme I’ll just say what I’m reading at the moment.

I usually have two or three books on the go, one is a book group book, which I won’t post about until after the meeting, the others are usually some variety of history or popular science.

The current book group book is The Beauty of Humanity Movement by Camilla Gibb and my history title is Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism by Larry Siedentop.