Black Swan Green by David Mitchell (review)

Black Swan Green, David Mitchell’s fourth novel, is not nearly the significant departure it at first appears to be. The subject matter has definitely shifted from Mitchell’s first three novels: those were all set in near-fantastic landscapes of gunfights, ghosts, and apocalypse, while his latest is set in 1982, in an English suburb similar to the one Mitchell himself grew up in. His earlier novels all showed a lot of ingenuity playing with narrative structure. In his previous novel, Cloud Atlas, six chapters, each from a different genre, are interrupted in sequence by a character from the following chapter who has been reading the chapter previous and is himself interrupted; all six conclude in reverse order as the characters are able to return to their reading. >Black Swan Green‘s narrative still adheres to a rigid structure, with thirteen stories for the thirteen months in Jason’s thirteenth year, and as previously, with the first chapter and the last chapter sharing the same name. But in comparison, this newest book is pretty straightforward, focusing on one character, thirteen-year-old narrator Jason Taylor, and telling his story in chronological order. And while Black Swan Green is much more grounded in ordinary life — Jason, who narrates, is an aspiring poet who constantly seeks out and finds the fantastic and adventurous within the ordinary — spiritually, this novel is close kin to Mitchell’s others, and readers who’ve enjoyed him in the past should enjoy him here.

It takes trust to follow along with a story given to unpredictable digression. Mitchell has an easy way of building that trust, by creating characters that are easy to empathize with and then quickly establishing their predicaments. Black Swan Green shows that he can launch narrative momentum quickly with few props. It begins: “Do not set foot in my office. That’s Dad’s rule. But the phone’d rung twenty-five times.” That’s Jason speaking, and the problem he has in these first three lines dogs him throughout the book. Fenced in on all sides by competing rules and authorities, he is crushed by his fear of what might happen if he crosses any imaginary lines. His biggest problem, other than the mysterious caller who is creating a growing rift between his parents, is with the bullies at his school. A thin line separates him from the absolute social dregs of his class, and only his self-imposed invisibility maintains that distinction. Jason hides who he is, publishing his poems under a pseudonym in the local paper, and, to keep from revealing his speech impediment, avoiding any words that start with “S”. The story sticks with him as he is eventually forced to confront his anxiety and stand up for himself.

If this sounds like it could be children’s lit, the story often times feels like it should be. It’s a mark of integrity that the book’s plot stays so grounded in adolescence. Black Swan Green could have become a story that was really about its grown-up characters, but it remains Jason Taylor’s story through the end, genuinely caught up in his battle with the kids who pick on him. And, considering the grim, sadistic spin put on similar material in, for example, Welcome to the Dollhouse, Mitchell’s approach is relatively innocent. I’ll admit that by the second chapter I was checking out the book’s cover, to see if, in my greed for another Mitchell novel, I had missed the fact that it was being marketed to young adults. The dust-jacket cleared that up for me, describing Jason’s relationship with his peers as “Kissingeresque realpolitik enacted in boys’ games.”

But beyond the marketing, for all that Black Swan Green seals itself in childhood, it dually seals itself off from children. This is despite a number of attributes that could have made it ideal for kids. Since Jason is a poet, Mitchell can take some liberties with his narrator’s language, giving him a wider range of expression while keeping his sensibilities boyish. Here’s Jason watching a fireworks display:

Stalks climbed, then popblossomed into slow-slow-slow… motion Michaelmas daisies. Raining-silvers, purples, phoenix golds. Crunkly booms arrived a second late… boom… boom… Fireworkpetals fell away and faded to ash. Only five or six big ones went off, but what beauts they were.

I can’t think of anyone this sounds like more than Roald Dahl, and Jason, alone and tormented, resembles one of Dahl’s heroes. The only difference is that Dahl’s heroes always have that one person, or creature, to love, while Jason’s solitude is complete.

Still, despite subject material and language that seem like they’d appeal to kids first, and to curious adults second, Black Swan Green may as well be buried under a stack of old New Yorkers. Ultimately, the text is too allusive, to 1980s geopolitics; to other, more mature novels, including two of Mitchell’s previous books; and to a metafictional tradition in literature that few young readers will be able to appreciate. Midway through, Jason’s poems begin to ominously take the names of the novel’s chapter headings, and eventually Jason is writing the book in which he appears, with earlier passages reappearing in his childish handwriting. The book becomes an abstract meditation on language, and something I think only a more practiced reader will be able to penetrate.

What this book does well is re-illuminate childhood, and children’s literature, for adults. The results are pleasurable, but it’s a nostalgic pleasure. As Ruth Franklin of The New Republic said in her review, Black Swan Green brought her close to her “childhood reading utopia”. That’s a boon, of course, but at times I felt impatient with it, like I was peeking back into a world that wasn’t mine anymore. That utopia has to be seeded in the first place, and David Mitchell, for all his fitness for the job, seems uninterested in it, despite having two of his four novels narrated by children. That’s sort of too bad, because elements of the story are so well done that it’s easy to imagine it up in the pantheon with The Diary of Adrian Mole and Bad Haircut, books that are exalted and unforgettable not only to me, but to most anyone who happened upon them at the right age. Sorry, kids. Reread your Potters, then it’s off to bed with you, yer wankers.