BOOKS AND ARTS JULY 24, 2006
Black Swan Green
By David Mitchell
(Random House, 294 pp., $23.95)
'I liked it." Is there anything less interesting to say about a book? Every negative piece is negative in its own way: we remember with a grim chuckle Mark Twain's enumeration of James Fenimore Cooper's literary offenses ("There have been daring people in the world who claimed that Cooper could write English, but they are all dead now"), or Nabokov's epistolary rebuke of Edmund Wilson ("A patient confidant of his long and hopeless infatuation with the Russian language, I have always done my best to explain to him his mistakes of pronunciation, grammar, and interpretation"), or Dale Peck's excoriation in these pages of Rick Moody ("Rick Moody is the worst writer of his generation"). But happy reviews are all alike. A book's plot is engaging, the characters feel true, the writing is interesting. So what?
The writer seeking fresh language with which to express her enthusiasm soon discovers that this particular vocabulary has been colonized by p.r. flacks whipping up empty, fluffy blurbs. The result is that all praise now feels like exaggerated praise. Sixty years ago, Orwell famously complained of the book reviewer's clichés, the "stale old phrases" that get trotted out in the desperation of deadlines:"a book that no one should miss," "something memorable on every page." Nothing has changed, not even the syntax. In this blurbing age, we are still deluged by dizzy claims: that a novelist we know to be decidedly mediocre is "like a latter-day Dostoyevsky," or that a pop historian's latest hack job should be "required reading in living rooms from coast to coast," or that "every single note is perfection" in a piece of chick lit so bad that I could manage only a few chapters. New examples appear in the book reviews every week: recently Nadine Gordimer, in a hollowly glowing review of Philip Roth's Everyman, referred in passing to "his superbly matchless work, 'The Plot Against America.'" Whatever was right or wrong with The Plot Against America, in no meaningful sense can it be called "superbly matchless." We damn not with faint praise, but with hyperbole.
In an earlier essay, "In Defense of the Novel," published in 1936, Orwell argued that the inflation of praise is not only alienating to the reader, but actually damages the novel's prestige. Take it as a given that the majority of books published are something less than superbly matchless—that they are, in Orwell's word, "tripe." The reviewer is charged with offering an honest evaluation of what he reads.Yet various things prevent him from doing so. The first is the corruption of the book review industry, which Orwell described as a "simple and cynical swindle": "Z writes a book which is published by Y and reviewed by X in the Weekly W. If the review is a bad one Y will remove his advertisement, so X has to hand out 'unforgettable masterpiece' or get the sack." (This is an oversimplification, but it is not without an element of truth.) The second is that no one wants to read "This book is tripe" again and again, which means that "X has got to discover something which is not tripe, and pretty frequently, or get the sack." The only way to do so is to debase his standards:
To apply a decent standard to the ordinary run of novels is like weighing a flea on a spring-balance intended for elephants. On such a balance as that a flea would simply fail to register; you would have to start by constructing another balance which revealed the fact that there are big fleas and little fleas. And this approximately is what X does…. This means sinking his standards to a depth at which, say, Ethel M. Dell's Way of an Eagle is a fairly good book. But on a scale of values which makes The Way of an Eagle a good book, The Constant Nymph is a superb book, and The Man of Property is—what? A palpitating tale of passion, a terrific, soul-shattering masterpiece, an unforgettable epic which will last as long as the English language and so on and so forth. (As for any really good book, it would burst the thermometer.) … There is no way out of it when you have once committed the initial sin of pretending that a bad book is a good one. But you cannot review novels for a living without committing that sin. And meanwhile every intelligent reader turns away, disgusted, and to despise novels becomes a kind of snobbish duty. Hence the queer fact that it is possible for a novel of real merit to escape notice, merely because it has been praised in the same terms as tripe.
