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Times Literary Supplement
Sunday, May 28th, 2006
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Black Swan Green: A Novel

by David Mitchell

Remember the Datsun Cherry

A review by M. John Harrison

As any boy knows, three tunnels run under the Malvern Hills. The first conducts a British Rail line. The second is a Government fallout shelter, the entrance to which can be found in the garden centre at Woolworth's in Great Malvern. The third is the interesting one. It is the one the Romans built to invade Hereford; and it is missing. If you found it, you would certainly get your picture on the front page of the Malvern Gazetteer. On a beautiful April morning, Jason Taylor, thirteen years old, entradista of both the exterior and interior landscapes, sets out towards Pinnacle Hill to do just that. "I would track the bridlepath to its mysterious end, wherever it might be." As he eats a ritual breakfast of McVittie's Jamaica Ginger Cake, washed down with a Coke-and-Ovaltine cocktail, "excitement" is not the word for what Jason feels -- in fact it is a misdirection. There aren't any single words for what he feels. They have to be grouped, and formed into what a mere adult might know as a novel.

On the surface, David Mitchell's fourth book seems structured more conservatively than its predecessors, presenting a view of a single life in a Worcestershire village, the Black Swan Green of the title, in the early 1980s, seen through the concerns of a boy and narrated in his voice. It refers more or less overtly to those two classics of boyhood, Cider with Rosie and Lord of the Flies, but it has the feel of English magic realism. It consists of thirteen episodes or epiphanies, each of which catches the flavour of a month and helps the development of a theme: in January, Jason breaks his grandfather's watch -- time doesn't stop, but his life goes straightway into a kind of suspension or abeyance, in which many things happen but nothing is concluded, revealed, or made easy. February is the month of "the Hangman", Jason's name for the stammer that plagues him. In March, we meet his family, and discover what a gruesome lot they are. In April, he is driven by his hormones to go out and discover the world. Mitchell truncates each episode without fuss. Like short stories, they carry no promise that you will learn anything their author has left out. This gives the effect of a darting focus, of things coming at you fast, as in a video game. Each scene of instruction, embarrassment, or sheer misery, massively important as it occurs, is soon replaced by another experience equally monumental in the development of a boy; the whole being not so much glued together by as suspended in the character of Jason himself.

His life is a complex, fraught, fine-grained experience. His stammer turns his already competitive peer-group relations into a bloodbath; he has the usual difficulties with information, especially where sex is concerned (is a "Brummie", he asks himself at one point, the same as a "bumboy"? Even this will be elucidated in the end); he is terrified the other boys will learn that, under the pseudonym "Emil Bolivar", he has had a poem published in the parish magazine (if they knew, "they'd gouge me to death behind the tennis courts with blunt woodwork tools and spray the Sex Pistols logo on my gravestone"). His father is tense, his mother depressed. They are driven by complex snobberies centred on income, housing, jobs; they eat the most appalling food. "Lunch at 9 Kingfisher Meadows", Jason records, "was Findus ham'n'cheese Crispy Pancakes, crinkle cut oven chips and sprouts". He thinks sprouts taste of "fresh puke", but if he doesn't eat five without making a song and dance about it, there'll be no butterscotch Angel Delight for him. It is Jason's narrative voice, naive but gamey, that captivates us first. Sherry tastes to him like "syrupy Domestos", Twiglets of "burnt matches dipped in Marmite". "Probably", he thinks, is a word "with an emergency ejector seat". He has many exclamations, among which "Ace in the face, or what?" is perhaps the most exuberant. Black Swan Green is less narrated than chatted into existence. Like any boy, Jason wants to rehearse for us the rules of his life, and how they frame its satisfactions; how they abrade him at the edges and how that is only to be expected; and how they deliver. Because they do deliver. And even when they don't, he has his unquenchable optimism to pull him through.

If Jason is talking himself into existence, so are his times. Unquenchable optimism seems the order of everyone's day. People are learning to drink wine. They are abandoning the English Lakes to holiday by the Italian ones. They are digging deep into the old middle-class values and anxieties and rooting them out to prepare for the next two decades of naked opportunism and the flattered self. The old economy is folding itself up like a rotten deckchair. As Jason's Uncle Brian puts it, in a subtle advocacy of his own success, "Thatcher's greatest economic gift is to the bankruptcy accountant". He's delighted by the windfall, but his fourteen-year-old son, Hugo, Jason's hero, already feels entitled. Hugo is busy codifying a combination business plan and lifestyle: "Identify a demand", he advises the besotted -- and bemused -- Jason, "handle its supply, make your customers grateful, kill off the opposition". We aren't sure whether Hugo will end up dealing futures in the City or crack in Peckham, but he has clearly identified the principles common to both markets. Meanwhile, Margaret Thatcher kills off the opposition in Sheffield, Brixton and the South Atlantic.

