Black Swan Green Essays

Black Swan Green is set in a fictional small town in Worcestershire of the same name during the early 1980’s. It’s an episodic novel that follows thirteen-year-old Jason Taylor for twelve months, each chapter dealing with the events of a month. Jason’s life is marked by his struggle with a speech impediment he has nicknamed “Hangman”, and he lives in mortal fear of what a wide knowledge of these struggles would do to his already precarious social standing. Over the course of the year, Jason also has to deal with problems in his parents’ marriage, with the Falklands War and its impact on his small community, and with school bullying, no to mention the general business of growing up.

Black Swan Green reminded me quite a bit of Roddy Doyle’s Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, even though the two novels have quite different tones. But both are coming-of-age stories whose protagonists deal with some of the same things, and both have far more going on under the surface than it might seem at first glance. But they also have very different narrative structures: like Raych was saying the other day, Black Swan Green is tantalizing. The chapters will often end just when that particular episode has reached its climax, after witch Mitchell will take his sweet time to let us know what actually happened.

I worry that by telling you this I’m making Mitchell’s narrative technique sound both annoying and gratuitous, but the thing is, it really isn’t. Black Swan Green works because it has emotional, if not narrative, continuity. The style reinforces the theme that it’s not so much what happens as it is what a certain experience feels like for an individual that matters. What shapes us, what makes us how we are, aren’t so much the raw events of our lives but how we live them. The interplay between style and themes, then, is quite cleverly done – and it works beautifully.

One of my favourite things about Black Swan Green was how well it captured the cruelty of being young. Middle school was by far my least favourite period of my life to date, and this novel reminded me of why. It’s very easy to underestimate, in retrospect, just how ruthless thirteen-year-olds can be. The other thing I loved about it was Mitchell’s insightful analysis of maleness as a social construct – in this case, the construct is a very narrow little box into which Jason Taylor most definitely doesn’t fit.

I apologise in advance for relating every book I read lately to Delusions of Gender, but yes, that’s going to keep happening for a while. The stereotype of the Man From Mars (or what some people out there are getting very rich saying is the Honest To Goodness Biological Truth) is that of a creature just barely capable to make sense of his own feelings, who finds empathising an insurmountable challenge, and who is completely and utterly unable to properly articulate any emotions.

This does, in fact, correspond to the outward behaviour of many boys in Black Swan Green, but the reasons for this are completely different from what one Dr. Leonard Sax and his ilk would have us believe. Of course, by explaining this in essentialist terms you’re basically telling any boy who doesn’t fit the mould, “You’re a freak of nature”. Jason most certainly doesn’t fit the mould: not only does he have feelings and is perfectly capable of verbalising them, but – shock of shocks! – he writes poetry in his spare time. He publishes his poetry in the parish journal under a different name (of course), and takes every precaution not to be outed as anything other than a “normal” boy.

But eventually Something Happens, something that makes Jason break one of the unwritten rules of boyhood, and as a result he’s made to feel like an outsider (even more so than before, that is) and constantly bullied. David Mitchell’s portray of the culture of traditional masculinity at work is absolutely brilliant. Believing that men still very much have the upper hand in the world when it comes to political, economic and social power does not, of course, equate saying that their lives are always peachy and that masculinity isn’t also full of limits and narrow corners and little dangerous areas that need to be navigated with caution. Black Swan Green is a good reminder of that.

Bits I liked:

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 nicknames like Moran Moron or Nicholas Briar who’s Knickerless Bra. It’s all ranks, being a boy, like the army. If I called Gilbert Swinyard, just ‘Swinyard’, he’d kick my face in. Or if I called Moron ‘Dean’ in front of everyone, it’d damage my own standing. So you’ve got to watch out.

People’re a nestful of needs. Dull needs, sharp needs, bottomless-pit needs, flash-in-the-pan needs, needs for things you can’t hold, needs for things you can. Adverts know this. Shops know this. Specially in arcades, shop’re deafening. I’ve got what you want! I’ve got what you want! I’ve got what you want! But walking down Regent’s Arcade, I noticed a new need that’s normally so close up you never know it’s there. You and your mum need to like each other. Not love, but like.

