Niall Harrison (coalescent) wrote,
Niall Harrison
coalescent

Black Swan Green

Everyone wants a reputation, with the possible exception of people who already have one. It's probably somewhat gauche to start off a review on this tack--books should after all be discussed on their own terms, not on the terms of their predecessors--but David Mitchell's reputation can't be avoided. It's hard to imagine anyone, except perhaps deaf Tibetan monks, picking up Black Swan Green without having at least heard of Cloud Atlas, and it's equally hard to imagine Mitchell being unaware of this fact. Indeed, there's a hint of willful refusal about the whole enterprise; as too many people have been too eager to observer, this time out Mitchell has written a book that, on the face of it, couldn't be further away from the panoramas of his previous work. To be blunt, Black Swan Green looks like just one story: a single character in a single village for a single year.

Furthermore, Mitchell has willingly 'fessed up to the book's autobiographical elements, as if they weren't fairly obvious to begin with, joking in interviews that he's written his first novel fourth. All the signs are there, at any rate. Like Mitchell (we have been led to assume), Jason Taylor grows up in a Worcestershire village ("not the arsehole of the world, but it's got a damn good view of it", 82), in shadow of the cold war (he imagines MIGs roaring over the Malvern Hills), reading Le Guin and Wyndham (and Stephen Donaldson, but we won't hold that against him), watching Tomorrow's World, contributing pseudonymous poetry to the parish magazine, and suffering from a debilitating stammer. And yet: in his career to date, Mitchell has so conspicuously avoided writing in anything that might be taken for his own voice that it's hard to take Black Swan Green at face value.

And indeed (as the excessive caveating above might have suggested), the first-glance traditionalism doesn't hold up to scrutiny. Black Swan Green is as carefully constructed, as much an act of literary ventriloquism, as any of Mitchell's other books. There are thirteen chapters, and they do only cover a year and a month in the life of thirteen year-old Jason. Yet, it turns out, they're not chapters so much as short stories. Some of them have even been previously published, albeit in slightly different forms. Each is discrete, and focuses on a different aspect of Jason's life--his stammer, his relatives, initiation into a local gang, the end of year disco--with some assembly required to discern the full shape of the year. For example, in the first story Jason breaks an expensive watch he inherited from his grandfather; it's not until two-thirds of the way through the book that we learn that he's been diligently searching for a replacement. It wasn't relevant to the intervening stories, so it wasn't mentioned. The restlessness of narrative gaze gives the book a slightly relentless quality. "There's no such thing as something!" exclaims one character, "because everything's already turning into something else!" (120). Particularly when coupled with the first-person, diary-style storytelling, this sort of fixup approach seems fitting, a way of capturing the constant turmoil of early adolescence, when last month may as well be ancient history, a different life.

Even so, and however neatly Mitchell has adapted the form to this particular story, it's clear that at heart it's another variation of the approach he's demonstrated he's most comfortable with. In all his books, Mitchell seems to feel the need to set himself limits--and most of the time the need to then explain those limits to the reader. While Black Swan Green isn't as tightly nestled around a single theme as Cloud Atlas, tending instead more towards the diffuseness of Ghostwritten, it certainly has its moments of brazen didacticism. One crucial central story, 'Solarium', sees Jason visiting Madame Eva van Outrve de Crommelynck, an old woman who appreciates his poetry, challenges him to reach further, and in the process appears for all the world to be explaining to us how to read the book. She argues for limits, berating Jason: "You imagine blank verse is a liberation, but no. Discard rhyme, you discard a parachute" (183). Mitchell gets away with that, just, but then:
"Anyone can be truthful."

"About superficialities, Jason, yes, is easy. About pain, no, is not. So you want a double life. One Jason Taylor who seeks approval of hairy barbarians. Another Jason Taylor is Eliot Bolivar, who seeks approval of the literary world."

"Is that so impossible?"

"If you wish to be a versifier," she whirlpooled her wine, "very possible. If you are a true artist," she schwurked wine round her mouth, "absolutely never. If you are not truthful to the world about who and what you are, your art will stink of falseness."

I had no answer for that. (195)
There you are: the dilemma on a plate. Half a million copies of Cloud Atlas and a Richard and Judy Book of the Year Award attest that Mitchell has been popular, and with Black Swan Green he will probably be so again (for whatever else you want to say about it, it's as compulsively readable as any of his other books; this is a writer who knows how to spin a yarn). But has he been truthful, and if not does it matter? After each of his books we have been asking where David Mitchell is--who he is--but Black Swan Green puts the question unavoidably front and centre.

To begin to find answers, we have to return to Jason, because it's with Jason that the book stands or falls. Unlike, say, The Accidental's Astrid Smart, he is not meant to be an original. He is instead everything thirteen-year-old English boys in books like this are meant to be: lower middle-class, nervous around girls, close enough to believing in himself that he can get there by the end of the story. He starts out as a mid-rank boy at school, not so popular we can't empathise with him, but not so low down that he has nowhere to fall. And he has a way with words, although he's still learning how to fit them to the world. The text is dotted with phrases that are trying just a little too hard--"the sky was turning to outer space" (20), for example, or "something silent smashed without being dropped" (143)--and which stand out all the more because the rest of the writing around them is determinedly informal, full of colloquial dialogue, the occasional arch authorial nudge towards history yet to happen, slang, and brand names. The latter, in fact, seem a false note at first, evidence that, like Jason, Mitchell is trying too hard. There seems to be an excess of detail. Jason doesn't eat crisps, he eats Monster Munch; and he doesn't eat chocolates, or Roses, but Cadbury's Roses. Every song on the radio is titled, every make of car is named.

