Bookforum | Apr/May 2006

David Mitchell's Black Swan Green has all the appurtenances of a novice effort: weepy adolescence and tender burgeoning, rites of passage and moral ladders, sexual stirrings and the first aesthetic gropings of an artist-to-be. But unlike most untried semifictionalizing autobiographers, Mitchell has turned inward only after setting himself to the lavish and intrepid. It's as though he waited to write a first novel until he had three already behind him. Cloud Atlas, his unrelievedly consuming 2004 novel, was millennial in scope: Six interlocking narratives spanned centuries and continents, each one written in a voice so convincing and distinctive it could have supported an ambitious novel of its own. Black Swan Green inverts the formula but uses it to similar effect: Its thirteen chapters follow thirteen-year-old Jason Taylor for thirteen months, from January 1982 through January 1983. Where Cloud Atlas contoured the long movements of civilizations across worlds, Black Swan Green considers in miniature the halting steps of what a run-of-the-mill coming-of-age novel would call "a young boy on the cusp."

Jason lives in Black Swan Green village, in the provincial backwater of Worcestershire, in Britain's Western Midlands. His father is a middle-management type at a supermarket chain, and his family lives in a housing estate for the town's upwardly mobile. As the book opens, his older sister, Julia, is looking toward university, and his smart but stifled mother is puttering about the house and garden. His parents are having a shaky time of it, which Jason understands only intermittently and is obviously powerless to do anything about. His fear of upsetting their fragile détente has helped cause a speech impediment: He stammers, which the boy carefully differentiates from a stutter (a stutterer finds unutterable the beginning of words, while a stammerer can get tripped up midword). This makes great difficulties for him—he knows, rightly, that his cruel classmates will pounce on his weakness if it's discovered, so he chooses the lesser schoolroom ignominy of opting for the incorrect answer when it's easier to pronounce.

But it's also a fecund wound: What he cannot say he can always write, and he's been publishing poems (under the cack-handed pseudonym Eliot Bolivar) in the local parish magazine for months. This explanation for his literary acumen is convincing, and more so as it goes along. Early in the book, there are moments where the narrator—who calls flies "titchy as commas" and describes a row of tulips as "black plum, emulsion white, and yolky gold"—seems more like Mitchell himself than a thirteen-year-old boy. What makes Jason ultimately persuasive as a character (and believable as a narrator), though, is the pairing of lyrical precocity with worldly disorientation, as when he assures us that "people'll remember everything about the Falklands till the end of the world."

Each chapter is a self-contained story. The month of May sees Jason preoccupied with the progress of the war in the Falklands, and the resulting death of one of the village's favorite sons. June is Jason's ritual initiation into a gang of up-and-coming local toughs. July finds Jason under the literary superintendence of the fancy Madame Eva van Outryve de Crommelynck. (When we perfervid Mitchell fans last saw her, in Cloud Atlas, she was the icily imperious daughter of composer Vyvyan Ayrs.) In this novel, Mitchell can't resist having the adult Madame Crommelynck play the Cloud Atlas Sextet by Robert Frobisher (a central character from the previous book) for the awestruck Jason. (Inveterately allusive, Mitchell calls Jason's bête noire Neal Brose after a character in his novel Ghostwritten; other references crop up, particularly toward the end, but it would be spoilsporting to reveal them here.)

Though there's some faint sorcery lingering at the tale's periphery, the episodes are common ones. But what makes Mitchell's book so uncommon with respect to its genre is just that: It's episodic, and not only structurally but materially so. Most recent bildungsromans stock tinseled epiphanies and fresh-baked-bread redemptions. Though they're ostensibly about the character coming of age, the bad examples tend to be about coming-of-age itself. But Mitchell has refused the scaffolding on which he might hang a climax. By allowing Jason the stumbling progress of a novel in stories, Mitchell has given him an actual youth, not one smoothly engineered in retrospect.

Mitchell imagines adolescence as less a benignly inclined slope extending toward a cloudless and vista-rich summit than a slow, painful muddle with no clear conclusion. As Jason puts it, "The world's a headmaster who works on your faults. I don't mean in a mystical or a Jesus way. More how you'll keep tripping over a hidden step, over and over, till you finally understand: Watch out for that step!" Jason trips through these stories, occasionally adjusting his gait. In one story, he wins some measure of popularity; in a subsequent one, he loses it. He makes a fine moral choice—the gist of which we can't really appreciate until another month's story or two passes, so Jason is logistically prevented from self-congratulation—and then suffers for it. He flounders about and nods toward adulthood.

"People always think," Jason says, "that not stammering is about jumping in at deep ends, about baptisms of fire. People see stammerers on TV who're forced, one magic day, to go onto stage in front of a thousand people and lo and behold a perfect voice flows out. See. Everyone smiles. He had it in him all along! All he needed was a friendly push! Now he's cured. But that's such utter bollocks." Mitchell has respected Jason enough to give him no such magic days, and the result is a magic character: sympathetic, troubled, and deeply vital. It is difficult to think of a young novelist as capaciously talented as Mitchell; with Black Swan Green, he has shown that he can do one quiet British year as well as he can a vast catastrophic epoch.

Gideon Lewis-Kraus is deputy editor of the Threepenny Review. He lives in San Francisco.