Thatcher appears here, through her actions, as herself. But she is also a symbol: Jason's life is full of mysterious, powerful women, from Dawn Madden, who is every schoolboy's dream and nightmare, a blank-eyed, ageless but impatient sphinx, whose displays of sexuality -- and sexual need -- illustrate the developmental gulf between thirteen-year-old girls and thirteen-year-old boys; to an American antique dealer who startles him by being able to pee standing up; and most importantly to that "old toady lady", Eva van Outryve de Crommelynck, an aristocratic escapee from Mitchell's third novel, Cloud Atlas. They are metaphors, anima figures, outright homilies. They are always ahead of him, already in possession of the rites. Thirteen, the Countess advises him, is "a wonderful, miserable age". At thirteen you are, "not a boy, not a teenager. Impatience but timidity too. Emotional incontinence". Eva, it turns out, has known everyone, from Ernest Hemingway to Susan Sontag; William Carlos Williams begged her to abandon her husband and elope with him. Demanding, bad-tempered, alive with a kind of cultural electricity, she is the survivor of another way of living, a past which sees no reason to apologize for itself just because it is the past. She refuses to watch television; she won't answer her telephone (Jason's parents would kill, he says, to get to a phone they thought was ringing for them); her assault on the modern world is so vituperate and true that one can hardly hold the book for laughing. Eva is an old monster, but a monster of truth and unevasiveness and poetry, of knowing -- and accepting -- who you are. She is a pure anti-hypocritical act. Mitchell lulls us into mistaking Jason's cramped, parochial, pastoral, scheming little backwater for the real world, then tosses in a cultural bomb, which, passing easily through the pages of the book, falls into the reader's lap. Viewed from the past, and from Europe, our own world looks both small and bland; we have got far too used to it, and made far too many excuses.

Black Swan Green encourages the reader to receive the novel as several different books crammed into the same space. It is a memoir of life during the Thatcherite glory years. At the same time it is a book about the beginnings of the contemporary transfer of power -- or at any rate of glamour -- from men to women. It is a book about freeing yourself from the clamp of village life, a book about being bullied, and one about stammering. Throughout, we sense the presence of David Mitchell's own boyhood, which leads us to imagine we are reading a sort of magic-realist Bildungsroman (although in interviews Mitchell has made a clear distinction between the "personal" and the fully autobiographical novel).

Taken on its own, perhaps the least successful component of this mix is the memoir. The Falklands War is presented with a curious lack of emotional confidence, as if it has been put together painstakingly from old newspaper articles rather than live memories. "TV's been showing the same pictures all day. An enemy Mirage III-E sharks through a skyfull of Sea Cats and Sea Wolfs and Sea Slugs. Water spouts kerboom in the bay." But "sharks" has no real power here, and a list of proper nouns doesn't make an event. Day-to-day living fares similarly.

"Uncle Brian turned into our drive and the Granada came to a rest alongside Mum's Datsun Cherry. Then my . . . cousins piled out of the back. First came Alex in a THE SCOR-PIONS LIVE IN 1981 T-shirt and a Bjorn Borg headband . . . . Next was Nigel the Squirt, the youngest, busy solving a Rubik's cube at high speed."

The effect is of bases ticked. It works perfectly well as a nostalgic aide-memoire. But in their own time (as Eva would surely insist) objects carry a cultural charge, which the novelist must somehow retrieve and communicate if the past isn't to become a combination of product placement and notebook entry, on the lines of "1982: remember to mention Datsun Cherry".

Despite this weakness, Mitchell has written another complex novel, in which multiple themes run like streams of extra data beneath every incident, and understanding comes by the process of reading into a satisfying tangle of metaphor and reference. It is the best kind of contemporary fiction. By the end of the book, the local wood, which in the first chapter seemed endless and dense, is revealed to be the size of "two or three footy pitches, tops", yet it remains a zone of dreams and archetypes. The same can easily be said of Black Swan Green.

There is a sense, sometimes, that more is crammed into the book than it can contain. But in a world of contentless novels it seems churlish to complain about that -and anyway, the real does seem too small to contain the immanent. In the end, Black Swan Green uses all the kinds of books we think it is, and our expectations of them, to funnel our understanding of it; to become the single thing it is; to disclose and represent a kind of magical process. It is less a story than a ritual, a book not about finding yourself -- though that is how Jason often perceives his struggle -- but about being directed to yourself. It is the record of an initiation. "You'll keep tripping on a hidden step", Jason tells himself, "over and over until you finally understand. Watch out for that step!" For thirteen months he lives in a world of cues; when he reaches his sense of himself at last, we see that it has been waiting there for him since the beginning. The thing that all those beautiful, scary, civilized women had in common, even the ones who spent less than a morning in his life, was that they were waiting for him to understand.

M. John Harrison's new novel, Nova Swing, will be published later this year. His collection of short stories, Things That Never Happen, appeared in 2003.

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