[EDITOR’S NOTE: A few weeks ago, the absolutely delightful Megan Sullivan and I emailed each other about David Mitchell’s forthcoming novel, Black Swan Green. What follows is the first of four exchanges between us that I’ll be posting in installments.]
Okay, it’s a somewhat chilly California morning (lukewarm by East Coast standards), but I’m drinking my first cuppa coffee and I’m ready to boogie. Now’s as good a time as any to begin our email volley about David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green.
What are your thoughts? My immediate hunch here is that this is definitely the right step forward for Mitchell, an effort to finally shake off the Murakami yoke and write something straightforward on his own terms. Indeed, this is the most plotless book than Mitchell has written — even more divagating than Number9Dream. (Part of me wonders if we can begin applying an every other novel rule for Mitchell. Much like Richard Powers writes personal-political-personal, will we see Mitchell writing plot-heavy/character-heavy/plot-heavy?) I particularly liked how you could see Mitchell trying to resist resorting to playful prose. A sentence like, “Bluebells swarmed in pools of light where the sun got through the trees” is exactly the kind of awkward phrasing a thirteen year old would say, and I can imagine Mitchell pulling his hair out, forcing himself to keep things a little unclean. (I really liked all the interesting contractions and the “me and Morans” throughout the book.) I think he’s done a brave thing here by confining his perspective to a thirteen year old’s. And it doesn’t seem to be an accident that the protagonist (Jason Taylor) shares a similar-sounding four-syllable name to David Mitchell, and, like Mitchell, has a speech impediment. (And as I learned from monologist Kurt Fitzpatrick, a very nice guy I met while handing out flyers for my Fringe show a few years ago and who was in town performing a one-man show about speech therapy, this is really an underreported problem.)
I felt very much like I was reading a naked David Mitchell and it was an extremely fascinating experience. No tight herringbone plot pattern, no stylistic hijinks, no intricate structure at all. At times, it felt somewhat liberating to be reading this without a guide. But in other ways, it felt disconcerting and particularly frustrating, such as the mysterious phone calls near the beginning, which didn’t really pay off at all.
The book really worked for me when Mitchell’s inherent sweetness came to the surface. I know that we’ve all been discussing this issue of how one can be sincere in an age of irony and how there seems to be a stigma against it. So Mitchell’s sincerity is no small task. Mitchell’s tone here is the kind of rich positive voice that, to me at least, doesn’t seem phony, in large part because Mitchell doesn’t shy away from the pain of adolescence. (That one chapter where Jason is ridiculed all day, complete with the hardass gym teacher, brings back some really unpleasant memories.) I particularly enjoyed the dart game, the episode with Dawn Madden, and the way that the marriage between his mother and father gradually falls apart, complete with the whole garden and finances argument. On the latter point, Mitchell does a very nice job of keeping it in the distance, with Jason almost covering his eyes about it in relaying his story.
But I didn’t really buy the Falkland Islands tie-in, which is when I felt that things started to fall apart. Or perhaps lacking an island motif this time around, Mitchell needed to throw SOME kind of island in there. It was almost as if Mitchell, in deliberately writing against his instincts, didn’t entirely trust himself and felt the need to throw in a substantial current events angle. The Mr. Nixon announcement struck me as unremittingly treacly, even by Mitchell standards. And I felt the Frobisher love child tie-in to Cloud Atlas was too much of a character stunt — again, a case of Mitchell unable to say no. In fact, there seemed moments in the book, where Mitchell almost wanted to sabotage his own progress and draw attention to the fact that he was trying something different, such as that notebook sample at the beginning of the “Goose Fair” chapter. And I was saying to myself, “David! Fuck! Don’t do that! Don’t spoil the illusion! Have faith in yourself as a writer! You were doing so well!”
The other criticism I have, and this brings up something that Scott was good enough to challenge me on in person, is whether any of what’s expressed in this book actually expands our understanding of what it’s like to grow up. Are Mitchell’s observations here original or too rote? In conveying to us such common behaviors as being a nervous 13 year old asking girls to dance in a disco or getting crazy about 1980s cultural obsessions, is Mitchell evolving the adolescent novel or playing to much to the form? The Mitchell fan in me is willing to let him slide a bit on this, because of the stylistic progress he’s made. But in entirely extirpating his usual heavy plotting, I felt that Mitchell may have unintentionally exposed one of his weaknesses: a slight diffidence in pursuing the truth. Such stock characters as Norman Bates the bus driver (who reminded me very much of Moe the driver on The Simpsons) didn’t help things here.
The other thing: I was completely fascinated by Jason’s sister, Julia, but I was a bit disappointed that, after such an initially strong presence, for the most part, she disappeared. This was, I think, one of the most potentially distinct elements to the book. The relationship between Jason and Julia, with its ironies and contrasting elements, was one of the most real parts of the book to me, and yet I was sad to see it largely unpursued. What did you think of this?
Don’t get me wrong, Megan. I didn’t hate this book. Although I should note that the novel’s vignette structure had me reading it in spurts rather than in one go. There were sections of it that I greatly enjoyed and, again, it was fascinating to see Mitchell doing his damnedest to break out of the box. But I felt that Mitchell didn’t really push himself as hard as he could have. It was almost as if the damaged Omega watch that Jason was terrified of revealing to his parents was actually the daring novel that Mitchell was terrified of revealing to the public. Of course, what author wouldn’t be self-conscious after the considerable media attention given to Cloud Atlas? But you have to give Mitchell props for turning out an ambitious if flawed novel in spite of all this. I’m truly wondering, however, if the critics are going to throw him to the wolves because he’s dared to be gentle here.
None of my criticisms, of course, prevents me from reading everything that Mitchell turns out. He still remains a solid writer and a very fascinating stylist and a far greater risk-taker than, say, David Foster Wallace.
Okay, your turn!