Black Swan Green by David Mitchell

Here's how you know that you've fallen in love with Jason Taylor, the narrator and protagonist of David Mitchell's fourth novel, Black Swan Green: about halfway through "January Man", the first of thirteen stories which each chronicle a month in Jason's life, he sits down to lunch with his parents and older sister. The older Taylors are distracted, primarily by a slowly-escalating cold war in which new kitchen tiles and secret mortgages are lobbed across the dining room table like ballistic missiles. Jason's sister Julia contents herself with deriding him ("Thing is being grotesque while we're eating, Mother"). The burning resentment which this brief scene elicits towards the Taylors is proof enough that Jason has caught us in his net. We have fallen, hook, line and sinker, for his point of view. We don't stop to consider that Mum and Dad are tired and that thirteen year old boys can be a pain (especially to older sisters). Within a few short pages, we are inhabited by Jason Taylor, by the power and believability of his voice.

David Mitchell has become famous for, among other things, a facility with voice. His previous, almost universally well-received novel, Cloud Atlas, made dazzling, mid-air transitions between different genres and styles, as well as dashing back and forth between different eras and locations and tying its characters together in a tangle of coincidence and happenstance. Black Swan Green is by far a more subdued novel. It concentrates on a single character, in a single location, over a relatively brief period of time, and is told in a single style--the coming of age novel.

It seems strange, however, to suggest that this reserve indicates that Mitchell is finally writing in his own voice, as several reviewers have done. It certainly doesn't make for a very satisfying reading. Accomplished and erudite as Mitchell's forays into different genres in Cloud Atlas were, there was also an element of artifice about them, an over-reliance on trope and cliché. The price Mitchell paid for successfully imitating the works of others was the inability to add anything of his own to the text (at least, not when it came to style), lest his ventriloquist act collapse in on itself. That same artificiality permeates Black Swan Green. It is too much a quintessential novel of a boy's adolescence. Jason is too perfect a protagonist--ordinary enough to be lovable and unusual enough to be interesting; heartless enough to be believable and kind enough to keep us from turning away; just the right level of popular, neither a superstar nor a complete pariah. His experiences over the course of the novel--his parents' crumbling marriage, bullying at school, his first kiss, a growing closeness with his sister--are also too obviously drawn from a template. It is not at all surprising to discover that many of the reviewers who assume that Mitchell has cast away genre and voice in Black Swan Green come away from it largely disappointed, complaining about Jason's ordinariness. They have missed the point--concentrated on Jason's voice rather than on the things he, and Mitchell, say with it.

In spite of the frequent comparisons to Cloud Atlas, the novel that Black Swan Green most closely resembles is Mitchell's second, Number9Dream. Its protagonist, Eiji Miyake, is a twenty year old raised on an island off the coast of Japan. He arrives in Tokyo searching for his absent father and soon finds himself embroiled in a series of adventures, of which an entanglement with a Yakuza war of succession is only the first. As a boy, Eiji thoughtlessly defines himself in accordance with the way that others--relatives, teachers, employers--perceive him. His internal narrative is couched in the terms of his dominant cultural influences--technothrillers and superhero comics. Eiji achieves maturity by defining himself, and by discovering his own narrative voice.

In Black Swan Green, Jason undergoes a similar process of self-discovery. At the novel's beginning, Jason is desperate to conform. Everything that makes him what he is has the potential to destroy him--to mark him out as a weirdo, or a social outcast, or 'gay' (activities that are 'gay' include being nice to girls, going on walks, calling things 'beautiful', and possibly the entire range of human behavior except for smoking and fighting). Jason tailors himself to suit his environment, seeking to be the kind of person that others want him to be--he takes down his Middle Earth poster when his super-cool cousin comes to visit, and is very careful to note the expiry date of certain playground catchphrases. At the same time, Jason is desperate to be noticed--he writes flowery, overwrought poetry under the pseudonym Eliot Bolivar, which is published in the parish newsletter. Maturity for Jason is found in embracing his unique personality, along with its potentially embarrassing idiosyncrasies, and in abandoning the mimicry of others' literary style for a voice of his own.

Which, on the face of it, brings us to a contradiction. On the one hand, we have Mitchell the ventriloquist, reveling in the tropes of genre, refusing, even with his most subdued novel, to remove his mask and show us his true face. On the other hand, both Black Swan Green and Number9Dream are all about the importance of abandoning trope and cliché, and of creating art in one's own voice. The answer, of course, is that life and art are two very different things--as different as meaning and style. This is the lesson that Eva van Outrve de Crommelynck, a Cloud Atlas refugee, attempts to teach Jason in the story "Solarium", and the lesson that Mitchell seems to be imparting to his readers. Jason, according to Eva, uses words carelessly, trusting that their beauty will imbue his poems with a meaning that he has yet articulate. In almost everything he does, he mistakes style for substance--right down to his choice of pseudonym, which was made under the assumption that Jason Taylor is too qutidian to be a poet's name. Eva advises Jason to abandon his beautiful words until such time as he works out what he wants to do with them--until the meaning of his poems becomes apparent to him. Then, and only then, can Jason begin to use words intelligently. It is the same for personality--Jason, and Eiji, first have to come to an understanding of who they are. Only then can they adopt or abandon the affectations that will best express that identity. In both Black Swan Green and Number9Dream, Mitchell lays out a straightforward path towards becoming a mature artist (and a mature human being)--work out who you are; figure out what you want to say; find out how to say it. In his fiction, Mitchell works to disentangle these three stages, stressing their individual importance.

In his thoughtful review of Black Swan Green, Niall Harrison points out that the stories that makes up the novel are works of Jason's composition, written after the fact and incorporating elements and thought processes that Jason had yet to develop while they were taking place. Jason, in other words, is not Black Swan Green's narrator--he is its author, writing from a distance of months or even years and obviously manipulating the 'truth' of events. The novel becomes intriguingly recursive--an author whose novels frequently stress the difference between identity and voice, writing in the voice of a young man who has come to comprehend that difference, describing the process by which he came to that comprehension. Mitchell is deliberately stressing the story-ness of his story, highlighting the distance between the artist and his readers, just as the slight plasticity of his genre imitations is meant to remind us of the artificiality of all literary voices.

I believe that Black Swan Green is a response to reviewers who complained about Cloud Atlas' cleverness concealing its meaning, but I do not believe that it is meant to be an acquiescence to their criticism. Mitchell's answer to these critics is to remind us, once again, that words on a page are just as artificial and as imperfect a means of communication as pigment on canvas, or the notes of a sextet. He would also like to remind us that that distance does not diminish the work or its meaning. What if, rather than treating Mitchell's use of genre as a mask, we thought of it as a musical instrument? The sound of a flute isn't the voice of the person playing it, or of the musical piece's composer, but it expresses the feelings of both. The fact that the musician or the composer might later switch to another instrument doesn't render the music any less authentic. With Black Swan Green, Mitchell seems to be inviting us to consider the artificiality of all art, and the impossibility of puzzling out the truth of the artist's personality through that veil of artifice. The real David Mitchell (whose motivation for writing Black Swan Green may have been completely different than the one that I, his imperfect reader, have ascribed to him in this review) is not discernible through his work, any more than any artist can be truly perceived through their art, but the meaning of the work can be perceived. That meaning, in Black Swan Green and in the rest of Mitchell's novels, is anything but artificial.


Anonymous said…
thanks, very interesting
Boen said…
Great review! I'm a huge fan of David Mitchell, so I found your analysis of Mitchell's use of artifice and voice to be really insightful. Which one of his novels do you like the most? (My personal favorite is number9dream.)

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