Loads of Learned Lumber

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

David Mitchell, _Black Swan Green_

A CURVEBALL (or googly?) from Mitchell, heretofore given to razzle-dazzle in his fiction, as Black Swan Green is a relatively straightforward coming of age story, set in a small town in the southern part of England in 1982, the year of the Falklands War.

Jason Taylor, the narrator, is thirteen, and faces the quintessential dilemma of thirteen-year-olds in the western world: are you one of the cool kids who can seemingly get away with anything, one of the large mass of the nondescript who blend in and manage to avoid the worst kinds of trouble, or one of the persecuted preterite singled out for the torments of the damned? As a stammerer (like Mitchell, according to interviews), Jason is at graver-than-usual risk of falling into the third category. Quick-witted and capable of bravery, he gets a shot at joining the local gang, which would make him a cool kid, but he loses that opportunity when he chooses to stand by a friend who disastrously failed the initiation (good for you, Jace). From then on, he is increasingly in the sights of the King Bully, and things go from bad to worse to even worse.

Pluck (in shop class, Jason crushes the expensive calculator of one of the bullies in a vise, thus getting the authorities' attention while also demonstrating nerve) and luck (he finds the King Bully's lost wallet at the fair) win Jason a degree of redemption; there's also the fact that the bullies don't grow up to write the books. A conversation with Mme. Crommelynk, whom we met in very different circumstances in Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, helps Jason discern a vocation as a writer.

Ordinarily, I'm disappointed when someone who successfully writes the more adventurous kinds of fiction decides to play it straight, but Mitchell is so good at it that I could only marvel and enjoy. The holiday verbal death match between Jason's father and his uncle... the three teenaged girls emerging from a photo booth singing Duran Duran's "Hungry Like a Wolf"... the perfect counterpointing of the Falklands War with the contest of wills between Jason's parents... all the NYTBR and New Republic folks wishfully scanning the horizon for a great contemporary version of 19th century realism should be looking right here.

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