Wednesday, August 17, 2016

White Duck Red

David Mitchell's books tend to have ambitious structures. They hop across the world, over centuries of time, or both. Even something like The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet feels expansive, in the way it taps into a grand and/or sinister background that connects a quotidian setting to fantastical developments.

Black Swan Green is different. It's a much more realistic novel, and one that feels a lot more personal. I'm not sure how much (if any) of this is autobiographical, but it certainly fits what I know of David Mitchell's life: both he and Jason Taylor, the book's narrator and protagonist, were born and raised in England, were children during Margaret Thatcher's reign, harbored literary ambitions, and suffered from stammering. The novel doesn't get as delightfully crazy and weird as Mitchell's best books, but it's wonderful in a different way, delving deep into the inner life of this one vulnerable kid.


There's really only one part of the book that seems like it might enter the more supernatural territory of Mitchell's other novels, and it comes early on. Jason is skating (in his tennis shoes) on a frozen lake. It's an eerie setting: earlier in the day the lake was crowded with people, but now everyone is back at their homes watching a scheduled movie on the BBC (a recurring element in this story, long before the advent of Sky TV and the Internet). He sees an unexplainable person skating opposite him, an external manifestation of his interior self. After a massive crash, he limps into a spooky cabin in the woods, where a witch-like lady gives him a healing poultice before locking him inside. Creeping upstairs, he is confronted with the old lady's mortality, unsure whether she is still in this world or has moved on to the next.

The chapter ends abruptly and the next begins in media res, without any explanation of how Jason escaped his captivity. As the story continues, it seems increasingly likely that this was a dream: perhaps Jason suffered a small concussion after his fall, and his creative mind invented the story of the widow and her dead boy. By the end of the book, though, it becomes even more understandable. We realize that everything had happened just as he remembered, and it really wasn't that unusual after all, just a frightening experience for a young boy.

I frequently compare David Mitchell to Haruki Murakami, and it's very tempting to compare Black Swan Green to Norwegian Wood. Both are strongly realistic novels, in contrast to the more unusual stories the authors are most known for. Both seem like they may contain autobiographical inspiration, drawing from the author's youth. However, Black Swan Green seemed darker to me. Norwegian Wood is about young adulthood: a time when possibilities seem endless, a lifetime expands in front of you and you can chose any one of many intriguing paths. Black Swan Green is about childhood: a time when boundaries are stifling, where the world around you seems dangerous, and survival (social, mental, and physical) takes precedence over growth. It's easy to think of Murakami as being nostalgic for Norwegian Wood, but Black Swan Green felt more like something to escape from. It's a formative experience in the past, and one that a father would probably hope to protect his son from.

The story sometimes resonated with me in an uncomfortable way. I never experienced the kind of bullying that Jason encounters, but vividly remember the feeling of being an outsider, of trying to navigate the social structures that surrounded me. I'm embarrassed to admit it, but I do remember thinking of who the "cool" kids were, and never sought to join their ranks; but at the same time, I also avoided associating with those who had even lower status than me, much as Jason steers clear of Squelch. School culture is highly stratified, apparently in England as it is in America. Much like when reading Enter Title Here, I hadn't thought of this uncomfortable dynamic for a long time; but it had a big impact on me when I was young, and I'm sure it helped shape the person I became.

Conformity is a big, important force in childhood, and it's something you can embrace or fight against. Being part of the group requires adhering to their standards, however good or bad they might be. There's more freedom on the outside, but it's also lonelier. I remember feeling very isolated up until the time I got labeled as the "bookworm". It was initially intended as a derogatory term, but I leaned into it, embracing my reputation as the kid who was always reading something. Before too long, I had a role: I never felt like I was part of the cool crowd, but I had a status that allowed me certain access. It required me to play a part, but it was one I felt comfortable with. Jason takes a different path, but I once again felt a sense of resonance at his ultimate arc. He does something very out of character for him that puts him at odds with the norms and expectations of his peers; but then he leans into it, embracing his actions, and earns respect.

We often have this idea that children are innocent, peaceful creatures, but the reality is that they can be quite awful... it takes time and experience to develop empathy, and kids are short of both. I winced often while reading about the various ways kids would abuse others. Jason is much better in comparison, but he's not an angel either. There's a certain transactional nature to some of his relationships: he consciously invests in his friendship with Dean Moran, specifically so he will have someone by his side if he loses status due to his stammering.

This sort of fear and planning seems to dominate much of Jason's life. The main example of this throughout the book is the loss of the Omega watch, a family heirloom that Jason accidentally smashed that night on the pond. He doesn't tell his father about this, piling lie on top of lie to explain why he isn't wearing it. Much later on, a stranger gives him fantastic advice: whatever punishment he might fear, it will be far better than spending years toiling under the weight of his secret. It's particularly sad to see a life bend itself to avoid something, when the bend itself causes more pain than the thing it sought to avoid.

