When you’ve charted the course of civilization, what do you do for an encore? British writer David Mitchell’s previous book—and a masterpiece—was the novel Cloud Atlas, a Man Booker Prize finalist. Spanning genres as well as continents (from explorer’s logbook to detective story, 19th-century South Pacific to futuristically dystopic Korea), Mitchell built suspense by presenting the beginnings of six stories in historical order, then going backwards to reveal their conclusions. Cumulatively, they depict human life as a cyclical struggle between our capacity to flourish and our drive to destroy ourselves. This was no arid Philip K. Dick knockoff or Trekkie lecture, though. It had real characters, propulsive plots, and perfect pitch.
But now comes Mitchell’s new novel, Black Swan Green, a crack at a genre he so consciously eschewed in the first place: the autobiographical coming-of-age story. Jason Taylor—like Mitchell in his youth—is a geeky 13-year-old poet living in a yuppifying subdivision in Black Swan Green, a Worcestershire village. Also like Mitchell, he struggles with a formidable stammer (not a stutter, he points out. He gets stuck on the first consonant, particularly with words beginning in n or s).
It’s 1982, and as Thatcher’s absurd Falklands War rages, Jason must face bullies at school and squabbling parents at home. His greatest fear is that his stammer will become fodder for his tormentors. So he tries to avoid words (like sad) that could betray him. “Reading dictionaries like I do helps you do these ducks and dives, but you have to remember who you’re talking to,” Jason warns. You wouldn’t use a word like melancholy in the schoolyard, either.
Mitchell’s verbal economy and fine ear for dialect give his Everyboy an inimitable voice. He usually knows when to speed you along and when to take you for a leisurely stroll. Just as you begin sinking in the early-eighties arcana of The Rockford Files and ELO, time slows down as Jason fixes on a swallow or a frozen lake. He may not have the maturity to sift through his experiences and glean their significance, but we should be thankful that Mitchell does. No 23-year-old novelist would have had the control—of both language and pacing—that he does.
But every so often his controlling temperament gets the better of him. A certain kind of mood shift in Jason—from the external moment to the silent revelation—becomes more frequent and schematic as the book goes on. Sometimes it’s a bracing shock, as when Jason observes his father and realizes boys never grow up, they just “get papier-mâchéd inside a man’s mask.” Other times, it’s just jarring. All of a sudden, “people’re a nestful of needs,” or “a headless crowd’s the most dangerous animal.” The contractions, meant to add authenticity, actually make such observations sound bogus, truisms papier-mâchéd with colloquialisms.
Mitchell, who’s always taken pride in wrestling genres to the ground, almost gets pinned himself. His bildungsroman doesn’t fully succeed as a Portrait of the Poet as a Young Nerd, if only because it occasionally reads like The Wonder Years U.K.
It may be that sticking to one voice and one plot is a bit of a comedown for Mitchell. He wants to show how childish grown-ups are, how stifling money can be, how foolishly smug the eighties were. But unlike Alan Hollinghurst and other recent chroniclers of Thatcherism, he can’t tackle the era’s ironies and hypocrisies from an adult perspective. Unable to break his own rules, he bends them by feeding people lines.
Still, Black Swan Green uses the limits of adolescence to remind us what it’s like to see the sublime in the unknown. Even Jason’s most blinkered observations (“People’ll remember everything about the Falklands to the end of the world”) make his life seem freshly discovered, and when he does stumble toward genuine understanding, the moment is (as he would put it) “epic.” One of the best chapters describes his walk along a mysterious bridle path, which leads through rolling farmland to the grounds of an insane asylum. The trip—peppered with near-mythic episodes involving power, loss, and incipient sexual awakening—is a classic picaresque, as timeless as ELO is dated. It’s one of Mitchell’s alternate universes, here on Earth.
Like every chapter, this one ends inconclusively, and at the moment of maximum tension. Its resolution is a mere footnote in the next chapter. That’s a familiar structure for Mitchell. But whereas every story in Cloud Atlas foretold the end of a civilization, the conclusion of each chapter in Black Swan Green only feels like the apocalypse. Or, exactly what being 13 feels like.
The last chapter is a cliff-hanger, too: As Jason’s parents’ marriage falters and we see them leave Black Swan Green—for Jason, another apocalypse—his sister reassures him that everything will turn out all right, and if it doesn’t yet feel that way, “that’s because it’s not the end.”
A novel never really ends for Mitchell, who’s said he likes “digging tunnels between books.” One of the key characters in Cloud Atlas turns up here, a half-century later, an eccentric crone of a mentor. Mitchell’s always leaving clues to a larger world, even amid the tiniest slice of space and time. Wherever he goes next (he’s mentioned a “Dutch-Japanese historical novel”), it will still seem part of his universe, and—thanks to his talent and compassion—a part of our own as well.
Two years ago, David Mitchell—talking about his stammer in reference to his novel-in-progress—said he “wanted to try and reach in the book a suggestion that impediments…can actually be enhancing.” A quiet child, he immersed himself in Chekhov, Salinger, and DeLillo, as well as his own imaginary worlds—which he mapped out on a giant sketchbook (he also designed computer games). Now 37, he solved his stammer by steadily learning to banish his fears. But there’s still a hint of it in his speech. “You never recover from a stammer,” he once said, “in the same way that an alcoholic never recovers from alcoholism.”
Black Swan Green
By David Mitchell. Random House. 304 Pages.