Black Swan Green by David Mitchell (2006) 371 p.
Black Swan Green is a break from Mitchell’s usual style. Previously, he rivalled Michael Chabon as an author commendably unafraid to plunge into the waters of speculative fiction, despite what the long-beards on the Pulitzer and Booker boards might have to say about it. His previous novel, Cloud Atlas, was a dazzling trip through space and time, from the South Pacific in the 19th century to the dystopic, Gibsonesque streets of a 22nd century Korea, to the savage and brutal islands of Hawaii long after life has been snuffed out in the rest of the world. It’s partly because of this that Cloud Atlas is my favourite book. There are very few writers in the world who are able (and willing) to approach genre fiction with genuine literary skill, and I love them all.
Yet Black Swan Green is what some might call a “maturation.” Split into thirteen chapters set from January 1982 to 1983, it chronicles a year in the life of Jason Taylor, growing up in the titular village in Worcestershire. It is clearly, to some extent, a fictionalised autobiography. Jason is a shy and quiet boy, intelligent but not a genius, an aspiring poet. The novel follows his typical teenage trials – popularity at school, his parents’ rocky marriage, the inevitable encounters with girls – with barely a whisper of the more exotic and imaginative flair that rapidly made David Mitchell my favourite author. Black Swan Green holds no fabricants, no non-corpus, no nuclear wars, no omnipotent AIs, no expeditions to ruined observatories atop Mauna Kea. Instead we have Margaret Thatcher, the Falklands War, Woodbines, Beta and the jingoism of the Daily Mail.
This is not entirely a bad thing; Black Swan Green is still an excellent novel. David Mitchell is endlessly readable; he could write a novel about bricklaying and I’d buy it. His effortless use of prose to create beautiful, elegant sentences is a matter of public record, and of equal merit is the wide range of themes he weaves into his stories.
Not since Ender’s Game have I read something that so hideously reminded me of what those early years of high school are like: the savagery and the cruelty, the constant fear and anxiety, a few asshole kids capable of making you miserable on a whim (“Picked on kids act invisible to reduce the chances of being noticed and picked on,” Jason notes). Once you become an adult, when people automatically treat each other with civility and respect, it’s easy to forget what wretched pieces of shit most young teenagers are. “It’s all ranks, being a boy, like the army,” Jason says, and while his own popularity rises considerably over the course of the year, it all comes crashing down with a single act – one which any adult would characterise as selfless and brave.
Jason eventually learns to fight back, and stand up for himself, and repels his tormentors in a story arc I found to be entirely too convenient. You change fast when you’re thirteen – but not quite that fast.
Jason’s thoughts and feelings are livened up somewhat by the presence of three voices in his head, facets of his personality. Hangman is the personification of his stutter, a cruel monster that strangles his words, forcing him to live in constant fear that his secret will be discovered and he will be forever pegged “Stutterboy” by the other kids. Maggot represents everything he hates about himself, all his worst desires, particularly his desperate need to be accepted by his peers, no matter what the cost to his personal values and integrity. Unborn Twin is the most mysterious, sometimes a guiding angel and sometimes a luring demon, never fully explained.
There are a few echoes from Mitchell’s other novels – Neal Brose, one of Jason’s bullies, is the narrator of the Hong Kong segment in Ghostwritten, a shady financial lawyer who will one day experience his own epiphany and drop dead of a heart attack. The Neal Brose of Ghostwritten is not a good person, but not a bad one either – he is a human being, an adult, flawed and complex, containing multitudes. Mitchell’s choice of this character is not an accident; he is reminding us that everybody grows, that while Jason’s peers may be dickheads now, they won’t always be. As Jason points out, though, “How does that help me?”
The more interesting encounter is with Eva van Crommelynck, who was a teenager in Cloud Atlas, and the object of Robert Frobisher’s desire. She is an old woman now, tutoring Jason in poetry, and at one point they leaf through her old photo album together. Robert Frobisher, Cloud Atlas’ greatest character, is enshrined in black and white, and Eva spends a page or two recounting his fate and revealing the terrible guilt she felt over his suicide. Zedelghem, we learn, was destroyed during World War II. Now it’s just “little boxes for houses, a gasoline station, a supermarket.”
And, of course, we revisit Mitchell’s favourite themes. Aside from the obvious presence of predation in schoolyard bullying, we see bigotry and hatred and ignorance cropping up everywhere. Walking down a country lane, Jason is told to clear off by a farmer who then sets his dogs loose. Jason escapes, and is: “Okay, but poisoned. The dog man despised me for not being born here. He despised me for living down Kingfisher Meadows. That’s a hate you can’t argue with. No more than you can argue with mad Dobermanns.” The casual racism flung about by Jason’s older relatives, pompously waffling on in the assumption that their younger audience agrees with them, felt very familiar: “The fact of the matter is” (Uncle Brian doesn’t hear what he doesn’t want to) “the Japs are still fighting the war. They own Wall Street. London’s next. Walking from the Barbican to my office, you’d need… twenty pairs of hands to count all the Fu Manchu look-alikes you pass by.” And when the council proposes a permanent gypsy settlement next to Black Swan Green, the villagers assemble an “emergency” meeting to protest it. Jason is repulsed by their violent prejudice, but when he encounters some gypsies himself, he finds that they too hold similar prejudices against the townfolk, and uses the same metaphor twice to describe their narrow minds and blinkered eyes.
It is a cruel world we live in. And there’s nothing we can do about that. For the October edition of The Atlantic magazine, Andrew Sullivan wrote an open letter to George Bush, urging him to personally take responsibility for the countless acts of torture that occurred during his administration. (It is beautifully written and worth your time.) Sullivan was formerly an advocate of prosecution, arguing that Cheney and Bush and their ilk needed to be held fully accountable for their actions if the United States was to truly live up to its ideals. Now he argues that this would “tear the country apart” (a cop-out excuse used during every season finale of 24, but each to his own). Instead he urges Bush to take personal responsibility, to apologise, to demand an independent inquiry and to admit that he was wrong.
We all know that Bush will never do this – even this, this small and tiny thing, far easier than what he truly deserves, which is to be tried in the Hague as a war criminal. He will remain encapsulated in Texas, living amongst the 20% of the American population who still think he was a great President. He will deny even to himself that he ever did the wrong thing.
A reader wrote in to the Sullivan shortly afterwards:
What I saw was the final summation of a very fine attorney – an attorney for the defence of this nation and our deepest values. It was a summation made not to a jury and a courtroom, but to everyone in the nation, and to history; a summation made in the clear knowledge that no actual indictments will ever be brought against these men in the real world, no verdicts entered, no sentences handed down. It was left to the power of the pen and the pixel to render judgement – which you did, brilliantly… You indicted, tried, convicted and sentenced them all in one grand piece.
This is how I feel about David Mitchell, not as an author or an entertainer, but as an observer of the world around us. It is a world of unspeakable cruelty, of barbarity and violence, from the sickening taunts of bullies in Black Swan Green to the savage rape and murder perpetrated by Kona tribesman in Cloud Atlas, to the very real torture inflicted on detainees of questionable guilt in CIA black sites all over the world. It is a world full of hatred and prejudice, which Jason aptly describes as “poison.” As infuriating as the poison itself is, the most frustrating and heartbreaking part is its inexplicable nature – the lack of a why. This will never change. But as long as we have writers like David Mitchell (and Andrew Sullivan), gifted wordsmiths and good people, to at least acknowledge and decry the poison, we’ll be okay.
I just hope that in the future, Mitchell will return to combining this with the imaginative, exotic adventures I came to love in his previous novels.