Welcome back to the Short Fiction Spotlight, a weekly column dedicated to doing exactly what it says in the header: shining a light on the some of the best and most relevant fiction of the aforementioned form.
The longlist of novels nominated for this year’s Man Booker Prize is notable for any number of reasons. The prevalence of American authors in a field formerly dominated by Brits and writers hailing from the countries of the Commonwealth can hardly come as a surprise, being a direct effect of the new rules, but the lack of big hitters—foremostly favourites like Martin Amis and Ian McEwan—indubitably does.
David Mitchell’s longlisting for his new book, The Bone Clocks, bucks both of the aforementioned trends. Aside a sojourn in Sicily and eight years of teaching in Hiroshima, he’s a University of Kent-educated Englishman who has been what you might describe as a Booker bridesmaid not once or twice but thrice: for number9dream, Cloud Atlas, and finally, four Prizes past, for The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. Could 2014 be his year? Having read ‘The Right Sort,’ an experimental short set in the same world as the author’s upcoming novel, I’d put to you that it’s a real possibility.
We can’t begin to talk about ‘The Right Sort’ without acknowledging, at the outset, its oddness—for starters the fact that it came into being over the course of one week, by way of 280 terse tweets, helpfully collected here by The Guardian. In an interview with the same paper, Mitchell discussed the impetus for this, admitting that he couldn’t resist using the platform as a storytelling medium. He didn’t just parcel out a standard narrative in 140 character pieces, either. Instead:
The story is being narrated in the present tense by a boy tripping on his mother’s Valium pills. He likes Valium because it reduces the bruising hurly-burly of the world into orderly, bite-sized ‘pulses’. So the boy is essentially thinking and experiencing in Tweets. […] My hope is then that the rationale for deploying Twitter comes from inside the story, rather than it being imposed by me, from outside, as a gimmick. Usefully, the Valium also lets me walk that Turn of the Screw tightrope between the fabulous and realism: maybe the supernatural events are really happening, or maybe they’re just chemical phantasms.
Said supernatural events are in evidence from early on. The boy, name of Nathan, and his mum Miss Bland—a piano teacher with hopes of high society—are seeking a certain street. “You can’t see Slade Alley till you’re smack bang in front of it,” Nathan notes. “Dark. Dunno. It’s like Slade Alley shouldn’t even be here.”
Not to speak of the house they’ve been invited to attend an improvised “soirée” at by Lady Briggs. Initially, it’s as if it doesn’t want to be found, and when it is, inevitably, it’s strange, spatially speaking: “How could this big house fit in the gap between Slade Alley and Cranbury Road?” Nathan has to ask. “Where’s the drive? What’s it doing here?” What indeed…
Lady Briggs, when she puts in an appearance, makes Nathan’s mum feel at ease immediately. In time, the two disappear into the impossible property—supposedly to rub shoulders with “one of the most famous violinists alive”—leaving Nathan to play in the (admittedly gorgeous) garden, where “all the purple foxgloves sway like something’s there. There isn’t.” Least, there doesn’t appear to be.
Keeping him company is a weird kid called Jonah, who, as soon as the grown-ups are gone, wants to know all about Nathan’s recurring nightmare—not that our narrator has given any indication that he suffers from one. But:
The mastiff’s none of his business. How it launched itself at me, how its fangs pulled skin off my cheek like skin off roast chicken—the mastiff’s black eyes as it shook me like a doll, my own blood blinding me—the weeks in hospital, the injections, the drugs—the bandages—Mum and Dad’s shouting matches—the ‘jokes’—‘Hey, Bland, you’ve got a rasher of bacon stuck to your cheek.’ I dream it. Even three years later.
Nathan doesn’t tell Jonah any of this, though. The boy seems to know nevertheless; supernaturally, perhaps. That, or it’s simply a cruel coincidence that he suggests they play a game of something called Fox and Hounds. “It’s basically a race,” Jonah explains, but it turns into something much less mundane. As Nathan runs around and around the house, he seems to travel in time:
Down the echoey side alley—slap slap slap versus faint wham-wham wham-wham—I’m a natural runner—a natural runner—and… round the back again—the back lawn’s half the size it was. It can’t be. It is. It can’t be. Keep running. Keep running. Keep running. I leg it down the bramble side—the brambles have half blocked it off. A breeze stirs the thorny tentacles… No, I’m imagining it.
In this way, the bite-sized sentences Mitchell mentioned earlier—“like this one. All lined up. Munch-munch”—are parlayed into a terrific sense of tension: a taut string of incident that snaps back like elastic before the story’s over.
Another of the things ‘The Right Sort’ gets right—remarkably right, really—is character. Nathan may be addle-brained for the duration of the tale, but who he is is indisputable. By way of his behaviour and an assortment of incidental reflections—on his absent father, the bullies at school, the wounding way they make fun of his mum… not to mention that monstrous mastiff—the author effects an impression of Nathan as a witty kid with more than your average baggage that lasts long beyond the actual narrative.
I don’t know that we’ll meet him or his mum again, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Lady Briggs and her unnaturally hungry charge had a large part to play in The Bone Clocks, which, if this experiment with the “diabolical treble-strapped textual straitjacket” of Twitter is any indication, is as good as guaranteed to be among the year’s best books.
Time will tell, I guess…
Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com. He’s been known to tweet, twoo.