Just Like 'The Catcher in the Rye'
Except Reheated, Then Boiled Till Soggy
If he reads his own reviews, David Mitchell is probably becoming very tired of book critics saying that he's full of promise. With his earlier books, Ghostwritten and Number9Dream, Mitchell proved to be an excellent writer who was not quite self-assured enough when it came to the matters of difficult sorcery like getting a main character across a room—it sounds like I'm being facetious, but I'm not. Then, with his Man Booker–nominated novel Cloud Atlas, Mitchell whipped out the tour de force: six linked narratives, ranging from historical fiction to dystopic sci-fi written in a nigh-unreadable dialect. As indicated, the right kind of people—awards committees—paid attention, but those accolades seemed to be more for the ambitions of the novel than for the execution. As with the other two, Cloud Atlas squandered its lofty book-jacket promises of glory, fizzling into an enjoyable read, nothing more.
Black Swan Green could prove to be Mitchell's most acclaimed novel yet, although it's clearly his worst. There is almost nothing exceptional left to be written about children. It's all been said before, and the coming-of-age main character in Black Swan Green—13-year-old Jason Taylor, gifted with a knack for poetry and cursed with a stammer—seems so familiar as to suggest the protagonists of dozens of Tobias Wolff knockoffs that any fan of the genre would have long since abandoned.
His story takes place in the early '80s, in Thatcherized England, where things were eerily similar to Reagan America: bungling colonialism, thousands of layoffs at home, using the paranoia of the cold war to do away with social programs. Jason considers the Falkland Islands War: "...all this excitement'll never turn dusty and brown in archives and libraries. No way. People'll remember everything about the Falklands till the end of the world." Speaking as someone who was 13 when the first Gulf War started, I think that this thought in a suitably precocious young boy rings false. These winsome, time-will-pass intrusions abound. The aspect of the '80s that gets the most excited references is pop culture: Asteroids gets name-checked, and Space Invaders, too. A character, asked which format his new video recorder is, replies: "Betamax, of course! VHS's going extinct." I saw this '80s-flashback wink on a sitcom in 1992, I think, and it wasn't funny then.
Again, though, Mitchell is a writer who is, well, full of promise. Jason's stammer is personified in the form of Hangman, a pointing, shadowy figure, who steals words that begin with the letter N or S from Jason's speech, causing him to find circuitous ways around the verbal gaps. But the subject matter takes away from the writing: Jason's speech therapist uses "upside-down pendulums without the clock part" that "tock rhythms," and Jason thinks these devices are called Metro Gnomes ("They're small, which could be why they're called gnomes"). It's all a tad too Family Circus. And, ah, the first love, with all its treacle: the phrase "Dawn Madden's eyes are dark honey" is repeated so many times that it begins to seem as though Jason is the Billy Collins of preadolescent stalkers.
There are beautiful, fairy-tale-like passages, mostly involving Jason getting lost in the woods and coming across eerie locales. And then there are passages that are nothing of the kind. For a bit, Jason wins the attentions of a strange, Dickensian teacher-figure, but she is soon abducted by the German police, and immediately forgotten for the remainder of the book, save one or two brief mentions. An immediately obvious plot point is suggested in the first chapter and is then ceremoniously rolled out in the final story, with no twists or surprises at all.
But this is the kind of shit that people devour. The blurbs on the jacket go so far as to compare Black Swan Green with (all together now) The Catcher in the Rye, and claim that suburban Jason Taylor's dream-tinged whimsies suggest the adventures of "Huck and Tom." It's an oft-pushed critical button: The childhood embarrassments that we all share, for some reason, can be endlessly digested and consumed by a good chunk of fiction readers. And this sort of conservative, safe play allows authors to get a little bit of acclaim without sticking their necks out too far, so maybe this will be a good thing for David Mitchell. But his next book had better fucking well knock it out of the park.
David Mitchell reads at Third Place Books (17171 Bothell Way NE, 366-3333) on Wed April 26, 7 pm, free.