Saturday, July 20, 2013

Black Swan Green by David Mitchell

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

This book is a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story set in rural Worcestershire, England. It is the story of Jason Taylor, a thirteen-year-old, during that year of his life. Although it is a novel, each of the chapters could stand alone as a short story. They are related, and there is an arc to the narrative, but each individual event is separate, and the mood and vision of each chapter is different. Black Swan Green is the fictitious village Jason calls home. It does not have swans, one of several ironies in the title.

Jason is a kid who fits into the middle category. Not popular by a long shot, but not so low as to be picked on, he is terrified that his secret stutter will come out. It does, of course, and he undergoes some pretty awful bullying. It is easy to forget that in the early 1980s (the setting of this book), bullying wasn’t really on the radar, so to speak. It happened, but little to nothing was done to stop it. Eventually, Jason has enough and takes some dramatic action, both for good and ill, but the resolution is a bit ambiguous, and Jason himself is increasing ambivalent as he grows up, while his parents’ marriage crumbles.

It took a little while to acclimate myself to all of the slang. Not that I was good at interpreting the language of my peers at that time, but all the Britishisms were as unfamiliar as “fresh” is to my kids. Also interesting were the colloquialisms - the odd contractions of spoken language set down in letters. Not exactly a dialect, because the sounds were familiar, but the way they were emphasised was different.

One that stood out particularly were “bog,” meaning toilet. Thus, “bog paper” was mentioned, and so forth. The other was the mention of “squash,” not meaning the vegetable (that would be “vegetable marrow”) but a drink made with citrus and herbs and sparkling water. I’ve never had it, but it is apparently quite different from either soda or punch.

There are also numerous references from pop culture of the times, from clothing to politics. (Margaret Thatcher is ever present.) However, music is constantly mentioned. The kids get it right, but the adults? Not so much. There is a chapter devoted to an awkward visit from Jason’s uncle, aunt, and cousins that is painful, but marvelously written. (Anyone who has a slightly racist and sexist relative who says offensive stuff would recognize this visit.) During the course of a conversation between Jason’s mother and her sister, the following exchange occurs.

“She [Jason’s older sister Julia] can be rather...opinionated.”
“At least it’s CND and Amnesty International she’s opinionated about, Helena, and not Meaty Loaf or the Deaf Leopards.”

One of the best (and worst) things about this book is that it captures the schoolyard politics of middle school far too well. The constant, casual cruelty is pretty bad, and Jason is continually at risk for being called “gay” for being a little less hard and cruel than many others. (He wants to say something is beautiful, but that would be, well, “gay.” And even then, he tends to be afraid of hanging with his natural friends because they are lower on the social scale than he thinks he is.

He writes poetry, but under a pseudonym. In one chapter, his secret is discovered by this odd German lady, who attempts to broaden his horizons (including introducing him to modern classical music), before she is suddenly deported after her husband gets caught in financial shenanigans. He is both thrilled and terrified by her interest in his literary attempts.

If you show someone something you’ve written, you give them a sharpened stake, lie down in your coffin, and say, “When you’re ready.”

This chapter is a bright spot in the book, one of the rare times that Jason is able to shake the fear and shame. He also has a loyal and admirable friend in Dean Moran (nicknamed “Moron,” for those of you who didn’t already see that one coming), who is better able than Jason to care less about the opinions of others, and yet stay out of trouble.

In that respect, this book is unvarnished. Mitchell refuses to soften or romanticise stuff. Bad things happen. Jason is as weak and terrified as most of us were at that age. The world is too big for him to take on, and he knows it. He aims to survive somehow, despite the lack of support or understanding from his parents, who are too preoccupied with their own problems.

At one point, Jason’s dad says, “Wish I could be thirteen again.”

Then, I thought, you’ve obviously forgotten what it’s like.”

I have thought many times that I might be bribed to repeat high school. It would take a lot of cash, but I would do it. I can’t think of a sum high enough to be worth repeating junior high. Nope, I don’t ever want to be thirteen again.

Jason isn’t imagining the cruelty, and he does become a particular target of the worst group in the bunch for a while. (One of the great lines: “Human beings need to watch out for reasonless niceness too. It’s never never reasonless, and its reason’s usually not nice.”)

Mitchell makes it easy to understand Jason’s frustration with life and with the ongoing family drama that makes him feel like even more of an outsider at home than at school. His parents can’t get their heads out of their own problems enough to notice Jason’s pain. His older sister will leave for college, and she has a boyfriend to distract her, but Jason has functioned as a buffer, and he isn’t good enough at it to save the damaged marriage. Indeed, at the end of the book, he is as far away from his parents emotionally as ever, but he is growing up, and learning to control what he can.

This book was a worthwhile read, but it is frank about many things, including language, death, and sex. I grew up in a neighborhood where there were plenty of “colorful metaphors,” to use Spock’s term. Nothing in this book is more shocking than what I personally heard, but it is there without any sugar coating. Likewise, a young man is killed in the Falklands incident, leaving behind a pregnant girlfriend. All of this fits with the purpose of the book, and is more frank than gratuitous.

I would put this book in the category of books that I am glad I read, but would not devote precious shelf space in my own library.

One final quote, which I think is devastating in context (a fight between Jason’s parents, which leads to a mug thrown at a heron), but also broadly applicable:

Me, I wanted to kick this moronic bloody world in the bloody teeth over and over till it bloody understands that not hurting people is ten bloody thousand times more bloody important than being right.

I’ve written before on this general theme, so I’ll just leave it at that.

Note on music:

I didn’t listen to much of anything from my own generation’s music when I was a kid. By choice, I listened to classical music - still one of my great loves. My parents got caught up in the trendy Evangelical horror of “rock” music. Thus, I really didn’t discover this era of music until my 30s. There was a brief period in the early 90s, however, when I heard a few memorable songs. In Black Swan Green, Duran Duran makes an appearance. I was too young to have heard “Planet Earth,” but I definitely remember “Ordinary World,” which I still thing is a beautiful song. (Also, the video was filmed at the Huntington Library and Gardens, which I mentioned in connection with railroad magnate Collis Huntington.)

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