Black Swan Green by David Mitchell
In her sincere review of David Mitchell's previous novel, the widely acclaimed Cloud Atlas, novelist A S Byatt states:
"Cloud Atlas is powerful and elegant because of Mitchell's understanding of the way we respond to those fundamental and primitive stories we tell about good and evil, love and destruction, beginnings and ends. He isn't afraid to jerk tears or ratchet up suspense - he understands that's what we make stories for."
And she's right, of course: these are the very rudiments in storytelling we respond to most eagerly, but it seems, in his new effort Black Swan Green, there is a marked departure from the "powerful and elegant" weight that was found in Cloud Atlas. Most inexplicably of all this seems to be a conscious decision made by David Mitchell himself - and, without sounding too brusque, it is some departure.
Black Swan Green deals with thirteen rather humdrum months in the life of a 13 year old boy (Jason Taylor) in a back water village (Black Swan Green) at the foot of the Malvern Hills, Worcestershire, moving through the seasons and social, domestic and political upheavals, from January 1982 to January 1983. Each of the chapters is a complete short story (it is quite possible to read them as such) narrated in the first person by Jason himself. Each tale creates an interweaving whole where characters are allowed to fall from the narrative and then reappear intermittently later on, creating a disjointed undercurrent: this being the indefinable black hole that is the transition from boyhood to teenager. Being a teenager is something at which Jason desperately wants to be good at, but from the outset it is clear he is an outsider; he doesn't belong. His parents are too embroiled in their own ongoing spats to care, his sister just wants to get away to university, and, more importantly, there are secrets he wants to keep hidden from his own peers. People do not understand Jason Taylor. For a start he is a poet, albeit an incognito bard; writing his wares for the local parish rag under the outlandish pseudonym “Elliot Bolivar”. Jason, you see, is an intelligent young boy, but this only manifests itself internally as he suffers from an acute speech impediment: he stammers, and any external musings are hampered by its presence:
“Most people think stammering and stuttering are the same but they’re as different as diarrhoea and constipation.” (Pg 30).
He is also haunted by numerous voices and auras that seem to guide him: one being his unborn twin; another voice coarsely called “maggot” and the continued presence of “Hangman” – the untraceable force that causes his stammering:
“February’s Hangman’s favourite month. Come summer he gets dozy and hibernates through to Autumn, and I can speak a bit better.” (Pg 34).
Black Swan Green isn't a coming of age novel as such, more a detailed account of a boy’s troubled life. Yet it is these same minute particulars, that David Mitchell so liberally pours into his narrative, that cause the fundamental problem with this novel: there's just too much of it – detail that is.
David Mitchell is a novelist of juxtapositions, the interesting premise in Cloud Atlas was that major themes and human touchstones could be linked, or grouped, within the juxtaposition of opposing narrative styles and techniques, spanning epochs and generations. There is no sign of such finesse inside the pages of Black Swan Green, and although Mitchell does contrast the rather diminutive events of Jason's life – a kiss here, a scrap there, et cetera – with the seismic shifts in his parents’ life, and the larger conflicts around him like the burgeoning Falklands conflict across the ocean rather adroitly, it still reads as an exercise in memory, something personal, something coerced. Maybe the discomfort we feel when reading this novel is the wry smile on Mitchell’s face in knowing how we will invariably contrast this localised novel with his last multi-faceted, epoch-encompassing colossus?
Yet such subtleties of placement, if they exist at all in Black Swan Green, seem obstructed by a desire to create resonance, milieu and pattern familiar to a desired era. So, instead we are treated to a series of red herrings and false starts, ruminations, and ideas; ultimately a gathering of anecdotal cul-de-sacs whipped into a frenzy by a strong gust of popular slang, culture and referencing; to compliment this hotchpotch we are delivered a narrative voice that seems a little too forced (even if they are textbook episodes in the not-so-troubled life of an approaching teen):
“If Dawn Madden’s breasts were a pair of Danishes, Debby Crombie’s got two Space Hoppers.” (Pg 111).
“Now she made a noise like a tortured Moonmintroll.” (Pg 112).
“Now he moved up and down, Man-from-Atlantisly.” (Pg 112).
Black Swan Green is littered with such writing and the gratuitous shoe-horning of populist TV references into a voyeuristic episode screams of authorial invention – remember this is a 13 year old male’s first adult sexual encounter outside the context of playground banter, even in 1982 male teens were cruder in their descriptions of sexual intercourse – mass-cultural signifiers didn’t come into it, as they don’t today.
The danger here, of course, is perhaps this voice is just too observant and that what we are actually reading are the shoe-horn tactics of Mitchell himself – it being after all (supposedly) a semi-autographical novel: the adult looking back, rather than in, and in the process inadvertently tightening the shackles around the “present” depicted in the novel. It all seems just a tad too obvious, as if Mitchell wants his readers to recoil into paroxysms of delight as they whoop for joy in remembering in themselves just what his narrator observes - Jason merely serving as a conduit, a hook, a narrative device that links us to Mitchell's own past and adult reveries. In the chapter concerning the Falklands Conflict, “Rocks”, we see overt signs of this:
“Till today, the Falklands’s been like the world cup. Argentina’s got a strong football team, but in army terms they’re only a corned-beef republic?” (Pg 121).
