Monday, March 22, 2010

Coming of Age Stuff: "Black Swan Green"

David Mitchell rules. There, I said it. Seriously, he is one of the most pleasantly readable authors writing at this present time in world history, which may sound a bit hyperbolic, because it is, but not because Mitchell isn't great, because he is. I first encountered him with "Cloud Atlas" -- a vivid tapestry of several stories cohering to tell something uniformly significant (but I won't give any more of that away; simply put, it's a highly recommended read).

I love his ability to meld eastern culture with west, which is a feature of much of his work to this point. But if that was the semi-gimmicky and singular attribute of his writing worth mentioning I'd consider him merely a very talented author. "Black Swan Green," his most recently published work (2006), (although his latest "The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet" is forthcoming this year) is a notable departure from his previous novels, and one that definitely showcases his versatility. It's the coming-of-age story, a bildungsroman -- if you prefer a more pretentious-sounding turn of phrase -- of Jason Taylor. The novel follows him through a year of his life, spanning from January 1982 to January 1983, from age thirteen to fourteen.

I don't think it's fair to assume the story is in any way autobiographical. However, the odd similarities of timeframe -- David Mitchell is a 1969 birth year -- name -- Jason Taylor is a name as similarly commonplace as David Mitchell -- and interests -- Taylor is a talented young writer, specifically in the way of poetry, a fact he hides from his peers for fear that he will be judged "gay" or another emasculating label (aside: I don't consider it emasculating to be gay, simply a fact of life for the characters in "Black Swan Green"). Ultimately, I would not be terribly surprised to learn that Mitchell drew the character Jason Taylor from some of his own life experiences.

If Taylor is not at all related to a young, real-life David Mitchell, it's really no matter, just further testimony of what Mitchell does so well: create fully-realized characters, characters that might as well be living and breathing. His deftness with language, words having their logical place in every sentence he writes, is something akin to Nabokov, in my mind. I'd also say Mitchell's ability to get the reader to identify with the motivations, or passions, of his characters is similar to Michael Chabon's.

Mitchell captures the anxiety of youth completely -- the fear of rejection, of being an outcast, of falling to the lowest stratum of the social tiers, of struggling to find yourself and behave as whatever it is that is. Taylor also possesses a stammer, which becomes an awkward problem for him, on the occasions of his needing to read in front of the rest of his class. He doesn't want to be labeled a "stutterer" -- knowing full well the boys will smell blood in the water and come thrashing.

And as much as you might hope for some transcendent moment of apotheosis for Taylor, the story doesn't stretch the boundaries of what's believable with respect to the subject matter. At the risk of sounding trite, living occurs. Things happen and Taylor is forced to deal with them in whatever way he can manage, however it seems appropriate at the time to proceed. He's a smart kid, a fact he acknowledges at the outset, but a fact he attempts to conceal to whatever degree he's able. He has clear problems at home -- he butts heads with his sister (though they ultimately find common ground), and he watches as his mother and father do the same without end. I don't think it's giving very much away to say that Mitchell seems to intimate that Taylor's parent's marriage is on the doomed side of imminent failure, while simultaneously keeping Taylor hopeful and naive about what is clearly inevitable. Mitchell does reality so-called very well, keeps you wanting to know what happens to his characters.

It's masterful story-telling, kept me gripped from start to finish. I highly recommend "Black Swan Green" to you, too. Especially if you enjoy stories of children like "The Catcher in the Rye " or "Project X."


  1. "A deftness with language, something akin to Nabokov."

    That is high praise. I'll have to put this on my list.
    Thanks for sharing!

  2. Yep, definitely check him out.

    And for precision's sake, let me say it's not that Mitchell writes in the same verbose, technical sense that you find in "Lolita" and which Nabokov pulls off with such alacrity, but that they both in my view share the ability to put things just so by the same fluid storytelling, as if their sentences had always existed and they were merely transcribing them to the page. That's a strange, abstract notion, I admit, and pretty subjective, what's more -- so don't come gunning for me if you find you disagree! Hahaha, hope you enjoy Mitchell, though!

  3. You actually sold me on going out, obtaining this book, and reading it over spring break. Then I'm going to come back and contribute more.