David Mitchell takes a deeply personal look at an English boyhood
For his marvelous fourth novel, Black Swan Green, David Mitchell decided—in a way—to write a first novel. "First novels are both justly and unjustly maligned," Mitchell says. "Justly, because first novels are written by beginners, by definition. Unjustly because they have a lot of potential for inner archaeology and because they are a chance to do youth through a lens relatively untinted by age."
By turns a very funny and very moving novel about a 13-year-old boy growing up in a village in Worcestershire in 1982, Black Swan Green is clearly not the work of a beginner. In fact, Mitchell is one of the best young novelists writing today. Two of his novels—Number9Dream and Cloud Atlas —were shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Cloud Atlas was also a finalist for both the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Arthur C. Clarke Award. He is clearly a writer with great emotional and technical range.
We reached Mitchell at his office in the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Studies, where "at the furthest end of the furthest wing where we can do the least damage, they have a room for a writer in residence." He has come to Holland, along with his wife and their two young children, to research his next novel, which will have a Dutch theme. For the last few years his family has lived in Ireland, where they own a house near the sea in west Cork. Before that Mitchell was a schoolteacher in Japan, where he met his wife, a linguist.
Perhaps it shouldn't be a surprise that even after three previous novels to tint his lens, Mitchell manages to create such a fresh and refreshing portrait of youth in Black Swan Green. But Jason Taylor, the 13-year-old narrator, is a surprise—and a delight—as he relates in his own inimitable way his adventures and misadventures in the backyards of the village of Black Swan Green, his observations about the growing discord in his family, his feuds with local bullies, his war with a stammer that makes him a magnet for classmates' mockery, his secretive attempts at poetry, his encounter with gypsies at the edge of town and his growing sense of himself and the wider world as he approaches his teenage years.
"I wanted Jason to be unformed enough to be plausible—I didn't want him to speak like a child genius—but interesting enough to be readable," Mitchell says. "That's tough, but there's one thing on your side. Kids that age don't have the linguistic formulas in place that adults do—what linguists call collocation—the way certain words go with certain other words. That means you can smuggle in accidental poetry, and, with luck, wisdom and insight too."
In creating the character of Jason, Mitchell also drew heavily from his own inner archaeology. He says Black Swan Green is his most personal book. "I make the distinction that autobiographical is when you and everybody around you is represented in the book. Personal is when you are represented in the book, but the rest of the book is peopled by relatively fictional creations."
Like Jason, Mitchell turned 13 in 1982. Like his fictional hero, the writer has a stammer and a capacious sense of verbal play. Both kept scrapbooks about the Falklands War, which broke out in 1982.
"The war was one of the formative memories of my youth," Mitchell says. "The patriotism, the flags, the jubilation, as if it were a sporting event. It was the last time that any young English boy could feel that he lived in a country that kicked ass. The consequences of it and the truth of it— the stunning expense, the miserable expense in terms of human life—didn't come for months or years. I also remember being surprised by how quickly it disappeared. So soon afterward this thing that had been so momentous was no longer in the newspapers. That was my first lesson in the shortness of the memories of newspapers. How quickly the loudest mouths forget. Something that is a world event on Monday can be not even a memory on Friday. I learned that from the Falklands."
According to Mitchell, 1982 was a gloomy time in England, with the economy in deep recession. Some of that darkness seeps in at the edges of the story, as the clouds of adult concerns filter in among Jason's own adolescent concerns about fitting in.
Mitchell says 1982 "was also about the last year I felt I could get away with writing an English pastoral novel where the rhythm of life is set by the land, when the one-thousand-year-old rhythm of the countryside was still just about alive." In a chapter called Bridle Path, the English landscape becomes, essentially, the protagonist and Jason in his wanderings along the bridle path perceives the tensions between the older ways of English life and the encroaching American-style suburbs. It is the novel's most beautiful chapter, one in which all of the book's themes are brought seamlessly together and Mitchell's ample talents are on full display.
"Writing a novel is a great excuse to think as deeply as you can about a particular plot of existence, of the world and of being alive," Mitchell says. "When I read a book I certainly don't want to spend 300 pages in the presence of someone I don't care about. I think it comes down to the answer to two key questions that all the books I love have in common: are there people who you care about in it? Are you made to ask throughout the course of the narrative, will they be OK? If the answer is yes, then the book just doesn't let you go. At some level, that's what good writing is. It's as simple as that."
Simple to say. Difficult to do. Unless you're David Mitchell. And the book is Black Swan Green.
Alden Mudge writes from Oakland, California.