Thursday, February 18, 2010
The Age of Reasons
(WARNING: One of the cited passages is Not Safe For Work)
In most cases, I have a tendency to avoid books or films that are described as "coming-of-age" stories. If they cannot be avoided outright, then I go into them with a hefty grain of salt. In recent years, this description has been more pronounced in the films I've seen as opposed to the books I've read, and my opposition to the genre stems from a pretty simple reason--the lack of originality. The coming-of-age story usually follows this formula: a young protagonist (usually male) breaks out of the shell of innocence, thanks to a combination of dismantled family relationships, alcohol, cigarettes, weed, foreplay, or sex. In the end, even if he's still at a young age, said protagonist is wiser or more hardened by life in general. Despite these occasional faults and tedious forms, there are excellent examples of this subgenre. The 2002 film Y Tu Mama Tambien created an original story despite being culled together from often used plot devices, and one could point towards the late J.D. Salinger's The Catcher In the Rye, even though Holden begins the novel wise and bitter beyond his years. After being absolutely stunned by David Mitchell's 2004 novel Cloud Atlas, I recently read his latest book Black Swan Green (2006) with great enthusiasm, completely disregarding my aforementioned critiques. I went into the novel with confidence in Mitchell's intelligence and writing style, along with remembering the old quote: "It's not what you say, but how you say it."
Black Swan Green sketches the life of thirteen-year old Jason Taylor, living in a section of Worcestershire, England of that name. The novel takes place over the course of a year, and matter-of-factly details the problems and issues that Jason faces, ones that aren't outlandish, but can be overwhelming to someone that age. He has a stuttering problem, which makes his social life in school a living hell. His relationship with his older sister is strained, and his father has a tendency to be cold and distant, which is partly to blame for his parent's crumbling marriage. Combine these issues with the onset of puberty, and a reader cannot blame Jason for being caught up in even the most minute details. He's a bright, keen young man with the occasional tendency to overanalyze, even if his age forsakes him from fully understanding his observational skills. The town of Black Swan Green is, to Jason and his friends, completely boring, but his descriptions highlight more than a few dashes of beauty that can be found even in the smallest areas.
"In the copse, the bridle path joined up with a moon-cratered track. Trees knitted overhead, so only knots and loops of sky showed. Dark and cool, it was, and I wondered if I should've brought my coat. Down a hollow, round the bend, I came across a thatched cottage made of sooty bricks and crooked timber. Martins were busy under its eaves. PRIVATE said a sign hung on the slatted gate, where the name should go. Newborn flowers in the garden were licorice allsorts blue, pink, and yellow. Maybe I heard scissors. Maybe I heard a poem, seeping from its cracks. So I stood and listened, just for a minute, like a hungry robin listening for worms (Mitchell 70)."
The problems in Jason's world stretch from three distinct areas. The smallest one is his own world, both with the troublesome family issues and the school bullies like Ross Wilcox, who, even with his British colloquialisms, is carefully painted to resemble every jerk one has known in childhood. The second area involves the community, and the fear of the gypsies who roam the fields, worrying the adults more in terms of property values and theft. The third area is the British war in the Falkland Islands, which scares Jason immensely, as would any war details being presented to someone who's still a child. This could be seen as a mere plot device to put the time frame of the novel into context (along with repeated mentions of the likes of Pink Floyd and Elvis Costello), but Mitchell shapes the Falkland War as a way for Jason to see the faults and bombastic ways of adulthood instead of just through his parents.
"In Argentina riots're being reported in the major cities, with lootings and shootings, and some people're saying it's just a matter of time before the junta's toppled. The Daily Mail's full of how Great British guts and Great British leadership won the war. No prime minister's ever been more popular than Premier Margaret Thatcher in the entire history of opinion polls.
I should be really happy (Mitchell 115)."
The adult dialogue in the book isn't given much unnecessary explanations, but left to stand on its own as filtered through Jason's mind. By reading what he's hearing, we can easily pick out the inherent lies, bullshitting, and forced niceness of various conversations. The best examples come from the conversations between Jason's parents and his aunt and uncle. Jason sees the shallowness of the interactions, and the reader feels just as awkward.
"Before starting the starters, Uncle Brian opened the wine he'd brought. Julia and Alex got a whole glass, Hugo and me just half, 'and a whistle wetter for you, Nigel.'
