Monday, May 28, 2007

I Love 1982

I'd not had any great rush to read David Mitchell's "Black Swan Green" since - him being two years younger than me - I had a feeling a book about being an adolescent boy in a small town in the early 80s wasn't exactly going to tell me anything I didn't already know. It's thankfully a little light on period detail - too many ra-ra skirts and rubik's cube and I'd have felt it was trying too hard - whilst far fuller with the remembered detail of everyday life, the what's it like to be a kid. The difference's with now are interesting - TV and video and video games are exotic possibilities only - whilst the kids in the novel are free to wander - only rarely been given a lift somewhere by their parents. School is a battleground, where you have to make sure you don't become one of the stricken, hated by everyone in the school. Mitchell's brilliant on the school hierarchies, and thankfully, and rare in English fiction, its actual a real school, a village comp, where this "fitting in" is all that really matters - not being clever, or good at football or getting on. The more rarified world of the middle classes is more seen in Jason's home life, where his elder sister dates boys with sports cars, and his parents, mired in a crumbling suburban marriage, are willing participants in their own facade. Honestly, I could have written most of the book, so uncannily similar are the school scenes - and in fact I think I did, in two novels I wrote for the Lichfield Prize. Mind, where Mitchell's backdrop is the Falklands War, I wrote about the Queen's Jubilee. With a lead character who is "triple invisible" because of his stammer, because he doesn't want to be bullied, and because his parents are falling apart, we have an observant narrator which is the book's real strength. Although it's about his life, he's neither important or unimportant enough to dominate. Like all of Mitchell's books, theres a sense that this is partially a collection of short stories - and I'm reminded of Sherwood Anderson's "Winesburg, Ohio" for its interlinked stories of small town life. There's a fantastical element as well, seen through an adolescent's eyes, still not too grown up to make up stories, which serves the novel well. I'm reminded a little of Kate Atkinson, or even that master of adolescent fiction, Stephen King. What passes for plot is diversionary enough - very much a novel of the provinces - my old tutor Richard Francis would find much he recognises here. Though no tour de force like "Cloud Atlas" there is much to recommend it, yet in some ways it's likeability is perhaps its downfall. Jason so wants to be liked, to fit in, and so does the novel. The plot comes across as a little too pat, the middle England novel of early Kingsley Amis, with small details telegraphed across the pages to link the episodes, and though Mitchell sometimes able to be able to write beautifully and believably about everything, his gypsies are a particularly ripe charicature I could have done without. Its real strength is Jason himself, a sensitive boy on the verge of adolescence, toppling over into it, as the world around him gets increasingly confusing. The book often talks about "truth" and he is a true character; yet the world of Black Swan Green, so typically English, so neither one thing or another (in one telling detail: "Black Swan Green closes on a Saturday afternoon. England clsoes on a Saturday afternoon.), can never be the kind of canvas that might have made a better book. If the "I Love 1982" programmes are about nostalgia, it is this "safety" of the past that comes across as nostalgic in this book. Nobody (that matters) gets hurt. Like Zadie Smith, there seems an unwillingness in Mitchell - or perhaps in his readers - to delve into any real darkness. I recognise that cosiness, since I've used it in my own writing, but I guess what I'm looking for - as reader and writer - IS something darker, is something with a greater truth. There are some good jokes - his dad works for supermarket chain Greenland - and a few anachronisms, (was "a bit gay" really in use as a phrase then to describe things that are weak? Which Roxy Music album was he playing that included "Virginia Plain"? Must have been the TV advertised greatest hits...). I have a feeling this is a book that he had in his locker - even before success - two chapters appeared earlier in Granta and New Writing - so is more a byway than a follow up to "Cloud Atlas." Much to recommend it, but unlikely to blow you away. I love 1982 myself, but mine was a little darker than this. (Worth re-reading Lee Rourke's thoughtful review of it here.)

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