But is it really true that no one wants to read page after page of "This book is tripe"? Surely the health of book reviewing is endangered not by someone like Dale Peck—whose wildly negative piece on Rick Moody, which appeared four years ago, still comes up whenever the public conversation turns to the climate of literary judgment—but by those critics who, for a variety of reasons, reject straight talk about bad books. In her founding essay for The Believer, Heidi Julavits, positioning herself as a kind of anti-Peck, earnestly lamented a particular kind of critical attack as "snark": the act of reviewing a writer's career and publicity rather than his or her work, "a scornful, knowing tone frequently employed to mask an actual lack of information about books." Of course critics should review books rather than personalities—but that point seems to have gotten lost in the pages of Julavits's own magazine, which actually thrives on literary personalities (what other justification could there be for Nick Hornby's asinine column?), and where the desire for "nice reviewing" has thoroughly enervated the discussion. But other critics were noticeably reluctant to jump on Julavits's bandwagon, and even the "Snarkwatch" section of The Believer, intended as a bulletin board for the defanging of hostile critics, quietly disappeared soon after its inauguration.
Yet if "nice reviewing" has attracted few explicit defenders, a number of today's critics nonetheless seem to share a tacit understanding that it is somehow indecorous—what used to be called bad form—to come out and say that a book is bad. Peck's critics generally lambasted him not for the substance of his judgments, but for his unwillingness to play by what they determined to be the rules. "If you're going to be in it for the big run, you have to act responsibly," intoned Sven Birkerts, whom Peck had criticized precisely for his tendency to be overly generous in his criticism. (Birkerts did not elaborate on what he meant by this, but presumably, if you're "in it for the big run," whatever that means, you will inevitably run into some of your subjects at cocktail parties—or, worse, they will someday review your books.) John Leonard, in a scalding review of Hatchet Jobs, Peck's collected essays, in The New York Times Book Review, laid out his own idea of literary etiquette in these guidelines for "responsible reviewing": "First … do no harm. Second, never stoop to score a point or bite an ankle. Third, always understand that in this symbiosis, you are the parasite."
Leonard has never been able to abide by these rules himself. What critic could? And so his review of Hatchet Jobs is typically full of gleeful jibes and personal attacks. He concluded it with the following story:
Many years ago the editor of this publication asked me to review John Cheever's last, brief novel, "Oh What a Paradise It Seems," after he had already been turned down by half a dozen critics who knew that Cheever was dying but thought his new book a weak one and didn't want to compromise their supreme importance with a random act of kindness. It never occurred to me that a thank-you note to a wonderful writer, a valediction as it were, would get me kicked out of any club that I wanted to belong to, so I immediately said yes. At the time, besides that review, I wanted to write a message to those preening scribblers who thought they were too good for lesser Cheever. On a card, in small caps, I would have said what I say to Peck: GET OVER YOURSELF.
This self-aggrandizing little anecdote nicely illustrates the hypocrisy of "nice reviewing." The Cheever review with which Leonard is so pleased was actually a masterpiece of obfuscating generalities and flaccid platitudes that are immediately transparent to anyone with half a talent for reading between the lines. Such studies in opacity are hardly unusual. Just look at Robert Stone's recent notes—I can hardly call the piece a review, since it coyly refused to offer any assessment at all—on John Updike's turgid new novel, also in the Times Book Review. The theory behind Stone's affectation of neutrality was articulated in his interview with the editors, presented on the Book Review's inside front cover, in which he remarked that "the vocabulary of dismissal is something we've seen too many times. We don't need another exercise in that."
I doubt that the "preening scribblers" Leonard derides thought they were "too good" to review Cheever. I suspect, rather, that they were trying to show that, Orwell's pessimism notwithstanding, it is not impossible to review novels for a living without committing the sin of pretending that a bad book is a good book. For the reviewer's obligation is neither to the reader nor to the author, but to himself—and it is wrong to compromise one's integrity even for the sake of generosity. Who is served by Leonard's and Stone's dull and unconvincing pieties? Not the reader, who, if he is so naive as to take them seriously and actually read the recommended book, will surely be disappointed. Not the publishing industry, since, as Orwell pointed out, if readers are disappointed in novels often enough, they will stop buying them altogether. And certainly not the author, who must be canny enough to deduce the truth himself—or, in the case of Cheever, is subjected to posthumous humiliation at Leonard's supposedly noble hands. If these are the rules we are supposed to play by, I'm with Dale Peck.