Aunt Alice did her usual toast: 'To the Taylor and Lamb dynasties!'
Uncle Brian did his usual: 'Here's looking at you, kid!'
Dad pretended to find that rather amusing.
We all clinked glasses (except Alex) and took a sip.
Dad is guaranteed to hold his wine glass up to the light and say 'Very easy to drink!' He didn't let us down today. Mum shot him a look, but Dad never notices. 'I'll say this for you, Brian. You can't half-choose a decent plonk.'
'Fabulous to earn your stamp of approval, Michael. Treated myself to a crate of the stuff. Comes from a vineyard near that charming cottage we rented in the lakes last year' (Mitchell 47)."
As was the case with Cloud Atlas, one of Mitchell's best skills is the ability to balance both the dramatic moments in life along with the comedic. Neither emotion is dominant, therefore giving Black Swan Green the possibility to be classified as either. At times, these two sides are combined. Given the fact that nothing is written to come across as more than a detail of someone's life, the feelings depicted are wholly realistic. A fight scene between two of Jason's schoolmates is one of many examples of this mix of reality, comedy, and drama.
"At the foot of the embankment, Ross Wilcox'd already got to his feet. Grant Burch was half-sitting up, cradling his right hand in his left and squinting with agony. Shit, I thought. Blood and soil clotted Grant Burch's face.
'Aw,' mocked Ross Wilcox. 'Had enough, now, have we?'
'My wrist's bust,' Grant Burch grimaced. 'Yer fuckin' wanker!'
Ross Wilcox flobbed, dead casual. 'Looks to me like you lost then, ain't yer?'
'I've not fuckin' lost, yer fuckin' wanker, it's a fuckin' draw!' (Mitchell 75)."
A friend of mine recommended the works of David Mitchell to me, and in doing so mentioned Mitchell's penchant for various characters making appearances in his otherwise unconnected novels. In Cloud Atlas, my favorite chapters were devoted to the writings and life of composer Robert Frobisher, and I was delighted when his life made a brief appearance in Black Swan Green. The daughter of Frobisher's mentor who was his forbidden love is now an elderly grifter, giving Jason secret lessons in poetry and French. Her relationship with Frobisher is hinted, but would not be immediately understood to someone who hasn't read the 2004 work. Even so, Mitchell writes the passages as a compelling mystery that appeals to the senses, even without the context of Cloud Atlas.
"'Yes, [Frobisher] is the one who wrote that incredible music. Robert revered my father. Like a disciple, a son. They shared a musical empathy, who is an empathy more intimate than the sexual.' (She said 'sexual' like it was any other word.) 'It is thanks to Robert, my father could compose his final masterpiece, Die Todtenvogel. In Warsaw, in Paris, in Vienna, for a brief summer, the name of Vyvyan Ayrs was restored to glory. Oh, I was a jealous demoiselle!' (Mitchell 159)."
The dialogue carries the novel, and Mitchell creates a (as much as I dislike this term) slice of life that's both believable and laced with moments of everyday suspense. The details are crafted especially well, but as a whole, Mitchell didn't seem to have the intention to create a story that focuses on the unique or unpredictable. The plot points (Jason's parent's divorce, the comeuppances of his tormentors, the depictions of the gypsies versus Black Swan Green's assumptions of them), do contain elements of surprise, but in reality (or more in hindsight) seem typical. But describing them as typical is not meant to be an insult. With Cloud Atlas, Mitchell proved his immense skills in both storytelling, literary history, and originality, creating a work that I would currently include in a list of my top ten favorite novels. With Black Swan Green, he opts for excellent writing on a smaller scale. Perhaps it's semi-autobiographical, and perhaps he wanted to go for writing a more standard, tidier work. While I wouldn't classify it anywhere near the awesomeness of his 2004 masterpiece, I definitely found it to be extremely worthy, and a great pick for anyone wanting to read a novel that's a fast read, but with some thought-provoking relevance. In June, Mitchell will publish his latest novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, and from what I've heard, it could be his most complex work to date. With that in mind, it seems natural that a smaller, more intimate work would be sandwiched between one established masterpiece and one potentially looming one.
Mitchell, David. Black Swan Green. Copyright 2006 by David Mitchell.