Whether or not it’s modish for novelists to annex genres, a benchmark separates authors who nick anything off the supply line from those who wield genres as a surgeon his instruments. Trekking from travelogue to belles lettres to mystery to chiseled comedy to science fiction, David Mitchell’s last novel, Cloud Atlas, exceeded literary gumbo. Given the tightened scope here, a bit of fidgeting may be needed to exorcise one’s preconceptions that waggery is around the bend, but as the young narrator, Jason Taylor, realizes, people can seldom afford to meet others’ around-the-clock expectations.
Fleshing out such elementary wisdom is what coming-of-age novels are about. No doubt, that label will make some grimace and others wax nostalgic, but this novel is OK with caressing its traditional parameters. It settles for the sparks of verisimilitude instead of the fireworks of reinvention, while transmitting the uncomfortably comfortable sensation of smacking into the participants in one’s young life. It helps that the novel is compact and deliberate, since unexpected encounters can grate if tact or brevity is fumbled. It also helps that the narrator is pithy, pitiable, and agreeable. Jason, a poet who routinely travels into a stratum of refined perception, still comes across as a kid. Despite his poetic investigations, he shies away from registering the fissures in his parents’ marriage, because a young mind can only deal with so much.
Each of the thirteen chapters, which function as linked short stories, corresponds to a month in the life of the thirteen-year-old narrator.Though Jason resides in the well-to-do part of Black Swan Green, an inconspicuous English village, he’s bullied at school and his popularity is in freefall. He feels like a marked man because of his stammer.While these tentacles of conflict disturb his personal life, others encroach on his town’s civic life: the bitter politics of Brittan’s conflict in the Falklands, the economic clench under Thatcher, and a municipal row over a proposed permanent site for gypsies.
Eventually, these all provide instruction in problematic motives and unlooked-for repercussions. Mitchell gets the impishness, humiliation, and awkwardness of youth. He doesn’t trip over a pitfall of the coming-of-age story by passing around fallacious pieties, glorifying the young, and condemning adults. He’s too smart not to catch the overlap between the societies of school and work that makes each a roost for phonies and predators. In one of the book’s many affecting scenes, Jason’s father purchases a fossil for his son after elucidating, to his son’s pleasure, its origins. Following a literal run-in with his father’s supervisor, who gives the fossil a different spin, Jason watches his father swallow his knowledge and degenerate into a bootlicker. While Jason flushes with resentment, the reader records a symmetry between father and son, both hiding their lamps under bushels to make their way in the world.
By positioning his protagonist between turrets of precocity and immaturity, Mitchell transposes Hitchcock’s observation that suspense occurs when the audience knows something the protagonist does not. This is an especially gracious sensation to extend to a novel about a budding genius. Jason’s story is both fascinating and familiar. In other words, it’s of a piece with what a genre novel should be, and while there is more to ogle at in a book like Cloud Atlas, Black Swan Green succeeds magnificently on a smaller scale.