‘Now. Apologists for gypsies will inevitably drone, “What do you have against these people?” I say, “How much time have you got? Vagrancy. Theft. Sanitation. Tuberculosis…” I missed what he said next, thinking how the villagers wanted the gypsies to be gross, so the grossness of what they’re not acts as a stencil for what the villagers are.
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Black Swan Green by David Mitchell

Here's how you know that you've fallen in love with Jason Taylor, the narrator and protagonist of David Mitchell's fourth novel, Black Swan Green: about halfway through "January Man", the first of thirteen stories which each chronicle a month in Jason's life, he sits down to lunch with his parents and older sister. The older Taylors are distracted, primarily by a slowly-escalating cold war in which new kitchen tiles and secret mortgages are lobbed across the dining room table like ballistic missiles. Jason's sister Julia contents herself with deriding him ("Thing is being grotesque while we're eating, Mother"). The burning resentment which this brief scene elicits towards the Taylors is proof enough that Jason has caught us in his net. We have fallen, hook, line and sinker, for his point of view. We don't stop to consider that Mum and Dad are tired and that thirteen year old boys can be a pain (especially to older sisters). Within a few short pages, we are inhabited by Jason Taylor, by the power and believability of his voice.

David Mitchell has become famous for, among other things, a facility with voice. His previous, almost universally well-received novel, Cloud Atlas, made dazzling, mid-air transitions between different genres and styles, as well as dashing back and forth between different eras and locations and tying its characters together in a tangle of coincidence and happenstance. Black Swan Green is by far a more subdued novel. It concentrates on a single character, in a single location, over a relatively brief period of time, and is told in a single style--the coming of age novel.

It seems strange, however, to suggest that this reserve indicates that Mitchell is finally writing in his own voice, as several reviewers have done. It certainly doesn't make for a very satisfying reading. Accomplished and erudite as Mitchell's forays into different genres in Cloud Atlas were, there was also an element of artifice about them, an over-reliance on trope and cliché. The price Mitchell paid for successfully imitating the works of others was the inability to add anything of his own to the text (at least, not when it came to style), lest his ventriloquist act collapse in on itself. That same artificiality permeates Black Swan Green. It is too much a quintessential novel of a boy's adolescence. Jason is too perfect a protagonist--ordinary enough to be lovable and unusual enough to be interesting; heartless enough to be believable and kind enough to keep us from turning away; just the right level of popular, neither a superstar nor a complete pariah. His experiences over the course of the novel--his parents' crumbling marriage, bullying at school, his first kiss, a growing closeness with his sister--are also too obviously drawn from a template. It is not at all surprising to discover that many of the reviewers who assume that Mitchell has cast away genre and voice in Black Swan Green come away from it largely disappointed, complaining about Jason's ordinariness. They have missed the point--concentrated on Jason's voice rather than on the things he, and Mitchell, say with it.

In spite of the frequent comparisons to Cloud Atlas, the novel that Black Swan Green most closely resembles is Mitchell's second, Number9Dream. Its protagonist, Eiji Miyake, is a twenty year old raised on an island off the coast of Japan. He arrives in Tokyo searching for his absent father and soon finds himself embroiled in a series of adventures, of which an entanglement with a Yakuza war of succession is only the first. As a boy, Eiji thoughtlessly defines himself in accordance with the way that others--relatives, teachers, employers--perceive him. His internal narrative is couched in the terms of his dominant cultural influences--technothrillers and superhero comics. Eiji achieves maturity by defining himself, and by discovering his own narrative voice.

