When an author who insists he is “not really a social media animal” writes a Twitter story, we should at least raise an eyebrow. When that same author goes on to say he wrote the story at his publisher’s instigation, we might question what the point is in reading on. You wouldn’t catch a novelist promoting his new book of poems by announcing that he never really liked poetry but, you know, he thought he’d give it a go.
But then, David Mitchell is an author who can afford to take risks. Since the publication of Ghostwritten in 1999, Mitchell has won, not only a succession of awards and a huge and ardent readership both within and far beyond academic circles. I can think of no other author who has won a Richard & Judy Book Award and also been the subject of two academic conferences and an essay collection.
Mitchell’s novels are typically of a genre which Douglas Coupland termed “translit”, made up of a vast number of narrative threads which are interlaced across space and time, sometimes extending into the realm of supernatural or futuristic. The reader is challenged to “join the dots”, not only revealing a skillful patterning at work in Mitchell’s writing, but also an ethical message about the interconnection — and interdependence — of all life. Twitter, itself a vast dot-to-dot playing out across time and space, ought to hold some promise for an author of Mitchell’s inventiveness.
The Right Sort, which began on July 14 and just culminated, is one such dot. Tweeted in a succession of twice-daily bursts for a week which leaves the reader hanging, it is itself a kind of teaser. The story is apparently set in the “same universe” as Mitchell’s upcoming novel The Bone Clocks, but until readers get a look at the novel when it comes out in September, we won’t know quite where in that universe it fits.
It’s 1978 and Nathan Bland, a sensitive teen struggling with his parents’ divorce, is being dragged to a “soirée” by his mother. On reaching the strangely out-of-the-way house, he is abandoned to the company of Jonah, a boy with a strange confidence and peculiar turn of phrase. Nathan’s senses have been skewed by the valium he sneaked from his mother’s supply that morning. This gives some elasticity to our reading of his following narration as it turns more macabre and fantastical. If the story begins by recalling Mitchell’s most straightforward novel, Black Swan Green, it soon steers us into darker territory, a place in which time begins to behave in a thoroughly unsettling manner.
In interview, Mitchell has gamely suggested some of the literary possibilities of Twitterfiction which he has tried to harness in this story. He has spoken of the creative possibilities of the “straitjacket” form of 140 characters, citing the famously obscure Oulipo movement as a parallel. The “pulse-like” quality of each Tweet, meanwhile, allowed him to mimic Nathan’s valium saturated perceptions.
Fair enough, but none of this suggests that Mitchell has actually read any Twitterfiction, nor really begun to appreciate some of its unique possibilities. He’s been missing out.
Ideally, tweets should be able to stand alone or be read together with equal fluency: Teju Cole’s sharply satirical Seven short stories about drones or Jennifer Egan’s futuristic spy story Black Box achieved this.
Twitter’s rhythm best suits a description of the present or imagined future and can be turned in on itself, as Cole and Egan use it, to question the direction in which we are moving. Hurtling by in a fragmentary form, tweets remain potentially intimate and can accumulate power by being played out over time. Jonathan Gibbs’s beautifully written @365daystory was being told over the period of a year and described the story of one woman’s life from birth to death. The project has now been handed over to new authors, suggesting another of the possibilities which Twitterfiction has opened up: collaborative authorship.
The noise surrounding Mitchell’s story suggests it has been well received, but appreciated in the manner we gulp down a taster at an ice cream stand. We were going to buy the full-sized portion anyway, but a little free sample has generated our good will and whetted our appetite. The Right Sort is a rich short story in itself, but remains, in essence, a Twitter story for people who don’t like Twitter. Its multiple cliffhangers frustrate more than they delight and will surely have confirmed for many first time Twitterfiction readers what they already suspected: that they’d rather curl up with a book.