Black Swan Green by David Mitchell
You get messages which direct you to (or back to) certain writers. The film of ‘Cloud Atlas’ is coming out and I’d been reading bits and bobs about it in the press – it sounds like it will be great and my hopes are high that justice has been to done to a remarkable book, one I loved from about page 1, word 3. At the same time, I saw a blog post written by an English teacher who posed the entirely fair-enough question of how to replace “The Catcher In The Rye” as the gateway text for introducing Young and Restless readers to a Young and Restless voice on the page, one that Knows How You Feel.
The writer had a point, I guiltily admitted to myself. “Catcher” is a wonder for the ages, a landmark and so forth. It still moves…But it is a museum piece, too, as wonders for the ages may often tend to become. Nothing wrong with a museum piece – but they live behind glass or ropes, preserved through being untouchable. Last time I put “Catcher” to a class (of 14 year olds) about two years ago, I was highly aware of spending so much more time explaining the details of this faraway, mythical land called 50s America. When I first read the book, in the mid 1980s, 50s America was also a faraway world – but, somehow, not quite so distant as it now seems. Happy Days…. A small chilling thought then came to me: I’m offering my students a book set in the middle of the last century. I stand by offering it to them – it’s a great piece of inheritance, but it’s clearly not the rite of passage it once was. The writer of the blog post in which this point was raised then suggested David Mitchell’s first novel, “Black Swan Green”, as a candidate ready and waiting to slip onto the wood-and-wire throne built for the King of Young Rebel Outsider Writing. So, back to David Mitchell I went.
I’ll come back to what I make of that “Catcher”-supplanting judgement later. First up: what a great novel “Black Swan Green” is. One of those books I didn’t just enjoy – I was profoundly grateful someone had written it. Almost, that someone had written it for me. A question of timing again…The novel is set between January 1982 and January 1983. The narrator, Jason Taylor, is 13 years old – as was I at that time. So, there was a great deal of pleasant nostalgia in reading this – so much so, that it was unpleasant. Who wants to be reminded so exactly of what being 13 is like? “Up in my room I played the ‘Game of Life’ but being two players at once is no fun.”
Jason’s voice is superbly rendered, such that you don’t become aware of the author’s ventriloquising hand too often. It’s a difficult trick to work and Mitchell gets it bang-on for the most part. Jason is clever without being wise, uncomprehending (especially in relation to the subtext of adult conversation) without being insipid or coy or too much of a victim. Inevitably, he’s a slightly bookish and furtive sort – huzzah! – whose rebellions (mostly of the “with a cause” variety) are halting, endearing, and at times frightening. In the course of a year we see him encounter all manner of foes foreign and domestic – the break-up of his parents’ marriage, first forays into (in various senses) the mystery of girls, drink, responsibility. There are moral decisions to be made concerning loyalty to friends and questions of where exactly the horizon of ambition should be fixed. The teachers are idiots – but not because they are teachers. Just because they are idiots who happen to be teachers. An important distinction. Ahem.
That’s a reductive summary now I look at it – it makes the book sound like an entirely typical coming-of-age saga. OK – in some ways it is and has to be. But Mitchell strikes a fine balance between offering slice-of-life stuff we can all relate to and generating an air of greater mythic significance around the small-scale odyssey of his narrator’s life.
In part, this comes from the setting. The ‘Black Swan Green’ of the title is a Worcestershire village where Jason and his family live. At the start of the book, he is playing in the woods, on a frozen lake, in a scene as vivid as a Breughel, which manages to be both idyllic and utterly real. Just like wherever you played in the winter: there was always suddenly a lot of kids, weren’t there? Everyone in the neighbourhood turned up, didn’t they? There were different ages, from the little ‘uns to the ones who were just a bit too old, the ones with the cigarettes and the attitude. There were the Children from Good Homes and the Rough Boys. Mitchell presents with straightforward directness the freedom of play set against the restrictions of group politics – the dread and the threat that you’ll be picked on next. All is strategy. There is nothing so serious in this world as children playing:
Screaming like kamikazes, we charged. I slipped over (accidentally on purpose) just before the front wave of Runners smashed into the Bulldogs. This’d tie up most of the hardest Bulldogs in fights with our front Runners….With luck, my strategy’d clear some spaces to dodge through and on to our home goal posts.
There’s Jason’s life in a nutshell at the start of the novel. Gradually, he learns that not every bulldog gets dodged. But Black Swan Green (the village) is no straightforward, Cider With Rosie style lush English backdrop. For all that a semblance of English village life – especially the poverty and nastiness side of it – lingers on, it’s also a modern no-place. It’s George Bowling’s Lower Binfield (from Orwell’s ‘Coming Up For Air’) a few decades on. Suburbia has encroached. It’s Ambridge and it’s Brookside. And it’s Number Six’s Village, as well as being the kind of creepily normal setting that dots the imaginative landscape of British fantasy, from H G Wells through Agatha Christie and on into The Avengers and Doctor Who.
