Fans of David Mitchell’s challenging and complex fiction will be surprised, perhaps, by the comparatively small scale and straightforward narrative of his new novel, Black Swan Green, which follows on the heels of his wildly acclaimed Cloud Atlas. That novel, shortlisted for the Booker Prize, is made up of six interwoven narratives spanning centuries and continents, from the mid-1800s to a distant post-apocalyptic future in Hawaii. Each vibrant voice and story is radically different, and at first apparently unrelated; their connections only unfold over the course of hundreds of pages. Now reading Black Swan Green, a closely observed first-person account of adolescence in provincial England in the early 1980s, you have the impression of encountering a minutely rendered watercolor landscape by Jackson Pollock: the amazement of recognizing that the author’s considerable talents can extend to this, also. For those who haven’t yet read Mitchell’s work, this funny, poignant story of a tumultuous year at a difficult age is simply a pleasure in itself.
Jason Taylor is 13, living in a small town in Worcestershire in 1982. His father is an executive at a frozen-food chain, Greenland, and his mother a discontented housewife pining for a rockery in the garden of her cul-de-sac home, a woman who has reason to doubt her husband’s fidelity. Jason’s older sister Julia is preparing to go to university to study law and navigates her social scene with enviable aplomb, while young Jason, timid and with a significant speech impediment, struggles to stay afloat in the brutal hierarchy of teenage boys. As he explains, “Kids who’re really popular get called by their first names, so Nick Yew’s always just ‘Nick.’ Kids who’re a bit popular like Gilbert Swinyard have sort of respectful nicknames like ‘Yardy.’ Next down are kids like me who call each other by our surnames. Below us are kids with piss-take names like Moran Moron or Nicholas Briar, who’s Knickerless Bra. It’s all ranks, being a boy, like the army.”
Over the course of a year, as his family slowly disintegrates, Jason climbs the social ladder, then falls, then climbs again. His sense of humor (he calls his stammer “Hangman,” and the voice of his more daring self his “Unborn Twin”), combined with his vivid gift for observation (as the author of poems locally published under the name “Eliot Bolivar”), creates from simple and known outlines an idiosyncratic and engaging tale.
The book comprises 13 chapters that span a year and go full circle (the last chapter, “January Man,” has the same title as the first). Each is episodic and largely discrete, and there is a delicately handled tension over the course of the book between the picaresque aimlessness of adolescence and a broader novelistic movement. Much is universal — not simply the agonizing hierarchies among children, but also a shy boy’s pointless lust for a popular girl, his envy of his handsome cousin, his eagerness to be close to his parents along with his need to distance himself (publicly) from them, and, of course, his first cigarette, his secret-society initiation, his first kiss. The book echoes, both explicitly and implicitly, many that have come before: Part Goscinny Sempé’s ?Le Petit Nicolas, part Henri Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes (which Jason at one point reads with great eagerness), part John Hughes movie, Black Swan Green cheerfully embraces the central conventions of its protagonist’s awkward age.
But David Mitchell is too canny a writer for the novel to be simply and straightforwardly itself. It not only refers to Le Grand Meaulnes, but, in Jason’s mysterious encounter with an old lady in a mysterious house in the woods (“There’s only one house in the woods so that’s what we call it, the House in the Woods”), it also enacts his yearning for a Meaulnes-like romance and grandeur. One chapter, “Bridle Path,” is a near-surreal picaresque, in which Jason encounters nearly all the stock tests of manhood in a single day: He is party to a fight; he is toyed with by the girl he fancies; he witnesses from up a tree two older kids having sex (this is one of the best and funniest descriptions of sex I’ve ever read, including the line “Now she made a noise like a tortured Moomintroll”); he encounters a stranger in the woods; and, fleeing him, stumbles upon lunatics in the garden of the asylum. (This, again, is an ironic echo of Alain-Fournier’s classic, in which Meaulnes stumbles, in the woods, upon a grand manor in which a fairy-tale wedding is taking place.) Somehow, in the chapter “Knife Grinder,” Black Swan Green is overrun with Gypsies, a further unexpected digression into a boy’s romantic fantasies. In another, “Solarium,” Mitchell allows himself the diversion of introducing a character from Cloud Atlas, the formidable and unlikely (certainly in Worcestershire) Eva van Outryve de Crommelynck, “an old toady lady” to Jason’s eyes, whose “knuckles were ridged as Toblerone.”
Mitchell’s wit and technical facility are such that he can dance from allusion to allusion without seeming heavy-handed. Black Swan Green is at once familiar and strange, on many levels. Both Jason and his creator are deliciously playful. Part of this is attributable to Mitchell’s abandon in language, to the freshness of his diction. Sometimes it strains a little (“An ambulance siren’s wail bagatelled through the bare wood,” or “The old lady’s rivery eyeballs chased the words across the pages”), but for the most part, Jason’s voice is completely convincing: “The idea of any boy snogging my sister makes me grab the vomit bucket but quite a few sixth formers fancy her. I bet Ewan’s one of these super-confident kids who wears Blue Stratos aftershave and winkle-picker shoes and a wedge like the man from Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark.”
The minutiae of the period (as exemplified above) are also wonderfully caught. For those of us old enough to remember that time, it is given its particular local flavor (the Falklands War looms large in this young British boy’s year), but Mitchell vividly re-creates all the details of a historical moment that, coming on the heels of the flamboyant ’70s and before the rather different flamboyance of the later ’80s, is largely forgotten; and in so doing he adds another layer of pleasure to the text.
Any brief description of Black Swan Green would suggest to you that you’ve already read it: Nerdy teenage boy has social trouble while his parents’ marriage founders; becomes suddenly popular and kisses girl at end. And, of course, David Mitchell is fully and amusedly aware that you already have. But he follows Pound’s exhortation to “make it new”: You’ve read it before, and then again, you haven’t read it quite like this. Jason Taylor is a classic, stammer and all.
BLACK SWAN GREEN | By DAVID MITCHELL | Random House | 295 pages | $24 hardcover