But this is all part of a pattern. Look at the things that happen to Jason. He has an eventful year, but in all the expected ways. There are visits from his relatives. His immediate family is ok--none of them have much time for him, dealing with business (dad), mid-life (mum) or late-adolescent (big sister) crises of their own, but none of them are bad people--but his cousins are an odious lot, and bring out the worst in all concerned. There are confrontations with the village bullies and their lackeys, and teachers at school--all the recognisable types of English teenage life are here, in fact. There are encounters with local gypsies, and with prejudice. And, given that this is 1982, Mrs Thatcher and the Falklands war are lurking in the background. Most of the stories are brilliantly told--lively, nuanced, affecting, from the intoxicating freedom of Jason's personal odyssey of 'Bridlepath' to the intricate awkwardnesses reflected in 'Souvenirs'. But, eventually, almost everything ends as it should: the bullies get their just desserts, while Jason gets the respect of the people who matter, and his first kiss into the bargain. It's hard to be downcast about the few bitter notes in the closing cadences when the book's very last words are "it's not the end" (371). So apt, so true; we never stop coming of age.

A neat book so far, then. The last thing we need to know upsets the applecart. We need to know about Jason's imaginary companions: the wild cards, the chaos looking over his shoulder. Maggot, Unborn Twin, and most especially Hangman, are (occasionally) the voices of Jason's better angels, and (more commonly) his demons personified. Hangman is his nemesis, his stammer brought to cruel life. "Pike lips, broken nose, rhino cheeks, red eyes 'cause he never sleeps" (31), Hangman strikes with a mocking unpredictability, blocking the dreaded N- or S-words at the worst possible moments. If Jason is quick and lucky, he'll be able to think ahead, pick another word, but it's a constant balancing act: a fight to keep the secret, preserve his reputation, maintain control. If Mitchell actually is anything like Jason, small wonder that his books are so meticulously assembled.

Hangman is introduced on page 3, and explained in the second story. Maggot and Unborn Twin are there from the start, as well, but aren't explained until almost the end of the book, more or less when we learn how the story is really being told. It's not quite what we thought. What appears to be Jason's diary, written as he goes, is in fact a collection of compositions, mostly made long after the fact. At this point, everything slots into place: Black Swan Green, as told by Jason, is an act of self-mythologisation, an attempt to rationalise the year once it has been (mostly) lived. Hence the insertion of Maggot and Unborn Twin into events predating their birth; hence the exaggerated naturalism of the prose, the plotting and description that seem precise almost to the point of being parodic. It's all because this is a book in which writing something down gives you control over it. Jason's stammer forces him to learn how to use words to save himself; at one crucial, ecstatic moment he realises that "Words made it. Just words" (339). And, we realise, that's as true for David Mitchell as it is for Jason.

This is not a departure. Cloud Atlas, in the end, was not so much a book about the world as a book about how the world is described by different fictional forms. A book about the stories we tell ourselves, or about how we distort the world when we make a story out of it, reduce it to words on a page. That's why its components had to be so clearly genre works: because genres are codified approaches to making the world storyable, and they survive only as long as they are doing something right, telling us something useful. They are always under tension, on the edge of ossification. And Mitchell seems to have set himself the challenge of revamping the established codes, finding the truths buried within them--perhaps because, these days, you can't help but be aware of the way stories are told. That's why Mitchell's go to such length to explain what they're about; because otherwise they will be hopelessly naive. The ultimate goal, possibly, is to write a book that succeeds because of its self-awareness: to write what we might call a modern genre novel.

Black Swan Green, I think, is an attempt to write such a book by treating a category, 'semi-autobiographical first novels', as a genre. To take the cliches, and make them into tropes; to wring them into new configurations. But the balance is off. There is something about knowing this--about knowing that Mitchell's use of his own experiences is a pragmatic choice, to lend weight to an overfamiliar landscape--that conflicts with the transparency of Jason's voice. The miracle is that the book still works as well as it does, for, despite their secondhand nature, the characters and situations that fill these pages ring only occasionally hollow. Jason himself is convincing, and the truths Mitchell unearths from his day-to-day life shine freshly in the daylight. Even the coldness, in the end, is worth it, because the book does what it was designed to do. It tells a story; it makes you care; and along the way it explains what Mitchell does without ever giving away who he is.

Here I am, says the author, standing in front of us, in plain sight. We know his reputation; we're waiting for the trick. This is what I'm about, he says, smiling, and then--

Other reviews:
Nell Freudenberger in The New York Times
M. John Harrison in the TLS
David Hellman in the San Francisco Chronicle
peake here
Laura Miller at Salon
Adam Phillips in The Observer
Steven Poole in The Guardian
Ali Smith in The Telegraph
Scarlett Thomas in The Independent
Daniel Zelewski in The New Yorker
Lee Rourke at Ready Steady Book
And more
Tags: book review, david mitchell, genre, stop disagreeing just to hide your shame
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  • The Weight of Numbers, II

    A little while ago I mentioned Simon Ings' new novel, The Weight of Numbers. I also linked to this Guardian review, which seemed to do a pretty…

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