Monday, May 28, 2007

A Book Break: Reading on Vacation

The vacation’s now taken a recuperative turn, it seems: the challenges of the move and working on the house were put on hold at the beginning of the month with the advent of what turned out to be a “Pulled Muscle” and the consequent discovery of two hernias. While I’m still getting around, I’m not doing that much (and that fairly gingerly) but then there’s nothing wrong with a vacation that’s simply “resting.” The piano isn’t here yet, so it’s not a writing vacation, allowing me time off from work so I can concentrate on composing (which is how I normally spend my spring vacation-time), and the intention of making one last assault on the move has been put off yet a little further.

In fact, it was May 1st – the day the “Pulled Muscle” finalized itself into something needing immediate attention – I began reading Black Swan Green by David Mitchell. I’d seen this when it came out in hardback but decided to wait, considering all the other things on my To Read List, but I couldn’t resist once I saw it in paperback. Last year, I read his much-talked-about “Cloud Atlas” and wrote about it here and here. While that is a rich and complex novel, this one passes on a much simpler level.

But I don’t think it’s possible for David Mitchell to tell a story simply. Given the richness of the allusions in “Cloud Atlas,” there are numerous similar but more subtle allusions in “Black Swan Green” (the title comes from the town, built around a green or park which not only has no black swans but not even any white swans). Many of these might be more self-evident to a wider-read reader than myself who’s never even read “Catcher in the Rye” (how is that possible?!) much less Henri Alain-Fournier’s Les grand Meaulnes (available here in French or in this English translation as ‘The Lost Estate’ in December 2007) which figures in one of the more fantastic chapters as a writing assignment dropped, unfortunately, after the disappearance of the delightfully eccentric character who might otherwise become his mentor.

But I’ve read “Cloud Atlas” and immediately recognized this eccentric would-be mentor, an old aristocratic Belgian woman, her imaginative English filtered through her native French, who in Mitchell’s previous novel had been a not very sympathetic would-be love interest, Mme. Eva van Outreyve de Crommelynck, for the young composer whose music also figures prominently in this chapter, Robert Frobisher and his “Cloud Atlas Sextet.” I suspect, given other references that might slip under my imperceptive radar, there must be many more from other works with at least some nodding reference just as Mitchell pastiched his way through the nesting-doll novel “Cloud Atlas” with overt references to numerous styles and plot-lines to create a world-ranging tapestry spanning centuries but here, in “Black Swan Green,” spanning a mere year in an otherwise unremarkable village in the life of a potentially remarkable adolescent who, judging from his exterior life and the perceptions of those around him, would be considered just another unremarkable 13-year-old named Jason Taylor.

Part of the boy’s problem is, he wants to write poetry but he can hardly let the bullies at school know he does this because they’d beat him up for sure. He can’t tell his parents because they’d tell someone else in the village, maybe some kid would overhear them and then tell another kid at school and pretty soon the bullies would find out and it’s all over, so he signs himself “Eliot Bolivar” and publishes them in the parish magazine.

There is a fine line between the boy’s fantasy world and the reality he lives in yet frequently, discursively and usually considerably later do we discover what seemed a fantasy was in fact reality. Since I chose to read it as if it were all reality – in the sense it was all real to the boy as so much of my own life as a 13-year-old was real to me, fantasy or not – I probably missed some of the magic these transitions took.

Like many children, he has several interior personalities – the Unborn Twin (like Evil Twin) who retorts to situations the way he’d want to but knows if he did he’d get the crap beat out of him; Maggot, his image of low self-esteem; and most strikingly, Hangman, the character who lays in wait for him whenever he is about to say a word that would make him stutter. For his biggest shame is being a stutterer which he tries to control by outwitting Hangman, realizing a stutter-word is about to come up so that he can replace it with a better word. This awareness of words – not to mention thinking ahead – plays into his writing poetry. The novel veers back and forth between typically inscrutable teen-age slang and pseudo-Proustian aphorisms, some of which are very poetic and others make you stop and wonder “what 13-year-old would come up with that?” While many of his experiences – like the meetings with Mme. Crommeylinck – go beyond the usual aesthetics of most 13-year-olds, they’re also left incomplete: perhaps, like Mme. Crommeylinck, Jason Taylor will end up in a future novel as a successful (or failed) poet, an adult where these early influences will now be realized.

(By the way, Neal Brose, one of the other school kids and something of a nasty piece of work with a certain gift for financial projects, was introduced as a divorced, failing financier in “Ghostwritten,” one of Mitchell’s earlier novels: if we continue Eva Crommelynck forward in time from “Cloud Atlas,” here we take Neal Brose backward in time.)

There are thirteen unnumbered chapters in “Black Swan Green.” The Golden Section of the book (always difficult to calculate according to numbers of pages or estimated numbers of words) occurs during the 8th chapter, ‘Souvenirs,’ a neatly spanned chapter that begins with his experiences on holiday with his dad in the first part and then with his mum in the second part (the only sections of the book that place Jason outside the claustrophobic village of Black Swan Green). There are seven chapters before ‘Souvenirs’ and five chapters after it. While Jason has numerous interior personalities, the one least typical of a 13-year-old boy is the would-be poet, Eliot Bolivar (5 letters + 7 letters). One of the souvenirs he buys is a series of 13 postcards, each with a different dinosaur "but if you put them end to end in order, the background landscape joins up and forms a frieze." Though the various chapters of the book are self-contained, they do, in the end, form a very neatly done frieze.

And there’s also a bit of a palindrome in the construction here, less overt than the one organizing the various chapters of “Cloud Atlas”: many events in the first segment are referenced or completed (or realized) in the second. The first and last chapters are both called “January Man” and the final line is “That’s because it’s not the end.”

– Dr. Dick

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