Monday, January 16, 2006

Review: Black Swan Green (#2/52)

Black Swan Green
by David Mitchell
(Random House, pub. April 2006)

Before I can tell you what I thought of BLACK SWAN GREEN, I should tell you what I thought about CLOUD ATLAS.

I read David Mitchell's first book GHOSTWRITTEN and thought it kicked total ass -- it was on our favorites table for months. I really liked NUMBER9DREAM, too, though in a different way, and became convinced that Mitchell was one of my favorite writers. But when I came in to work after reading CLOUD ATLAS, I couldn't really even speak. All I could do was point to the book and say "Hehmeh... Fehshnehmeneh... Wow." Later I got over my tongue-tiedness -- even to the point of being able to have a half-intelligent conversation with Mitchell himself at a publisher dinner following his reading at our store, an event that is surely one of the highlights of my life as a bookseller.

The fact is that CLOUD ATLAS is probably my favorite book of all time. The plot would take too long to summarize -- just read it, for goodness' sake, if you have any chance to do so. It drove me nuts when critics described as some sort of cerebral avant-garde-y excercise, because the first thing I loved about it was that it was FUN. Mitchell can write plot circles around anybody, he writes with high energy in any style, and the jokes are fast and furious -- if some are over one's head, others are right down in the gutter. But he's no sneering humorist -- he's also deeply concerned with the morality of his characters, and their responses to the morality of the world around them. He is essentially kind, even when his characters aren't. And in CLOUD ATLAS, I think he accomplished the ultimate embodiment of my favorite kind of writing -- postmodern literary genre fiction, done with a sense of down-to-earth joy. That book, complexly structured as it was (but satisfyingly complex, like a good puzzle), was a rollercoaster to read -- but when you put the book down in between rides, you realized there were some high and heavy things going on, and they occupied your thoughts for a long time. The book left you breathless and changed.

So, while I (and my fellow readers with big Mitchell-crushes) have been waiting with unbearable eagerness for Mitchell's next book -- and I grabbed a galley as soon as humanly possible -- the first thing I realized about BLACK SWAN GREEN IS THAT (drumroll please)... it's not CLOUD ATLAS. Duh. But it's about as unlike CLOUD ATLAS as it could be. This is a book told by one narrator -- a 13 year old boy named Jason Taylor -- in one place -- a dinky Worcestershire village called Black Swan Green -- over the course of a single year, 1982. It's a quieter, more ordinary book. And yeah, for a few pages longer than I'd like to admit, I was a little disappointed. As some reviews have already pointed out, it's like Mitchell had done for his fourth book what most authors do for their first -- the first-person, semi-autobiographical novel about the author's youth. The ALP pointed out that with the precocious Jason narrating, Mitchell joined the Precocious Youthful Narrator club of Jonathan Safran Foer and Dave Eggers and Mark Haddon and everybody else. (The ALP has never read any David Mitchell. I feel a little sorry for him.) So as I read through the short-story length chapters -- 13 of them, one for each month -- and nothing expressly rollercoasterish happened except for the normal highs and lows of adolescence (albeit in an especially bully-laden township, and with the handicap of a barely hidden stammer), I wondered if I could admit to being underwhelmed.

But as those chapters went on, the details of that small town life began to resonate. The chapters have short titles, not descriptive enough for the eager eye, like the song titles on a new album not yet unwrapped: "January Man." "Rocks." "Bridle Path." "Maggot." Each chapter is, really, a separate story (which means the book is formally unusual even if it's not obvious at first), and Jason's dealings with being nearly-popular and his parent's suppressed arguments and his too-smart older sister and his crush on the cruel but beautiful (but in a cool tomboy way, not that usual femme fatale way) Dawn Madden and the Falklands War and his semi-cool best friend and the autumn fete and the gypsies and the natural life of semi-rural England... come to seem like a series of small scale epics. Mitchell's kindness stands him in good stead, as does his ear for dialogue and his eye for the beautiful and for the hilarious. One chapter, "Bridle Path," is worth reading on its own, or more than once -- it's a beautiful set piece about a day of wandering, and contains some of the novel's best scenes.

Gradually, I understood that the novel is infused by a kind of tenderness I particularly understand. It's the tenderness one can only have toward the dead-end little town one has left behind, and it leads to an understanding of how everything there, while it was in fact fairly ordinary, seemed a little larger than life -- maybe because the place was small, or you were small, or because you were just starting to understand some big things. My heart ached for Jason, for my own 13-year-old self in my own small town, and for the hard and beautiful things he was discovering about the world, and I realized how much I love this book. It's not a coming of age story in your traditional sense -- it's more of a series of time-lapse photographs of a soul encountering the world. CLOUD ATLAS was the first book I ever read through twice. This may be the second. And you can bet it will be on the favorites table.

After the fireworks and rollercoasters of his brilliantly experimental fiction, maybe this is the novel Mitchell had to write, to make peace with the place he left behind. As I read about Jason Taylor's agonizing, epic small struggles -- especially in the brutal "Maggot" chapter -- I kept thinking about the open, friendly, intimidatingly intelligent, calm and fearless and wise and unpretentious David Mitchell I had talked to across the dinner table. "Don't worry, kid -- it's gonna turn out okay," I said.