18 June 2011

Two Novels by David Mitchell

David Mitchell has been swarming up my totem-pole of favourite writers with remarkable agility of late. Years ago, I read Ghostwritten and loved it. A few weeks ago I finished number9dream and was mightily impressed. Now here’s Black Swan Green, another five-star read in my book.

 Black Swan Green

If you’re only a sophomore reader (meaning: if what a book’s ‘about’ is still the main criterion of whether or not you will pick it up and read it), a synopsis of the plot of Black Swan Green may well put you right off. The subject isn’t new, and it isn’t exactly heart-thumping stuff either. An English boy comes of age in a Worcestershire village west of the Malvern Hills. It’s not a particularly remarkable location, neither is it a dump. It’s middle-class Middle England.

The boy, Jason Taylor, is likewise unremarkable. The only unusual things about him are that he stutters, and can apparently write poetry. He is the narrator of his own story, telling us about his life at school, games and fights with other kids his age, efforts to be accepted by his peers, and early adolescent experiments with sex and love. He tells us about his family life even as his home is breaking up around him. Finally, he tells us about a moral decision he made, and we realize that it will determine for good the kind of man he will grow up to be. That’s pretty much the whole story.

But what David Mitchell is good at is making things matter, the way they matter to us in real life. Although the elements of Jason’s story are everyday occurrences, what Mitchell wants is to show us how questions and decisions of vast, life-changing importance can turn on just such trivial events, how our responses to them are shaped by who we are, and how they in turn shape us. Jason, in the book, often uses the word ‘epic’ as a term of enthusiastic approval (as other teenagers might use brilliant, cool or excellent), and one is tempted to read this as an ironic pedal point used to highlight the book’s key conceit. The things that happen to Jason Taylor and those around him in the village of Black Swan Green are small, as things go, yet their implications are epic. This is a book about the heroic character of ordinary life, and as such is is an unqualified success. We tremble for Jason Taylor as we might tremble for Jason of Iolcos. Indeed, we may tremble harder, since it is easier for most of us to relate to a modern schoolboy than to an ancient Attic hero.

This is, above all, a moral tale. There’s not a word of preaching in it, but we are made aware from the outset that is the hero’s integrity that is at stake. The moral issues are presented imaginatively, as well as clearly and comprehensively; it speaks volumes of Mitchell’s technique as a writer that he achieves this in the authentic narrative voice of a middle-class English schoolboy of the 1980s. Even though the reported speech of other, older characters is often pressed into service to help, making this work without ever dragging Jason out of character cannot have been easy.

One is obliged to salute an author capable of such technical virtuosity. Yet technique and virtuosity are not the visible hallmarks of Black Swan Green. Lovers of Italo Calvino will probably find little to titillate them here. This is a book about feeling: about the emotional bases of our shared humanity and how we become the people we are. I have rarely felt so warmly towards a book I’ve just finished as I do toward this one.


I’m not sure if Mitchell‘s premise in this novel – namely, that Japan is a society run by and for the yakuza, who manipulate politicians and bureaucrats like puppets – is true, but the fact that he can actually make a sceptic like me wonder about it is sufficient testament to his skill as a writer. Happily, it is the least of such evidences here presented. This is literature disguised as a thriller, but unlike most literary fiction it has a satisfactory plot and a proper ending. That the proper ending is actually a false one makes it even better.

Indeed, I don’t see how this book could be more perfect.

Like Black Swan Green, number9dream is a coming-of-age novel. Eiji Miyake is considerably older than Jason Taylor; he is emerging from the long, dark tunnel of adolescence, into which Jason is just entering. Jason is a city boy, more or less, who happens to live in a village; Eiji is a village boy finding his feet in the high-tech anthill of metropolitan Tokyo. He is there partly because there is nothing left for young people in his dying, depopulated home village, but mostly he is there to find his father. Eiji and his sister are the children of a rich and successful Japanese businessman, a man of very high status, and a mistress with a drinking problem whom the businessman later rejects. The mistress returns in shame to her home village to bear her bastards (twins, a boy and a girl), whom she then abandons. Eiji and his sister are brought up by their grandmother.

Eiji’s quest for his father forms the backbone of the plot of number9dream. His search takes him on a tour of Tokyo, from the fortresslike office buildings of the rich and powerful to the tacky pachinko pleasure-domes of the masses, taking in along the way such varied scenery as a top-rank geisha club, a sleazy love-hotel, abandoned pork-barrel building-sites and ‘bridges to nowhere’, a central railway station and a street directory’s worth of video parlours, capsule hotels, coffee shops and noodle stalls. Mitchell, who lived and taught in Tokyo for years, is strong on local colour. He has an amazing gift for felicitous description (at one point, he even manages to make the struggles of a cockroach in a sticky trap fascinate us), and generally manages to bring the place to frenetic, neon-dazzle life.

But the real pleasure of number9dream, as with all Mitchell’s novels, is not the setting but the characters. His gift for character-drawing seems to be based on a preternatural ear for dialogue and a clear-eyed empathy that enables him effectively to be his characters. This was apparent in his first novel, Ghostwritten, which was also excellent, but here it is on display in a fuller flowering. Every character in number9dream (and there are many) has his or her unique voice, easily distinguished from all the rest. This is a marvellous gift, one many great novelists lack: male characters in Nabokov or Hemingway, for example, all speak with their author’s voice, or else in some tin-eared simulacrum of vernacular speech. Mitchell has a better ear for individual turns of speech than either of these masters. Best of all, he makes his characters distinct from one another without turning them into caricatures as Dickens was obliged, for his market, to do.

Eiji Miyake’s search for his father is complicated by his father’s unwillingness to be found, as well as by the other imperatives of Eiji’s life, such as falling in love with a coffee-shop waitress who dreams of being, against her family’s will, a concert pianist. The biggest obstacle, however, turns out to be the yakuza, Japan’s equivalent of the mafia, into whose toils he unwittingly falls in the course of his search. Slowly, Eiji comes to learn – and we learn it too, sharing the discovery and his astonishment at it – that Japanese society is run by and for the yakuza, who have all the bureaucrats and politicians in their pockets and who allow the Emperor to continue as a figurehead, just as the shoguns did in the bad old days. In fact, we are brought to believe that the yakuza are simply the modern-day successors of the shoguns, and that Japanese society has changed little in this respect since pre-Meiji times.

Whether this is true or not I cannot tell; I have never been to Japan and have few Japanese acquaintances. However, it would seem to explain a lot of what foreigners find mysterious about Japan: the paralysis of its government, the power of its bureacrats, the silent, cowed conformity of the masses and the country’s apparent helplessness to extricate itself from the mire of stagnation and decrepitude in which it now seems trapped. However that may be, Mitchell makes us believe it, at least for the duration of the novel – another testimonial to his powers as a writer.

But all this is peripheral stuff: at the core of number9dream is Eiji’s story – one that feels, not just real and true, but also important and satisfying. This novel ranks among the best I’ve read.