Black Swan Green Discussion #4

[EDITOR’S NOTE: Megan and I conclude our Black Swan Green discussion. Previous discussion: Installments #1, #2 and #3.]

We’re in the middle of a blizzard here in the Northeast and I’m taking a break from shoveling the sidewalk. The snow has been falling steadily for most of the day. It’s beautiful and unusually quiet outside.

I suppose the first thing to address is whether we are giving Mitchell a free pass or not. I think you’re correct when you say that our admiration for him prevents us from addressing his flaws. Is it possible to truly and objectively critique an author whose previous works I’ve adored? Is this our fault or is it his fault that this new book seems jarring to us since its form is so different? You mention several times that one of the things you enjoy most about Mitchell is his inventiveness and playfulness and that you feel like BSG lacks some of those elements.

I went back and reread portions just to see what I felt a second time around. I don’t want to admit it, but I think this novel is less successful than Cloud Atlas, which brings me to the point of why he wrote BSG in the first place? He’s changing horses midstream. Why change from what’s been so successful for him?

I also wanted to get your opinion on the graphical elements of the book. Throughout the book, Mitchell includes notes and ephemera to try and enhance the story possibly. I myself found them unnecessary and distracting. What about you Ed?

I must get back to my Sisyphean shoveling. I know by the time I leave for work tomorrow all of my hard work will be undone. That’s the Northeast for you.

By the way, did you chat up the intense gentleman in the green Army-Navy surplus jacket? What’s his story?

Ball’s in Your Court Now,

Best Regards,

[EDITOR’S NOTE: I never got around to answering Megan’s email. So I’ll simply respond here to wrap up this conversation.]


Well, it’s a few months later and I’ve finally posted the conversation. I had considered halting the conversation and leaving your questions to linger. But I can’t quite do that, because you raise some very good points.

I disagree with the idea that an author shouldn’t change horses midstream or that he should stick with a formula that works. However, there are certain imprints and qualities to an author’s voice that I think are ineluctable. Part of the difficulty of critically gauging this book, to which I have had a rather interesting set of varying reactions, is trying to contextualize Mitchell’s sense of this fantastic (his playfulness, natch) with this new fundamental pursuit of the real. I didn’t really get into this in my last email to you, but I’m thinking that Mitchell is quite adept in BSG with not only finding the fantastic in the ordinary, but also providing language that fits the bill to boot.

One thing we really didn’t get into: Mitchell as a literary impressionist. In terms of discussing Mitchell as an author, we forget that he often adopts styles, voices and techniques that are certainly rewarding in their own right. But this novel is the first book we’ve seen that is the pure David Mitchell voice. Unadorned, no tricksies. It’s as if Robert Coover suddenly stunned the world with a very personal memoir or John Barth wrote a book without a single reference to Schaharazade.

Do you think that we may have unraveled a certain prejudice within literary fiction here, Megan? And do you think this might explain our bemusement? Could it be that a literary author is disallowed from pursuing a personal novel like BSG because resorting to life experience is considered “too easy” or beneath him? Think of the hell that Jonathan Lethem got for The Disappointment Artist. Also consider how merciless people were with Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, which featured a nine year old inventor as a protagonist. This is why I suspect a few critics are going to really have it in for Mitchell with this one. He’s “debased” himself by writing about his own experience, an emotional territory he knows quite well, instead of abiding by the “clever” hard line. (Imagine if Pynchon suddenly came out with a lean and austere book about adolescent angst. I think it would baffle the living shit out of people. They wouldn’t know how to react. Because they’ve almost been preprogrammed to accept a difficult text loaded with fun puns and esoteric references.)

So the fault, I would suggest, is both ours and the literary climate’s. None of this, of course, takes away from my criticisms of the book. I still think it’s the right direction for Mitchell and that he’ll certainly improve. And as I understand from a contact who shall remain unnamed, Mitchell, apparently, has been writing up a storm. There are at least two books in the works after Black Swan Green. I’m pretty confident that he’ll find his own way to negotiate the happy medium between the fantastic and the real, between playfulness and straightforward storytelling.

As for the gentleman in the Army-Navy surplus jacket, the minute I looked up from my laptop and smiled at him, he actually got up from his table and left the cafe! So your guess is as good as mine. Did he work for the CIA? Was he my guardian angel? Was he a member of the Haight Street underworld checking up on a regular customer of Rockin’ Java. You tell me.

Thanks again for participating on this. It was a pleasure chatting with you, Megan! And I look forward to seeing you again at BEA.

All best,


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