David Mitchell, Black Swan Green

Is it heretical to say that I appreciated Black Swan Green more than I did Cloud Atlas? Parts of Cloud Atlas completely captivated me, and there is no denying the Russian doll ingenuity of the overall construction, but I found it frustrating being jolted from one plot and genre to another, and as it went on I became distracted by the craft of the book and thus less and less able to get involved in its connecting themes and continuing stories. Mitchell is clearly a stylistic virtuoso, with a particular gift for inhabiting different voices. In Black Swan Green, though, we get to stay with one voice from start to finish, and though I suppose in some ways that makes it a more conservative or conventional novel, it also makes it a more immersive and, for me, more compelling read.

This is not to say that I found Jason Taylor’s head a straightforward or comfortable place to be. There are a few challenges involved, including relaxing into his idiomatic language, which is quite specific to his time and his place as well as to his character. (The novel is remarkable for the precision of its evocation of 1980s Britain, from politics to pop culture.) Then there’s the more general teenaged-boy aspect to his preoccupations: the male coming-of-age experience is not as universal as was once casually assumed, though of course that doesn’t mean the rest of us can’t empathize with it despite the “who really understands girls anyway” stuff (neatly offset, mind you, by his self-directed and successful sister). But Jason has qualities specifically his own, the most important of which is his poetic sensibility–one of many things he tries to keep well hidden from the appalling bullies and mouth-breathers who dominate his school and social lives.

Jason’s other major distinguishing feature is his stutter, source of endless stress and humiliation. Mitchell does brilliantly detailing his psychic suffering without making him seem weak or maudlin: beyond his vulnerability (which is at once his own and the shared vulnerability of all children exposed to each other’s untempered cruelty) there’s always a core of integrity and strength which is linked to the same poetic soul that makes him in some ways gentler than those around him. He sees more, and sees differently, and though at thirteen he hasn’t quite found out for himself the advantage this gives him (which is moral, not physical), the novel shows him in the process of figuring it out. At a climactic moment, when he has finally risen up against his bullying oppressors, he realizes that the change he has created has been brought about by words: “Words made it. Just words.” Overcoming “Hangman” (as he personifies the force that impedes his speech) means literally finding his voice, but also giving voice to the mind that looks at the scraggy local woodland and describes its “birdstuffedtwigsnapped silence.”

It’s a difficult but ultimately moving transition, one that also takes us through several variations on the theme of acceptance and the way groups set up others to be, in Jason’s word, “stencils” for what they imagine themselves to be. By making Jason linguistically precocious as well as highly observant, Mitchell makes it plausible for him to make such observations. I didn’t think Jason fit, though, into the category of the ‘precocious child’ narrator–his insights are not revelatory or truly exceptional for a smart kid his age, and where his own family is concerned, he is believably balanced between awareness and denial, too wrapped up in his own life (as teenagers are) to understand the strains in his parents’ marriage from their perspective, but not so oblivious that he doesn’t know there is strain, and to feel poignant pleasure when it occasionally lifts.

4 thoughts on “David Mitchell, Black Swan Green

  1. Alex August 6, 2012 / 5:09 am

    It’s also remarkable for its portrayal of setting. The location is very close to where I live and it is spot on.


  2. cbjames August 7, 2012 / 11:29 am

    I loved this book in a way that made it difficult to discuss it as literature. It hit very close to my own 13-year-old self. One thing I remember enjoying about it was the regular musical references. Jason and I liked all the same music. It’s a small thing, but popular music was very important to many of us at that age. What sort of music you liked became a powerful force in forming our identities, much more powerful than it should have been probably.

    So I downloaded all of the songs mentioned in the book coming up with a darn good compilation CD.


  3. Jenny August 7, 2012 / 3:54 pm

    I actually thought he stretched plausibility to the breaking point with some of those group observations (at thirteen). It’s developmental, to my mind, not to do with intelligence or precocity: most of my college students are just noticing the way groups behave when excluding minorities or when working power dynamics. One-on-one, in their own bully/ bullied setting, sometimes, but among adults? I wasn’t sure I bought it. Or the poetry mentor, either, come to that.

    Still, I enjoyed the book quite a lot.


  4. Rohan Maitzen August 8, 2012 / 1:57 pm

    Jenny, I think that’s a fair point, and as you can tell, it’s something I worried about while reading. Perhaps it’s a testament to how well Mitchell manages Jason’s voice overall that I accepted this level of insight. The exotic poetry mentor was my least favorite part of the novel. The gypsies, on the other hand, I loved — I kept thinking of Maggie running away to the gypsies in The Mill on the Floss.


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