Bad reviews are motivated by anger, but good reviews are motivated by love; and it is easier to become angry than to fall in love. Every reader had a first love, most likely in childhood: a book that we could not get enough of, and guarded selfishly for fear that someone else might come to think of it as their own; a book with which we identified completely; a book to which we probably would not want to return as adults for fear that it might not live up to our memories. Perhaps we were serial monogamists, who exhausted the entire work of one author only to move on to another the next month or year. Perhaps we were polygamists, who could not be satisfied by one book at a time, but had to have many all at once, from different genres and different time periods. But whatever our inclinations, over the years our capacity to love books becomes dulled by repeated frustration. Every time we pick up a book, we expect to fall in love; but after a certain number of disappointments, our expectation turns to mere hope; and eventually we give up even that.
But no true reader ever gives up entirely. We still want to be moved deeply; we are still looking for books that, as Orwell put it, will burst the thermometer. But for the critic, finding such a book brings its own set of problems. Falling in love, even with a book, makes you vulnerable, and most of us are not inclined to parade our vulnerabilities in public. Even worse, falling in love makes you blind to faults; and so you find yourself overcompensating, looking for flaws where none exist. Also, as a reader it is wonderful to be alone with your love, but the reviewer has a professional obligation to sing a good book's praises from the mountaintops. But how do you convince anyone that you have found "a novel of real merit" when the simplest phrases ("I liked it") are boring and the elaborate ones ("superbly matchless") have lost their meaning?
Of all the books that I have read as an adult, the novels of David Mitchell have come closest to resurrecting my own childhood reading utopia. A Briton who spent many years in Japan and now makes his home in Ireland, Mitchell has been quietly building momentum since his first novel, Ghostwritten, appeared in 1999. He has picked up honors and accolades, but he has also provoked a groundswell of popular excitement that is unusual for a novelist of his youth (he is thirty-seven) and his difficulty: each of his books is a complex literary puzzle that defies conventional narrative forms.The reviews of Mitchell's novels have been respectful but largely distant; the news of his writing has spread through that age-old marketing mechanism, word of mouth. I was first introduced to Mitchell by an acquaintance who handed me Ghostwritten with the words "This is different." It was not long before I passed my copy on to a friend with the same recommendation.
It seems somehow appropriate that Mitchell's novels would find their readers through personal contacts, because on their most fundamental level all his books are concerned with the connections between human beings, and with the relationship between those connections and some grander idea of the universe. Ghostwritten comprises nine self-contained chapters, each of which takes place in a different setting—Tokyo, St. Petersburg, rural Ireland—with different primary characters. The stories are all connected by the literary equivalent of a glance—a wrong number dialed on the phone, a shared train compartment, a collision on the street that knocks a pedestrian out of the path of a taxicab—to form a mosaic of the human condition at the end of the second millennium, which culminates in a terrifyingly original vision of possible apocalypse. Number 9Dream, which appeared in 2001, follows a sixteen-year-old boy on a search for his father in a ghastly journey around Tokyo and its environs, which becomes an ever-shifting landscape of fantasy and reality. Cloud Atlas, Mitchell's third novel, takes the kaleidoscope of Ghostwritten and multiplies it to the nth power: it features six distinct (but, again, linked) storylines, each with its own plot, characters, genre, and sometimes dialect; and each set in a different part of the globe and in a different time period, from the South Seas in the mid-nineteenth century to the Far East in the almost-foreseeable future to Hawaii at what might be the end of the world.