Jason lives in of Those 80s Estates, in a world of processed food and shiny pop culture. The 1983 setting seems to alight on exactly the moment when a different Britain – the one we are in – came into violent being; the Falklands War rumbles in the back (and foreground) of some of the chapters, and its consequences and questions are presented with deft sensitivity. Just as Jason is changing, leaving innocence behind, there is also a strong sense of the same happening to Britain. Mitchell writes vividly about the landscape of Worcestershire and the Malverns and, through Jason’s struggle to articulate its brooding, numinous quality, invests it with a sense of deep, unsayable mystery that feels utterly local (the challenge Jason is offered – to bolt through a series of houses and their gardens within a given time limit – must have a thousand versions across a thousand towns, as must his half-quest for the truth of a local legend about a hidden tunnel through a hillside) and full of larger import. There are echoes of Edward Thomas, Arthur Machen, even John Bunyan, in Mitchell’s acknowledgement of landscape as both character and as history, in its own right.
This works alongside the equal amount of detail invested in the minutiae of daily life. Yes, there’s plenty of I Heart 1983 nostalgia to be had for the likes of middle-aged readers such as me – your old copy of “Dare” by The Human League will make an entirely appropriate accompaniment for reading this novel (on cassette, natch…though The Undertones’ “My Perfect Cousin” would be just as apt for one of the ongoing subplots) but the book offers so much more than that. When Jason passingly describes the swivel chair in his dad’s study (one of many Forbidden Zones into which Jason creeps during the course of the book) as a “Millennium Falcon chair” the reference is thrillingly accurate – both perfectly of its time and telling you exactly the kind of boy Jason is. His world is both plastic and pastoral, an England where the out of town retail experience is on its way to supplant the pagan temple. It’s a balance also built into the title, which recalls the philosophical saw about falsifiability – that it would only take the existence of one ‘Black Swan’ to prove that not all swans are white. His village – which is no longer quite a village and not quite a town – is named for something that reminds us of possibility, of the uncertainess of our certainties, whilst, in doing so, pointing out that impossibility remains the greater likelihood.
This is the other area where Mitchell balances realism against something more. The novel is punctuated by ‘episodes’ which may or may not have taken place, which have dream-like lucidity and, in their compelling oddity, force you onto the defensive. Crucially, each seems to offer a metanarrative, traversing what feel like highly familiar story telling situations and even specific stories. In a fairy-tale like section, an injured Jason takes shelter in an old house, in the woods at the edge of Black Swan Green. In a section (which, admittedly, I found too strained) recalls very directly “Le Grands Meaulnes” and aspects of “Great Expectations”, Jason is given an insight into life and literature by a mysterious aged woman.
Mitchell’s love of such structural games and metafictional devices – a major reason one either loves or loathes “Cloud Atlas” – is alive and well in this first novel. Jason is 13 and the book has 13 chapters, each covering one month. I’ve tried to work out a significance beyond that – I feel sure there is some – but haven’t got there yet. As indicated above, the storytelling consciously reflects on the nature of storytelling as a means by which one develops a sense of self (or selves). Jason is haunted by a speech impediment which he personifies as “Hangman”, a trickster character inside him who seeks to undermine his relationship with words and thus with the world. At first, I found this a bit cute – it felt like the “necessary” affliction or burden carried by all the nicely spoken heroic boys and girls of countless BBC TV dramas for children and well-intentioned school readers (anyone else remember the likes of “Thunder and Lightnings”? “Annerton Pit”? No? Just me, then….) Then I discovered the autobiographical element – Mitchell was prompted into writing as a means of coping with his own similar difficulties. Jason’s relationship with “Hangman” doesn’t overshadow the book. It’s one element among a number of subtle, highly-engaging image trains running throughout – such as his ongoing quest to replace a broken wristwatch. It adds to the book’s skilful presentation of Jason’s life through both his own, limited, inexperienced eyes and a sense of symbol and myth that Mitchell traces just behind that. Everything is shown as ordinary and exceptional – just as Black Swan Green is desperately ordinary but also hints, through its name, at something as exceptional as a black swan. Just as, when you’re 13, everything is ordinary and exceptional at the same time. This book does “heartwarming” – Mitchell is never so clever that he forgets to neglect the idea that there are people and we do feel stuff – but it never becomes cloying. If Jason occasionally seems gifted with powers of observation and expression more usually found in – oh, I don’t know, a 30 something professional writer – it’s an allowable intrusion. If you grew up in Britain during the 1980s, I think you will love this book. If you didn’t, and simply want a presentation of youthful folly, insecurity, joy and pain that feels vivid and honest, you’ll love it too.
As for whether I’d make this a stand-in for “The Catcher In the Rye”: no. This, too, is a museum piece. I’d read it with a class because I think it’s a great piece of writing, not because I think it exemplifies The Voice Of Now. I might go for Joe Dunthorne’s “Submarine” if I wanted that. And even that ship has sailed. As it were.