Thursday, June 5, 2008


I reviewed David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas on here a few months ago, and while impressed with the writing, I found it overall to be undisciplined and self-indulgent.

Some friends sent me this, his latest book, as a (late) Christmas present, and I've only just got round to reading it. It came highly recommended, and I felt that I was likely to be more receptive to it, since it is a rather more satisfyingly conventional 'novel' than its predecessor (which was only a short story anthology flimsily disguised as a 'novel').

Indeed I was. This is one of the very few books I've ever got through (laborious reader that I am) in only two or three sittings. It is one of the most effective memoirs of childhood I can recall for a long time, and it perhaps has particularly strong resonances for me - as for many British people of 'a certain age' - because it seems to be very much my childhood. The book is set in the fictitious village of Black Swan Green, in the rural border country between England and Wales on the edge of the Malvern Hills. OK, I am very slightly older than Mitchell's protagonist, Jason Taylor, and I grew up in a rather larger town in the next county - but this world is intimately familiar to me: I know all the places mentioned; I feel I 'know' most of the characters; I think I can identify the place upon which Black Swan Green is based.

The book, recounted in a vivid first person by Jason, as if he is recounting the events in a journal very shortly after they have happened, charts his 14th year, albeit in very episodic fashion - each of the thirteen chapters describing a key day or two in each of the months between his 13th and 14th birthdays. Although there is a strong and consistent narrative focus here in that we do empathise with Jason's difficulties and there are certain threads that run through the whole year (his struggle against an incipient stammer, his awkward friendship with the 'uncool' but smarter-than-he-looks and unerringly decent Dean Moran, his parents' disintegrating marriage), I did find this bittiness somewhat unsatisfying. As with Cloud Atlas, the book reeks of having started life as a collection of disparate writer's sketches on various childhood rites of passage: encounters with bullies, a visit to the speech therapist's, the 'cool' but satanic cousin who goads him into trying his first cigarette, initiation into a local gang, being grilled by the headmaster, parental arguments, summer holidays, first crush, first kiss. At least here, by weaving them into parts of the experience of a single child in a single year, Mitchell has managed to fashion them into a coherent whole - but still, for me, there's somehow something missing: a bigger story fails to emerge from all the smaller stories, engaging though they are.

While I'm in a quibbling mood, there are some further foibles in this book which rubbed me up the wrong way. I find Mitchell is better at creating a narrative persona than in delineating the supporting characters; his teachers, in particular, all sound suspiciously the same. Even the narrative persona here doesn't completely convince: the attempt to write the entire novel in a schoolboy vernacular gets a little wearing (the compulsive - and occasionally confusing, difficult to read - contraction of every single are and had to 're and 'd, for example, becomes a rather irritating quirk, as does the continual reliance on epic and ace as the only two adjectives of strong approbation); but, on the other hand, Jason Taylor, sensitive child and closet poet, often lapses into moments of sophistication you can't imagine him having attained until years later.

There are other stylistic quirks that become cloying, too. Why must the smell of everything be described? Why must so many of the metaphors and similes be raided from the pop culture frame of reference of a young British boy from the 1980s, with everything being compared to chocolate bars or popular toys and games of the time? (Oh yes, I see, it's to help sustain the narrative voice! But would a real child overdo it this much? Would a real child do it at all?) Why must we have so much inventive onomatopoeia? Why must we be continually fascinated with shafts of light falling through cracks in doors and curtains ('slices', 'slivers', 'tunnels')? Why must we arbitrarily - and irrelevantly - reintroduce characters from one of Mitchell's earlier books (Eva van Crommelynck and Robert Frobisher from Cloud Atlas)? It seems at times as if Mitchell is simultaneously both crashingly unaware of his too-common literary tics and obtrusively self-aware of his own artifice ('Look at me, look at me - aren't I clever?'). His editor needs to give him a good wallop upside the head with a piece of wet fish.