In the hands of a less talented writer, all these innovations could feel like nothing more than pyrotechnics, a writer's excuse for showing off his smarts. When a writer's delight in the edifice he has constructed subsumes his delight in his fiction, then the book can feel like an empty stage on which the novelist declaims his own cleverness. (Paul Auster and William T. Vollmann are among the contemporary writers who suffer from this problem.) Mitchell has been accused of being both deliberately difficult and not serious enough: the Sunday Telegraph caused a mini-tempest by declaring that it would not review Cloud Atlas because the critic to whom the assignment was made had found the novel "unreadable," whereas in The New York Times Mitchell's gambits were called "obvious" and his book "not nearly as smart as its author." But when the method works, as it does in Borges or Joyce or Nabokov or Calvino, the literary puzzle serves as an immensely entertaining point of entry into the deeper reality of the fiction. And it reminds us that all great literature is a puzzle to be fitted together by the reader, who happily engages in the mental work of sorting its various characters and plots and images and allusions until something resembling a coherent picture takes shape.
With Black Swan Green, Mitchell seems to have paused for breath. The new novel is the least formally innovative of any of Mitchell's fictions so far, which comes as a certain relief after the hyperkinesis of Cloud Atlas; it is as if, after expanding the novel form to something approaching its outer limits, he has collapsed it back in again. The book takes place in thirteen consecutive chapters, one for each month from January 1982 to January 1983. Its territory is decidedly more mundane than the gangster underworld of Tokyo or the doomsday wreckage of the Americas: a bad marriage turning worse; the torments of school; the first crush, first cigarette, first encounter with the world of ideas beyond Black Swan Green, the claustrophobically cozy village where Jason Taylor, the book's narrator, is growing up. (The local joke is that there are no swans of any color.) But on the level of language, Black Swan Green is Mitchell's most adventuresome work yet. The difference is that while language previously played a supporting role to his formal experimentation, here he performs his experiments within the medium of language itself, and with brilliant results.
To understand Mitchell's method, it is worth going back for a moment to Ghostwritten, in which one of the nine narrators is an invented being: a disembodied spirit that calls itself a "noncorpum," which travels the planet transmigrating from one person to another, scouring the consciousnesses of its human "hosts" and assimilating their memories and knowledge as its own: "I knew their secrets, the bends of the village's streams and the names of its dogs. I knew their rare pleasures that burned out as quickly as they flamed up, and the memories that kept them from freezing." This roving spirit is a perfect image for the way Mitchell works. Like his noncorpum, he roams among fantastically diverse characters, discovering their secrets and pleasures and memories, and inhabiting them fully yet invisibly.
The result is a narrative that feels at once private and universal, intimately in tune with each character's thoughts and feelings and spoken in a language that he or she might actually use. No other contemporary writer I know has depicted in such a honest yet readable way what really goes on inside the human head—not just the scattered fragments of half-thoughts, but more importantly the narratives that we tell ourselves about our own lives. It testifies to Mitchell's profound understanding of his characters that his penchant for re-using them in his later work—in one particularly amusing example, Neal Brose, the corrupt Hong Kong banker in Ghostwritten, appears in Black Swan Green as a teenage budding capitalist—never feels gimmicky, but only deepens his fictional world.
Since the language of Mitchell's fiction is always constructed to the specifications of whatever character he is inhabiting at the moment, stepping into it is initially bewildering. Consider this passage near the beginning of Black Swan Green, in which Jason describes the hierarchy among the boys at his school:
Moron's my height and he's okay but Jesus he pongs of gravy. Moron wears ankle-flappers from charity shops and lives down Druggers End in a brick cottage that pongs of gravy too. His real name's Dean Moran (rhymes with "warren") but our P.E. teacher Mr. Carver started calling him "Moron" in our first week and it's stuck. I call him "Dean" if we're on our own but names aren't just names. Kids who're really popular get called by their first names, so Nick Yew's always just "Nick." Kids who're a bit popular like Gilbert Swinyard have sort of respectful nicknames like "Yardy." Next down are kids like me who call each other by our surnames. Below us are kids with piss-take nicknames like Moran Moron or Nicholas Briar, who's Knickerless Bra. It's all ranks, being a boy, like the army. If I called Gilbert Swinyard just "Swinyard," he'd kick my face in.
