Exhibit 18.2

Black Swan Green

I finally picked this up after I mentioned Cloud Atlas the other day and remembered that one of my favorite writers has a book out that I hadn't read. Like Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell's two previous novels--Ghostwritten and number9dream--aren't bound to the conventional yet are highly readable, mostly because for all of the oddity in narration and plot, they're intensely structured and beautifully written. Now there's Black Swan Green which seems to be a conscious attempt to do the opposite. In that sense, sadly, it's a success.

Part of the attraction of Mitchell's books has always been how easily he moves not only between narrator but worlds. It's difficult to imagine two books that travel quite as far as Cloud Atlas and Ghostwritten do in their 300 or so pages, but Black Swan Green only twice leaves its titular English village and even then it's only for a brief vacation to the coast. While Mitchell still shows some willingness to play around with the narrative, it's clear that the anything fanciful here is strictly in the imagination of the 13-year-old narrator. It's brave in a way to do such a conventional coming-of-age story for a writer like Mitchell, but that's all external to the book itself which, despite a lot of good qualities, is fairly dull.

(I don't know for certain about these things, but based on the quotes on my paperback, this seems to be Mitchell's most acclaimed book. That's disappointing but understandable. It's well-written and readily accessible, offering Chuck Taylor's full of nostalgia to anyone who came of age in the early 1980s which I imagine includes a fair number of book critics).

We've all read this story before. Only the music references and current events change. A boy lives an upper-middle-class life somewhere away from the city. His parents might or might not be happy but he doesn't really understand their relationship (hint: they aren't happy), he thinks his older sister hates him (she doesn't, of course), girls don't like him and he might not like them (somewhat surprisingly, he does like them), he's obsessed with his own social status at school (the rising and falling of his popularity passes for tension here), and he has one flaw which he believes to be fatal (a fairly mild stutter). Even if this isn't your life, it's the life of hundreds of sensitive male narrators throughout time. There's even an entire genre of music aimed at this particular demographic (and if you don't know what I'm talking about, you can come over and we'll listen to my copy of Pinkerton).

Mitchell handles it which loads more style and a touch more magic than most, but it doesn't make the stakes any higher. As in most bildingsroman--or I suppose this is really a künstlerroman, whatever--we know that for all the tortures of youth, the protagonist will emerge on the other side as an adult with different and presumably more important problems. The thing that itches most about books like this is seeing our moody narrator bemoaning his own small problems (he broke his grandfather's watch!) while interacting with a host of actually interesting characters who are supposed to be our antagonists. I'd much rather see what the hated bully is up to with his abusive father than wait for our narrator to discover his father's very obvious affair. Here's the difference: the narrator's problems can be definitively answered by saying, "You'll be fine." But I haven't kissed a girl! "You'll be fine." But I worry about nuclear war! "You'll be fine." The bully, on the other hand, doesn't have easy answers. He'll probably come to a bad end, he'll probably do nothing of note, but what he won't do is look back at when he was 13 and think about all the great music he used to listen to around the time his dad nearly killed his mom.

(Contemporary books of this sort really do have soundtracks as if they were movies. Especially now that Cameron Crowe and Wes Anderson have almost created a language out of pop songs, it's really the easiest [laziest? whitest?] way to define a time period, mood, and character all in one reference).

That we get the middlebrow story isn't unusual--it's really the point--but Mitchell's never been one to settle for the expected before. At times even he seems bored as he peppers in dreams, imagined ghosts, and, most tellingly, references and characters from Cloud Atlas, as if names alone can add a layer to the very simple reality he's limited himself to. But the most daring thing he does is free himself from structure just as he limits his scope. At the beginning we meet the narrator's speech therapist and she's set up to be a major character but we never see her again and only get one late reference to her near the end. Until then, it's unclear if he's even still in therapy or if he's quit. There are a lot of loose ends like this and together they're my favorite part of the Black Swan Green. It makes the book broad and untidy but it's also the most realistic part of a novel that sometimes seems forced into unrealistic realism (I'm not giving anything away if I tell you the climax is an overdue divorce).

To be honest, I think I'd decided to feel this way about the book before I read it so you shouldn't let my bitterness over not getting to read another Cloud Atlas stop you from picking it up. Mitchell's writing is as good as ever, even in the service of a precocious 13-year-old who might hit a little too close to home.


jimStock said...

Was it better than Black Snake Moan??

carlinthemarlin said...

Now I have to go listen to Pinkerton.

A. Peterson said...

I believe it was actually based on Black Snake Moan. I didn't see that movie but the main character in the book is named Samuel L. Jackson.

jimStock said...

The main character in every book should be named Samuel L. Jackson.