In Black Swan Green, Jason undergoes a similar process of self-discovery. At the novel's beginning, Jason is desperate to conform. Everything that makes him what he is has the potential to destroy him--to mark him out as a weirdo, or a social outcast, or 'gay' (activities that are 'gay' include being nice to girls, going on walks, calling things 'beautiful', and possibly the entire range of human behavior except for smoking and fighting). Jason tailors himself to suit his environment, seeking to be the kind of person that others want him to be--he takes down his Middle Earth poster when his super-cool cousin comes to visit, and is very careful to note the expiry date of certain playground catchphrases. At the same time, Jason is desperate to be noticed--he writes flowery, overwrought poetry under the pseudonym Eliot Bolivar, which is published in the parish newsletter. Maturity for Jason is found in embracing his unique personality, along with its potentially embarrassing idiosyncrasies, and in abandoning the mimicry of others' literary style for a voice of his own.

Which, on the face of it, brings us to a contradiction. On the one hand, we have Mitchell the ventriloquist, reveling in the tropes of genre, refusing, even with his most subdued novel, to remove his mask and show us his true face. On the other hand, both Black Swan Green and Number9Dream are all about the importance of abandoning trope and cliché, and of creating art in one's own voice. The answer, of course, is that life and art are two very different things--as different as meaning and style. This is the lesson that Eva van Outrve de Crommelynck, a Cloud Atlas refugee, attempts to teach Jason in the story "Solarium", and the lesson that Mitchell seems to be imparting to his readers. Jason, according to Eva, uses words carelessly, trusting that their beauty will imbue his poems with a meaning that he has yet articulate. In almost everything he does, he mistakes style for substance--right down to his choice of pseudonym, which was made under the assumption that Jason Taylor is too qutidian to be a poet's name. Eva advises Jason to abandon his beautiful words until such time as he works out what he wants to do with them--until the meaning of his poems becomes apparent to him. Then, and only then, can Jason begin to use words intelligently. It is the same for personality--Jason, and Eiji, first have to come to an understanding of who they are. Only then can they adopt or abandon the affectations that will best express that identity. In both Black Swan Green and Number9Dream, Mitchell lays out a straightforward path towards becoming a mature artist (and a mature human being)--work out who you are; figure out what you want to say; find out how to say it. In his fiction, Mitchell works to disentangle these three stages, stressing their individual importance.

In his thoughtful review of Black Swan Green, Niall Harrison points out that the stories that makes up the novel are works of Jason's composition, written after the fact and incorporating elements and thought processes that Jason had yet to develop while they were taking place. Jason, in other words, is not Black Swan Green's narrator--he is its author, writing from a distance of months or even years and obviously manipulating the 'truth' of events. The novel becomes intriguingly recursive--an author whose novels frequently stress the difference between identity and voice, writing in the voice of a young man who has come to comprehend that difference, describing the process by which he came to that comprehension. Mitchell is deliberately stressing the story-ness of his story, highlighting the distance between the artist and his readers, just as the slight plasticity of his genre imitations is meant to remind us of the artificiality of all literary voices.

I believe that Black Swan Green is a response to reviewers who complained about Cloud Atlas' cleverness concealing its meaning, but I do not believe that it is meant to be an acquiescence to their criticism. Mitchell's answer to these critics is to remind us, once again, that words on a page are just as artificial and as imperfect a means of communication as pigment on canvas, or the notes of a sextet. He would also like to remind us that that distance does not diminish the work or its meaning. What if, rather than treating Mitchell's use of genre as a mask, we thought of it as a musical instrument? The sound of a flute isn't the voice of the person playing it, or of the musical piece's composer, but it expresses the feelings of both. The fact that the musician or the composer might later switch to another instrument doesn't render the music any less authentic. With Black Swan Green, Mitchell seems to be inviting us to consider the artificiality of all art, and the impossibility of puzzling out the truth of the artist's personality through that veil of artifice. The real David Mitchell (whose motivation for writing Black Swan Green may have been completely different than the one that I, his imperfect reader, have ascribed to him in this review) is not discernible through his work, any more than any artist can be truly perceived through their art, but the meaning of the work can be perceived. That meaning, in Black Swan Green and in the rest of Mitchell's novels, is anything but artificial.

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