This is a lot to throw at an uninitiated reader. Some of it is ordinary British slang, which probably sounds odder to the American ear than it actually is ("pongs of gravy," "ankle-flappers"). But the creative re-naming of everything and everybody that Jason describes—"names aren't just names"—takes place on multiple levels. Sometimes the novel uses words that Jason himself does not understand, though he pretends to ("I didn't dare ask what a 'Brummie' was in case it's the same as 'bummer' or 'bumboy,' which means homo"). Names reflect deeper truths as well as popularity rankings: Jason's eighteen-year-old sister Julia calls him "Thing," and he refers to his own dark side as "Unborn Twin" or "Maggot." And word choices must be constantly recalibrated: Jason is fond of using "epic," a synonym for "cool" that is usually italicized for added impact ("The lake in the woods was epic"), but after cooler kids tell him repeatedly that nobody says it anymore, he finally gives it up, at least in public.
Language is a particular obsession for Jason for two reasons. The first is that he suffers from a debilitating stammer, which provides much fodder for the book's comic moments but causes him no end of anguish. He nicknames it Hangman, because it first appeared during a game of hangman at school, but also because he imagines it with "snaky fingers that sink inside my tongue and squeeze my windpipe so nothing'll work":
The only way to outfox Hangman is to think one sentence ahead, and if you see a stammer-word coming up, alter your sentence so you won't need to use it. Of course, you have to do this without the person you're talking to catching on. Reading dictionaries like I do helps you do these ducks and dives, but you have to remember who you're talking to. (If I was speaking to another thirteen- year-old and said the word "melancholy" to avoid stammering on "sad," for example, I'd be a laughingstock 'cause kids aren't s'posed to use adult words like "melancholy."…) Another strategy is to buy time by saying "er …" in the hope that Hangman's concentration'll lapse and you can sneak the word out. But if you say "er …" too much you come across as a right dimmer. Lastly, if a teacher asks you a question directly and the answer's a stammer-word, it's best to pretend you don't know. I couldn't count how often I've done this. Sometimes teachers lose their rag (specially if they've just spent half a lesson explaining something) but anything's better than getting labeled "School Stutterboy."
Jason's linguistic creativity is not limited to his games with Hangman; he is a writer, publishing his poems in the parish newsletter under the pseudonym Eliot Bolivar. And the language of the novel mimics Jason's own experiments as he tries to find his voice. Sometimes the results are as unintentionally hilarious as his nom de plume, especially when the subject has anything to do with sex, which Jason is still too immature to comprehend. (Spying on a couple making love, he observes that the girl makes a sound "like a tortured Moomintroll.") Sometimes his prose suffers from a case of similes gone wild: the sky over the English Channel is "as turquoise as Head and Shoulders shampoo"; "beef gristle tastes like deep-sea phlegm." Sometimes he careens wildly between the literary and the mundane: "Bluebells swarmed in pools of light where the sun got through the trees…. Blackbirds sang like they'd die if they didn't. Birdsong's the thoughts of a wood. Beautiful, it was, but boys aren't allowed to say 'beautiful' 'cause it's the gayest word going…. A peardrop sun dissolved in a sloped pond. Superheated flies grandprixed over the water. Trees at the height of their blossom bubbled dark cream by a rotted bandstand."
But even when his registers are off, Jason is magnificently inventive. Neil Young "sings like a barn collapsing." An elderly lady who admires Jason's poetry "schwurked wine round her mouth." Crossing a parking lot in the rain, he jumps "from dry bit to dry bit like James Bond froggering across the crocodiles' backs." And sometimes he gets things just right. The lake where he smokes his first cigarette with his cousin Hugo is "nervous with riplets and counterriplets." Tulips in his mother's garden are "black plum, emulsion white, and yolky gold." During a pause in one of his parents' fights, "something silent smashed without being dropped." After Jason's nemesis, Ross Wilcox, pushes him into a mud puddle in front of everybody, "a fresh bomb of laughter blew me into tiny bits." A playing field in autumn is "the color paintbrush water goes." By the end of the novel Jason has yet to master his stutter, but he is gradually learning to bring the written word under his control. After exposing a classmate who has been running an extortion racket, he reflects with satisfaction on the astonishment of his peers: "That appalled silence was my handiwork. Words made it. Just words."