Surely the reader is with this credible voice right up until “corned-beef republic”? Although there is a forced naïveté here in Jason's myopic, tabloid-exploited view there is also forced intelligence – Mitchell creeping into the narrative – that doesn't quite ring true. The result: we are offered an historical retelling, we are not in Jason's present: this is not Jason's voice. As neither is:
“Oily flies fed on curry-coloured cowpats.” (Pg 88).
“New leaves oozed from twigs in the hedges.” (Pg 88).
“Seeds thickened the air, like sweet gravy.” (Pg 88).
This reads as prose-poetry and is not the vernacular of a 13 year old boy living in a sleepy village by the foothill of the Malvern Hills in provincial Worcestershire – even if he is a tell-tale outsider and an aspiring poet. Is Jason Taylor just too intelligent, just too poetic and austere? Has David Mitchell fallen into the same vainglorious trap Jonathan Safran Foer did in Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close? Creating a pre-teenage alter-ego that doesn’t quite hit home? That is just too savvy? The same mistakes that led Michael Faber to furiously scribble the word “Aaaarrghh!” intermittently in the book’s margin whilst reading for review? Maybe he has?
Yet there are standout chapters where Mitchell's deep rooted talent as a writer and master story-teller is evident. For example the chapter “Solarium” is quite unashamedly brilliant. It follows Jason’s chance meeting with Madame Eva van Outryve de Crommelynck (those of you who know Mitchell’s previous work with recognise her as the daughter of composer Vyvyan Ayrs in Cloud Atlas) as she instructs him on his poetry and intellectual growth:
“If a peacock had a human voice, that’d be hers.” (Pg181).
Here we see Mitchell at his most playful with more than one reference to his previous work and more than a nod and wink to James Joyce’s The Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man – although it is worth pointing out Jason Taylor is no Stephen Dedalus. And we also see signs of Jason’s unease, his burgeoning maturity, a mind at work forced to fathom his own route – it’s interesting, in this case, that the metaphor of a darkened wood is used throughout the book. At his best, as Mitchell is in this intriguing chapter, he is second to none. The world created is entirely plausible, and even though the caricatures and devices contained within belong in the realm of the fantastic, the absurd, we are there with Jason, we want him to progress - we have all been there too.
Black Swan Green is a novel about secrets: the secrets Jason tries to keep from his many peers, the secrets his sister, mother and father keep from him. All of these secrets tug and pull the narrative, they want to escape the constructs of Black Swan Green, to break the surface so expertly created by Mitchell, and nothing can remain hidden, especially in an unsophisticated English village. The tautness created here is wholly tangible:
“Secrets affect you more than you’d think. You lie to keep them hidden. You steer talk away from them. You worry someone’ll discover yours and tell the world. You think you are in charge of the secret, but isn’t it the secret that’s using you?” (Pg 346).
Yet overall Black Swan Green is rather flabby and cloggy, it requires the subtle moments contained in its shining chapter “Solarium”, lacking a discernable plot to cling onto when its setting and argot become, at times, just a little too domineering (not that this is in anyway a bad thing, just that a narrative of this ilk really needs more) and what little there is seems tired and predictable, serving as an all-too-obvious construct to force and nudge Jason's mental growth and connect him to a swirling environment that is, at key stages in those around him, quite beyond his control and comprehension. Mitchell has been quoted as saying that Black Swan Green first started as a short story a long time ago and is a “first novel” of sorts. It is common knowledge that many debuts are overtly laden with personal peculiarities that obstruct narrative flow: most common of these is autobiographical insight and setting. Voice, it seems, is neglected; or, as is the case in Black Swan Green, pampered.
And it is this question of voice, of course, that permeates the validity of the work. Just how real is this voice? Why fictionalize these events? Why not just write an autobiographical account of those years - only then can Mitchell's hindsight seem, to a reader, valid. Mitchell's retrospection through the eyes of a stammering, 13 year old boy (who very well may have been Mitchell at some point in his life) lacks power because of this, it sits in the realms of the stuffily whimsical: a quaint novel with idiosyncratic slants of argot and overly-sentimental fumbling for acceptance via lost colloquialisms and slang that is wholly marred by a gratuitous injection of omniscient authorship; an intelligence beyond that of any frightened child scrabbling through those ephemeral interim moments, the black-hole of youth, between child and teenager. This may have initially found life as a non-starting first novel, but if this was a first novel written by an unknown it may not have found the light of day, and sadly only an author of David Mitchell’s aptitude and standing could get away with such insouciance. This, it seems, is Black Swan Green’s biggest secret.