Jason often deliberates his course of action, and will sometimes personify different roles into alter egos. The most prominent is Hangman, his nemesis, the force that causes him to stammer. Unborn Twin pushes him to be reckless and daring. Maggot harangues him with self-loathing. I like how each alter-ego is introduced: for the most part, they aren't really explained. Jason has lived with them for years and so they aren't particularly remarkable to him. We come to know them by listening to their words.

This description sounds like schizophrenia - "Jason hears voices inside his head that tell him what to do!" - but the way Mitchell writes it seems very familiar and natural. Jason is just a child, figuring out the person he is going to become, wrestling between his different impulses. I was actually reminded of Neal Stephenson's writings about the bicameral mind in books like The Big U, Interface, and Snow Crash. There's a theory that, in the past, our brain's hemispheres were more separated than they are today. When people would have thoughts, they would arise in one side of the brain, and be "heard" on the other side. Thus, everyone was accustomed to having voices in their heads telling them what to do. This supposedly continued until around 1000 BC, when (gradually and over time) most people ended up with more connected, unicameral brains. Thus, for example, the experience of prophets hearing voices: they were the people who retained more divided minds. Anyways - reading this book reminded me of that, and also made me wonder whether bicameralism is also something that might change with age. Young children seem more likely to have imaginary friends or see things that aren't there. This doesn't mean that they're crazy: it may mean that their brains are still growing and figuring out how best to work with the world.


This story has an unusual arc. Taylor is the sole narrator and primary character, but the novel seems to elide some significant scenes: each individual passage is detailed and thorough, but we'll sometimes discover later that a crucial development was reversed off-page, or that Jason has already adapted to some major new fact. It's hard to tell what the point of the novel is: while it's very engaging, and we root for Jason on a variety of issues, there isn't a central goal that drives him.

Despite all that, though, it ends up with a surprisingly conventional climax. He defeats his nemesis, becomes popular, and even gets the girl! But! In each case, the details are different than we expect. Neal Brose isn't a major figure in the parts of the story we've read in the same way that Gary Drake and Russ Wilcox are: we the readers learn about the extortion racket at the same time that the headmaster does. Jason does not become popular by overcoming his speech impediment or embracing his poetry: he gains respect by essentially tattling on another kid. And up until now Taylor has only seemed to care for Dawn Madden... but she's been bad for him, so we cheer as he lands in the arms of Holly Deblin.

I really liked that. I wanted so badly for things to go well for Jason, and it was great to see him find success on unusual terms. Of course, the story doesn't end there. His family life takes what seems likely to be chaotic turns: his parents divorced, his dad financially insolvent, himself uprooted from the school where he's finally found acceptance and moved to a strange town. He stresses out, of course, but I think he handles it much more gracefully than I expected. It's really encouraging, and suggests that Taylor has gained inner strength as a result of his ordeals and is incrementally more prepared to face the world's trials.

Finally, I think this book has one of my all-time favorite endings, in this conversation between Jason and Julia:
"It'll be all right." Julia's gentleness makes it worse. "In the end, Jace."
"It doesn't feel very all right."
"That's because it's not the end."

Which is SO GOOD! In so many ways!

First of all, it hits you with the humor: it literally is the end of the book.

Secondly, though, it strikes a note of bittersweet optimism. These have been momentous events, but they're only a small fraction of Taylor's entire life. He will grow, memories of pain will fade, and will arrive in a better place.

Finally, the more that you think about the physical book, the more you realize that it is not, in fact, the end. This novel is merely one thread in the tapestry that Mitchell has been weaving for decades. Stories came before this, and more stories will come later. We will see these characters again, in different times and different circumstances. There's a unique sense of warm comfort in finishing one of Mitchell's books: the story ends in a satisfying way, and also elevates everything that came before it.

There are a couple of tie-ins from Black Swan Green. The most obvious is probably the Cloud Atlas sextet, which is played to Jason by the daughter of Vyvyan Ayers. A few other things grabbed my interest, though I'm not sure if they're actually connected. The name Yew (Nick or Tom) seems very familiar, and I feel like he might be one of the characters in... I dunno, maybe The Bone Clocks or something. I'm sure there are more that I missed, so I'll have fun finding those connections when I re-read the other books.


Speaking of which: I was going to whine about how this was the last Mitchell book and so I didn't have anything else from him to read, but it turns out that that's incorrect! He published Slade House shortly after The Bone Clocks, so that's another one for me to pick up.

So, yeah. Black Swan Green is really good. For better or worse, it has a different feel than most of his other books... but, then again, it isn't like number9dream and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet were all that similar, either. I might not recommend this as the ideal introduction to Mitchell, but I do think that many people who don't ordinarily enjoy his work would appreciate the quiet realism and vulnerability of this tale.

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