Turning His Back on the Exotic, A Novelist Explores Home Turf

Black Swan Green is exactly what one wanted from David Mitchell, whose first three novels have been clever, intricate and exotic. This new one sticks close to home and seems simple and direct—it has the naked emotional appeal of a well-wrought first novel distilled from the author’s own intimate experience. But of course it’s not a first novel … unless it’s been sitting for years in a bottom drawer. And though it feels like autobiography (our hero, a bright boy with a spark of literary talent, was born, like the author, in 1969), it’s surely a bad idea to make lazy assumptions about a writer as subtle and sophisticated as Mr. Mitchell.

I swallowed whole his earlier fictions (especially the magnificent Cloud Atlas), happily suspending disbelief even when Mr. Mitchell was inventing a primeval future in Hawaii; an American notary, circa 1849, traversing the South Pacific; or a scurrilous bisexual composer falling suicidally in love with a haughty teenage girl in Belgium in 1931. Why should I doubt Mr. Mitchell’s ability to make up a story just because that story could, for once, plausibly be his own? In short, having hoped that Mr. Mitchell would write less defiantly artificial fiction—that he would abandon the virtuoso exploration of exotica—I’m now going to hold him to the high standard of his earlier work and demand that his portrait of middle England be equally imaginative, equally convincing and equally thrilling.

It almost is.

Black Swan Green stands on three legs: a time, a place and a voice. The first two are rock solid; the third wobbles.

The voice belongs to Jason Taylor, who lives in Kingfisher Meadows, a new development tacked onto the Worcestershire village of Black Swan Green (“There aren’t even any white swans there …. It’s sort of a local joke”).

Jason gives us a guided tour of his fraught 13th year. He’s being bullied at school because he stammers; the girl he’s got a crush on is way beyond his reach; and his parents’ marriage is inching inexorably towards collapse. The portrait of the parents is clear-eyed perfection, as are the scenes of schoolyard brutality and the surges of unfocused adolescent yearning. All these narrative strands are dramatized in quick, compelling vignettes. (Mr. Mitchell is addicted to tidy episodic structures, in this case 13 monthly installments, each a self-contained chapter, beginning in January 1982 and ending in January 1983.)

Details that fix the year precisely (Connors vs. McEnroe at Wimbledon, Kramer vs. Kramer airing on television) are scattered liberally, often delightfully, but Mr. Mitchell is particularly nimble when it comes to weaving the relevant geopolitical facts of 1982—the Cold War, the Falklands War—into the fabric of young Jason’s life. “Mrs. Thatcher was on TV yesterday talking to a bunch of schoolkids about Cruise Missiles. ‘The only way to stop a playground bully,’ she said … ‘is to show the bully that if he thumps you, then you can jolly well thump him back a lot harder!’” Jason, who knows a thing or two about playground bullies, is unimpressed by the concept of deterrence.

In May, while his parents bicker, the Argentineans sink British warships in the cold South Atlantic. To block out the septic atmosphere of family dinners, Jason plays with his dessert, dreaming of a Falklands triumph: “I bravely led our lads yomping over custard snow to ultimate victory in Port Stanley.”

Like your average teenager, Jason eavesdrops, carelessly breaks his most valuable possessions, pulls pranks to impress his schoolmates, displays a healthy contempt for his older sister and—if he can get away with it—bends his parents’ petty rules. He’s not a goody-goody, but he’s too fundamentally virtuous, too honest with himself. How many 13-year-olds are this sensibly self-aware? “Picked-on kids act invisible to reduce the chances of being noticed and picked on. Stammerers act invisible to reduce the chances of being made to say something we can’t. Kids whose parents argue act invisible in case we trigger another skirmish. The Triple Invisible Boy, that’s Jason Taylor. Even I don’t see the real Jason Taylor much these days.” His heart-of-gold truthfulness allows a trickle of too-sweet sentimentality to seep in.

That’s not the only lapse. In July, Jason pays a visit to Eva van Outryve de Crommelynck (a character imported from Cloud Atlas), who has rented, improbably, the old vicarage at Black Swan Green. A Belgian aristocrat with a dizzying bohemian past—she’s rubbed elbows with Charlie Chaplin and perhaps other body parts with “that Andalusian goat, Picasso”—Madame Crommelynck gives Jason a lesson in aesthetics. She imposes her critique of the poems he’s published—as “Eliot Bolivar”—in the parish magazine: “Beauty is not excellence,” she thunders. “Beauty is distraction, beauty is cosmetics, beauty is ultimately fatigue.” But here comes the inevitable paradox: “If an art is true, if an art is free of falseness, it is, a priori, beautiful.” Too bad that this chapter is the only one in the novel that rings false.

And speaking of aesthetics—is it to avoid the distraction of merely cosmetic beauty that Mr. Mitchell has crowded Jason’s prose with thickets of apostrophes? Here’s a lyrical snippet worthy of Wallace Stevens that he scrunches up with a contraction:

“Woods in winter’re brittle places.

“Your mind flits from twig to twig.”

And here’s a casual poke at Keats and his famous “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness”: “Autumn’s turning miserable, rotting and foggy.”

DAVID MITCHELL IS PROBABLY THE MOST exciting English novelist at work today, and most of Black Swan Green is a delight to read—deft, playful, perceptive. Which means that the heavy passages, the ones freighted with significance, sag more noticeably. Consider, for example, this leaden sic transit summation from our barely pubescent narrator:

“The world won’t leave things be. It’s always injecting endings into beginnings. Leaves tweezer themselves from these weeping willows. Leaves fall into the lake and dissolve into slime. Where’s the sense in that? … The world never stops unmaking what the world never stops making.

“But who says the world has to make sense?”

What’s gone wrong here? I suspect that the daredevil David Mitchell, author of stratospherically brilliant and original novels, lost his nerve when it came to the humble task of recording an ordinary coming of age against the backdrop of a humdrum village in Maggie Thatcher’s England. So he pumped up the voice: Unwilling to trust that the story of 13-year-old Jason Taylor’s time and place could hold our attention, he allowed his hero to force the message, to push at us polished nuggets of wisdom. Ignore them and you’ll find plenty left over that’s blessedly free of falseness.

Adam Begley is the books editor of The Observer. Turning His Back on the Exotic,  A Novelist Explores Home Turf