Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Black Swan Green

Review of David Mitchell’s novel Black Swan Green; Toronto Star, spring 2006.

Does anyone think back to their early teens without wincing? Even for the most self-confident and socially successful of kids, those are bewildering and exhausting years. There are the ever-shifting codes and conventions of peers to keep up with, the demands of the adult world to adjust to, and of course the search for one’s own sense of self to get on with.

Jason Taylor, the 13-year-old narrator of David Mitchell’s new novel, is not at all self-confident or socially successful.

In Black Swan Green, Jason recounts a year in his life – 1982 – as he grows up in a sleepy British village. “Sleepy” being relative, of course. Certainly life is dramatic enough for Jason, who’s buffeted by the usual schoolboy sturm und drang: his parents feuding with each other, bullies stalking him for sport, the girl of his daydreams ignoring him. Throw in some anxiety about the Falkland Islands war (it’s 1982, remember) and a nasty stammer (which Jason anthropomorphizes as “Hangman,” as in, “Words beginning with N have always been one of Hangman’s favorites”), and the boy’s having a rough year indeed.

Things aren’t all bad, though. We also see Jason recognizing and developing his own budding literary talent, first as a poet and eventually as a writer of narrative prose. Mitchell does a nice job here of illustrating Jason’s flair for language with striking but plausible flourishes; he wonderfully describes a Roxy Music song as “kazookery,” for instance. And as the year passes, Jason grows in other ways, too, coming to discern the contours of his own principles and to see where they bang up against the dilemmas of the larger world.

All of which is to say that Black Swan Green is a coming-of-age novel. And this seems to be the place to mention that like Jason, David Mitchell grew up in smalltown England, turned 13 in 1982, struggled with a stammer in his youth, and, obviously, found his vocation in writing. But I’ll make no more of all that, except to note that, unsurprisingly, Mitchell’s rendering of time and place in this new book has a warm and lived-in feel.

In any case, the novel is a sharp departure for Mitchell. His three previous ones have been nothing if not audacious and fanciful, culminating in Cloud Atlas two years ago, an epic that hopped giddily from genre to genre and storyline to storyline, from the 19th century to the far future. Smart and exhilarating, the novel won Mitchell a raft of new readers (including me). Black Swan Green is neither audacious nor fanciful, but what Mitchell has set out to do here – to capture the flux of youth, and to dazzle the reader with everyday, awkward human interaction rather than clever narrative conceits – is risky and rewarding in its own way.

Not that Mitchell has lost all interest in form. In fact, Black Swan Green seems to deliberately set the natural interiority of Jason’s first-person narration against more transparently dramatic storytelling strategies. The novel is structured as a series of semi-discrete episodes, with larger story arcs progressing incrementally in each – much like a TV series. Many of the set pieces are heavy on dialogue, and the dialogue sometimes does exposition duty, catching the reader up on recent developments. Some sequences even seem like celluloid-ready montages, such as this quick-cut description of a school hallway thronged with students: “School was all skiddy floors this morning, damp steaming anoraks, teachers telling kids off for screaming and first years playing illegal tag in the corridors and third year girls trawling the corridors with linked arms singing a Bananarama song.”

Occasionally, Black Swan Green is a little too transparently dramatic. Early in the novel, the narrative ducks are so blatantly set in a row – Jason’s parents have an uneasy marriage; the father’s facing changes at work; a town boy has enlisted in the Royal Navy – that waiting for them to fall is downright distracting. Also, Mitchell winks at his readers probably more than this particular story calls for when he improbably deposits a character from Cloud Atlas into the village for one chapter. (He also can’t resist at least one cheap historical-hindsight gag – “Betamax, of course! VHS’s going extinct” – although to be fair, he does show much more self-discipline in this regard than many others would.)

Often enough, though, Mitchell’s obvious efforts to please the reader work wonderfully, and the novel’s never less than tremendously engaging. He creates a fully realized village community that’s populated with a vivid and large cast of supporting characters. (And how refreshing that is, after so many literary novels in which the protagonist seems to know three people in the world.) Jason’s various predicaments entertain us without straining believability, and at its best the dialogue snaps without seeming too stylized. One comic highlight is a chapter called “Relatives,” in which an aunt and her family visit for the day. The dinner-table conversation is dominated by competitive, posturing back-and-forth between Jason’s father and uncle, and at every turn our perceptions of Jason, his family, and his extended family fluctuate, even as Jason’s do not.

On the more introspective side, the descriptions of Jason’s struggles with “Hangman” are insightful and fascinating, as he explains how his stammer favours certain letters, situations, and even times of year. “Most people think stammering and stuttering are the same but they’re as different as diarrhea and constipation,” he says. In their matter-of-fact tone, these passages pull off the nice trick of stirring our sympathy without appearing to try to do so.

In the end, though, Jason is a little too sympathetic. He may be socially timid and inept, but he’s also talented, kindhearted, and morally and ethically precocious – “not hurting people is ten bloody thousand times more bloody important than being right,” he says at one point. Though tested by the aforementioned various predicaments, he always does the right thing, and still feels guilty if he doesn’t do it quickly enough. These are false notes in a novel in which so many small details ring true.

Eventually, the idealized air spreads from protagonist to plot. As Jason’s year passes and he either accepts or outwits many of his torments and tormentors, one gets the unavoidable sense that Mitchell is asking the reader to collude in a kind of joint wish-fulfillment exercise. It’s impossible not to like Jason. But by the end of this very likable novel, it’s not quite possible to believe in him.

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