Black Swan Green

I hold in my hands a copy of the advance uncorrected proofs for David Mitchell’s forthcoming novel, Black Swan Green. It’s good.

David Mitchell is a great writer of set-pieces. He builds novels out of stories. Each story is written to an internal logic; each contains a narrative arc that could stand alone. Each novel is the confluence of the stories; their linkages follow a common structural pattern. The result is, more or less loosely, a novel with its own longer arc.

His three previous novels were trips into the fantastic, both thematically and formally. Cloud Atlas posited a disquieting future (or two, depending on your interpretation); there was definitely something supernatural moving about in Ghostwritten. Both these “novels,” however, featured different, almost unrelated protagonists for each chapter. There were literal connections (blink and you’d miss them), but sussing out the plot of the novel itself involved looking well beyond the experiences of any of the protagonists.

Number9Dream, on the other hand, turned out to be a modern-day tale about a young man looking for his father—once you looked beneath the wild narrative experiments. I’ve never been to Tokyo, but my sense is that the dislocation of constant genre shifts and wild mental elaboration fairly accurately captures the actual subjective experience of the place.

Basically, I like set pieces. I like the constraints that picking rules imposes. I like the pressure to take gambles and the constant subversion of genre. And I appreciate it particularly when a writer can actually wring novel emotions from one. The shock of the unexpected is, I find, a good way of making the expected more meaningful. Mitchell can do it. In fact, he can do it almost on cue.

Black Swan Green, then, is kind of a departure and kind of not. It’s a novel about a thirteen-year-old boy in a rural English village in 1982. Departure. The novel is broken down into one self-contained story of a chapter per month. Not a departure. Nothing unnatural happens and the narrative tone doesn’t shift radically from chapter to chapter. Departure. But the hero’s internal narrative does include occasional commentary from imaginary internal entities, aspects of his personality perhaps: Hangman, Maggot, Unborn Twin. Maybe not a departure, then.

We’re not talking unfamiliar territory. The trials and tribulations of the articulate, intelligent, self-aware young teen. Check. In an English school ruled by the popular boys through violence. Double check. The fears of a child watching, if not understanding, his parents collapsing marriage. Triple check.

Given his track record, I was expecting Mitchell to pull it off through some wild narrative additions. Perhaps secret agents are on the tail of his father, or perhaps he has an early encounter with ghosts. Or perhaps Jason thinks that secret agents are on the tail of his father, and so one chapter is written in the form of a spy thriller, and Jason thinks that there are ghosts in that house in the woods, so that another chapter is written as a ghost tale.

Nope. It really is a novel about a thirteen-year-old boy in a rural English village in 1982. That took me a while to get used to.

The other thing that had me worried was the cringeworthiness of the subject matter. The kinds of humiliations one expects thirteen-year-olds—particularly increasingly unpopular thirteen-year-olds—to experience in fiction are pretty unpleasant to read. You can’t actually close your eyes while reading a novel, but I did find myself glancing ahead a page or two at times, just to make sure that the absolute worst-case humiliation didn’t happen. (Or if it did, to be prepared for it.)

Again, I shouldn’t have gone in with such strong expectations. Mitchell has a light enough touch that I needn’t have worried. Jason goes through some rough parts, but Mitchell never draws out the excruciating bits into unpleasantness. Some scenes end well; others end with surprises; others end abruptly with a single line effectively conveying all the unpleasantness without putting the reader through it. I appreciated Mitchell’s taste and his touch.

These Bayesian demons aside, it’s a fun book. The narration is clever and brilliant in places. Mitchell’s trademark assemblage-of-stories device turns out to work quite well in conveying both Jason’s slowly developing maturity and the individual excitements of his daily life. The social dynamics of the third form are complex and Mitchell gets inside the daily calculations of who is friends with whom and how in some clever and striking ways. And when, in the final chapters, he starts to knock down the pins he’s been carefully setting up, the book comes to a satisfying conclusion, both closed and open, rich in all the right ways.

The book generated two echoes for me; I don’t know how universal either would be. Any book including English boys, bullying, and swans (even if only in the title) cannot help but summon up Roald Dahl’s “The Swan” (collected in The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar). And any story about Englishness, teenagedom, and angst will probably remind me of Travis’s 20’. The tone of Black Swan Green has elements of both, but with more of Mitchell’s brio and wit.

Mitchell has been sustaining a pleasantly brisk novel-writing pace: one every two years and getting faster. Good. I await the next with equal impatience.