My greatest misgiving concerns the accumulation of so many period references in the book. No doubt this satisfies the nostalgic leanings of a significant proportion of the book's readership, but it also threatens to render the story inaccessible, uninviting to readers who are not British (or who don't remember the early 80s, or who didn't grow up in that social class). As with so many features of Mitchell's writing here, I feel it is severely overdone, gratuitous. Even for those of us who are almost perfectly in the target nostalgia-market, this welter of 80s detail is apt to start us carping, doubting: didn't that TV show first appear much earlier? was anyone still listening to that album then? wasn't that candy bar only introduced a year or two later? (There is certainly at least one point where Mitchell is 'wrong': the word yomp, Royal Marines' slang for a cross-country forced march, only became nationally current after the Falklands War in the early summer of 1982, but Jason Taylor uses it early on in the book. Of course, this might be explained by supposing that the Taylor character is composing his narrative a year or two later, and was not concerned as to when this word had entered his vocabulary.) A credit at the end of the book suggests that Mitchell was relying on Andrew Collins's non-fiction memoir of the 80s Where Did It All Go Right? rather than on his own memory for much of this contemporary detail anyway. I would have been happier with a little less of it.

I have quibbled perhaps more than I should. This is a charming book, engaging and quite easy to read, and much of the writing is simply gorgeous. It is particularly compelling in describing the tactics of school bullies and in explaining the mechanism of Jason's stammer (he imagines a gremlin, 'Hangman', who seizes his tongue when it senses an anxiety about an approaching 'problem word'). Everyone, I think, will find much that they recognise from their own childhood here. Unfortunately, I feel that the whole is rather less than the sum of the parts.


Lisa said...

Awww. I was hoping you'd like this more. I just loved it. Having said that, it's the only David Mitchell I've read so far, so some of the things you found annoying weren't a problem for me. Jason reminded me somewhat of an English (and younger) Holden Caulfield. The cultural references from the early 80's had the opposite impact on me. I really liked them. Admittedly, I'm an American and a huge closet Anglophile and I was stationed in East Anglia from 81-83, the exact time period in which the book takes place. This made the references to the Faulklands War and the musical references meaningful for me and because I found myself on familiar turf, I probably subconsciously wanted to like it more.

I'm glad you conceded that there is some beautiful prose in this book.

You've written a thoughtful review and I'm very glad you've read it as I don't think I know anyone else (save the person who recommended it to me) who has.

Froog said...

It's a wonderful nostalgia-wallow for anyone who remembers England in the 1980s; but I do fear that for anyone else all these bits and pieces of popular culture are just going to produce puzzlement or ennui.

I also sense that Mitchell is being treated like the Messiah of British literary fiction, and no-one dares to criticise him. He writes beautifully, but not flawlessly. And he doesn't seem to be able to produce stories - not the overarching stories that you need to sustain a novel.

Another really good novel about childhood in England (set in Yorkshire a decade or so earlier than Black Swan Gree) is A Kestrel For A Knave by Barry Hines. Have you read that? It's often on the GCSE Eng Lit syllabus in British schools (in fact, I now recall I did it for O-Level myself).

Lisa said...

I have not read "A Kestrel For A Knave", but I probably will give it a try. There is something about particularly English books that I just love. I don't know why I'm so drawn to them and they do nothing at all for me as a writer since I could never hope to capture the exact things that I love about the British writers. The strangest one of all that I really liked was "Trainspotting" and I suspect it may have been in large part due to my self-satisfaction at having figured out (several pages in) how to follow the peculiar Scottish dialect that Irvine Welsh used throughout the whole thing. But I love McEwan and Amis and just about anyone else who uses funny spellings and the word, "whilst". There is a certain population of post WWII Americans descended from English immigrants who have a weird low self-esteem about being American and a subconscious longing for England. I can't explain it, but it's the reason some of us grew up in households where nobody talked about missing England, but everybody drank tea instead of coffee.

Thanks for turning me on to Alain de boton, by the way. I'm hooked on him (Swiss?). Looking forward to more of your reviews.