Mitchell has always paid sly homage to his literary heroes. Nabokov and Borges are the patron saints of Ghostwritten, and Melville has a disguised cameo in Cloud Atlas. In Black Swan Green, Mitchell acknowledges his debts even more explicitly. Jason's writing exercises take him on a tour of the young adult classics, and part of the fun of reading the novel is tracking the references, which appear in unexpected places. Jason tries on a variety of styles: the first chapter, a ghost story, references the Brothers Grimm, while Jason's torment by the class bullies comes to a head against the backdrop of Lord of the Flies. But the book's guiding spirit is Henri Alain-Fournier, whose brief novel Le Grand Meaulnes is perhaps the paradigmatic novel of adolescence.
Le Grand Meaulnes (the title is untranslatable, but it means something like "The Great Meaulnes") is a gorgeously written, shamelessly nostalgic book that owes much of its mystique to the tragedy of its author, who was killed in World War I at age twenty-eight. It contains two parallel narratives. The first is the story of the book's narrator, François Sorel, the invalid son of a country schoolmaster whose life is transformed one day by the arrival of Augustin Meaulnes, a new student who quickly becomes the object of François's veneration. The second is the story of Meaulnes himself, who loses his way one day on an errand and finds himself at a ramshackle country estate, where a band of children are celebrating a grand party in honor of the marriage of Franz de Galais, himself just a teenager. Meaulnes falls instantly in love with Franz's sister Yvonne, but the party dissolves hastily when word arrives that the marriage has been called off. Returning home, Meaulnes becomes fixated on what happened to him at the strange estate, which takes on an almost magical quality, and obsessively pores over maps in the hope of finding his way back to Yvonne, eventually setting off on another journey that will have even more profound consequences.
In Mitchell's novel, Le Grand Meaulnes becomes Jason's first point of contact with the world of literature beyond the typical boyish escapes of science fiction and comics—he is introduced to it by the elderly poetry-lover, who briefly takes charge of his education. (It also appears, comically, in a scene that takes place on the grounds of an insane asylum.) On the surface, Mitchell's thoroughly contemporary, acerbic, unsentimental tone seems to have little in common with Alain-Fournier's dreamy confection. But the two books, separated by almost a century, are preoccupied with the same basic themes of adolescence: first love, the disruption of parental relationships, the allure of an older role model, the dark secret that must finally be brought to light, and most of all the fascination of the world beyond home and school. For it is only in leaving home—and all the great novels of adolescence are quest novels, from Huck Finn rafting down the Mississippi to Holden Caulfield's tour of New York City—that one can become an adult, which is the unspoken object of each of these quests.By the end of the novel, Jason will leave Black Swan Green, as he must.
Until now, Mitchell has seemed far more interested in the world beyond, understood in the largest sense: the climax of Ghostwritten takes place at a satellite's remove from Earth, while Cloud Atlas reaches into a future that is barely recognizable as our own. The surprise of Black Swan Green is not, as some critics have suggested, that Mitchell has written a "conventional" novel (it is far more original than that drab description suggests). It is that he has written a domestic novel, a novel that is contained entirely within the everyday concerns of a thirteen-year-old boy rather than taking on the deepest mysteries of the universe. At first glance, this seems a narrowing of focus, but it is actually a broadening. For the writer who is truly and deeply interested in how the world works, everything about it is worth learning how to describe, even beef gristle.
A book that so deliberately sets out to rewrite a genre seems to demand comparison with its forebears. So I feel I should say that Black Swan Green is the funniest novel of adolescence since Catcher in the Rye, or the most painful portrait of boyish aggression since Lord of the Flies, or the most inventive depiction of teenage language since A Clockwork Orange, or the most nuanced account of the loss of innocence since Le Grand Meaulnes. But all that sounds far too much like the cackling of the blurbs. So I will just say that I liked it.
Ruth Franklin is a senior editor of The New Republic.