Black Swan Green
Random House / 304 pages / $24.95
English novels named for places tend to emphasize not the particularity but the typicality of those places: See, for instance, George Eliot's Middlemarch and Elizabeth Gaskell's Cranford. David Mitchell's glorious fourth novel, Black Swan Green, observes this tradition and does it justice.
The West Midlands village has an exotic-sounding name, like words torn from an imagist poem, but the place itself is anything but. It's small, dull, lacking swans of any color, and a brutal setting in which to lead the life of a sensitive, stammering schoolboy. The social code so ruthlessly enforced by the village's adolescent toughs rewards blithe brutality and ensures that the strong continually prey on the weak in the interest, ultimately, of preserving their own place in the pecking order. There's nothing remarkable about Black Swan Green, but the extraordinary characters of English fiction have usually sprung from ordinary places.
The time is 1982 in the English Midlands, the era of Margaret Thatcher, Chariots of Fire, the Falklands War, and Talking Heads. Jason Taylor is about to turn 13 when the novel opens, and at the mercy of the mob of Wilcoxes, Redmarleys and Broses. In an adolescent jungle where hardness reigns, Jason is heartbreakingly soft. He's plagued by a capricious stammer he personifies as an inner villain called Hangman, who wreaks gleeful havoc with his confidence. He doesn't know what certain popular epithets favored by his peers mean and is afraid to ask. He unfashionably cares about people, beauty, and, worst of all, poetry. If his peers knew this, he recognizes, "they'd gouge me to death behind the tennis courts with blunt woodwork tools and spray the Sex Pistols logo on my gravestone." So he writes poems under a pseudonym and publishes them in a local journal.
It's convenient for Mitchell that Jason is a budding poet and an instinctive naturalist to boot, a sort of English Wendell Berry in the making. Jason's poetic leaning makes plausible all kinds of verbal flourishes and fine observations that might otherwise be a stretch coming from a 13-year-old. But Mitchell takes the liberty and makes the most of it; in fact, one of the most striking and beautiful things about his novel is the entirely plausible and disarming way in which Jason's voice blends the resourceful and calibrated expression of a poet - "some way-too-early fireworks streaked spoon-silver against the Etch-A-Sketch gray sky" - with the occasionally colorful but essentially rote slang favored by a kid. The rich hash that results is, on just about every page, ordinary and extraordinary and ravishing.
Though Mitchell is best known for his previous novel, Cloud Atlas, he began building a following with his earlier books Ghostwritten and Number Nine Dream. Black Swan Green both cements and complicates his reputation as a painstaking formalist and a writer's writer. On one hand, it is narrated more traditionally than any of the previous works, and dwells, more conventionally, on the inner life of a single character. Black Swan Green is an unapologetically realist novel and a hugely satisfying one. On the other hand, for all the naturalism of its effect, the book is every bit as elaborately stitched together as Mitchell's more formally showy books. It has intricate patterns to reveal that might not surface on a first reading.
Because the novel's momentum pulls one through it so irresistibly, it is easy to initially overlook its carefully planned master structure of 13 chapters, each of them telling a self-contained story. At the book's center, the seventh chapter, "Solarium," holds special significance. In it Jason meets a dowager (and an import from Cloud Atlas), Madame Crommelynck, who admires his poetry. She dispenses afternoon lessons in art and manners - "Art fabricated of the inarticulate is beauty," or "A young man needs to learn when a woman wants her cigarette lit." Under her tutelage, Jason begins to read and translate Henri Alain-Fournier's great 1913 novel, Le Grand Meaulnes (published in English as The Wanderer), a bittersweetly romantic fever of a book about youth on the brink of adulthood, and a key to Mitchell's novel.
To cite just one instance of its imprint, the newly arrived Meaulnes discovers fireworks in the attic of the narrator's house in Alain-Fournier's first chapter, and the two boys set them off together that night, as if to mark the beginning of the end of childhood. Telltale references to fireworks litter the text of Black Swan Green, too, as Jason moves toward a negotiation of his social challenges and a happier - though in one way sadder - 14th year.
Alain-Fournier's novel imbued adolescence with an unearthly, slowly diminishing glow, like a slow-motion firework resolving into a trail of smoke. Black Swan Green, firmly anchored in the quotidian and even the humiliating passages of a boy's life, captures more of the vitality and peril of adolescence than the dreaminess and emphasizes more of the hard-won wisdom of growing up than the loss. Late in the novel, Jason reflects that "The world won't leave things be. ... The world never stops unmaking what the world never stops making." Without quite knowing it, he's talking about himself; without quite knowing it, he's issuing as much of an affirmation as a lament.
Laura Demanski is a writer living in Chicago. She maintains a blog about books and the arts at www.artsjournal.com/aboutlastnight.