Outfoxing Hangman

Thomas Jones

  • Black Swan Green by David Mitchell
    Sceptre, 371 pp, £16.99, May 2006, ISBN 0 340 82279 1

David Mitchell’s first book, Ghostwritten (1999), which describes itself as ‘a novel in nine parts’, is a collection of loosely interconnected stories. The protagonist of one will have a walk-on role in the next; a minor character from someone else’s story will later reappear as the narrator of their own. The first narrator is a member of a Japanese doomsday cult, the perpetrator of a poison gas attack on the Tokyo subway, now on the run in Okinawa. He makes a phone call to a secret emergency number, believing that this will summon the help of his cult’s secret service. ‘The dog needs to be fed,’ he says. The second narrator is a teenager who works in a secondhand record shop in Tokyo. He’s just about to leave for the day when the phone rings. ‘The dog needs to be fed,’ says a ‘soft, worried’ voice. He assumes it must be a wrong number, and thinks no more about it. But it delays him long enough for him to encounter someone he otherwise wouldn’t have done – and so the chain of unintended, unforeseeable and far-reaching consequences continues.

The action travels westward, moving from Japan to Hong Kong, a ‘Holy Mountain’ in China, Mongolia, St Petersburg, London, an island off the west coast of Ireland, New York, before returning to Tokyo, completing its orbit of the globe in a tenth chapter which must count as belonging to the first of the novel’s nine parts, since it, too, is narrated by the Japanese cult member.

The narrator of the fifth, central story is a ghost or, as he calls himself, a noncorpum, capable of possessing people and manipulating their bodies and minds without their realising. He is on a quest ‘to find the source of the story that was already there, right at the beginning of “I”, sixty years ago. The story began: There are three who think about the fate of the world.’ He transmigrates from one host to another with increasing speed, but he isn’t able to control some of them – including, fatally, a KGB-trained sociopathic assassin – as fully as he’d expected: perhaps if he spent longer with them, he’d have a clearer sense of what they’re like.

In one, rather obvious sense, he represents the spirit of narrative, moving between characters and determining their thoughts and behaviour in the service of a story. In another, narrower sense, he is a metonym for Mitchell’s method in the novel as a whole. And once this thought has taken hold, it can be hard to hear the narrators’ voices as their own rather than as that of the novelist speaking through them. The ventriloquist’s lips are moving most visibly in the case of a physicist who has developed a new kind of artificial intelligence known as ‘quantum cognition’. She sees quantum mechanics less as a way of explaining the behaviour of subatomic particles than as a source of metaphors for describing the macroscopic world.

Mitchell’s second novel, number9dream (2001), has only one narrator, Eiji Miyake, a naive young man from the provinces who has come to Tokyo to find his father, who abandoned his mother before he and his twin sister were born. The book is, like its predecessor, nominally divided into nine parts, but the ninth part of number9dream consists merely of a few blank pages. Sticking with one protagonist doesn’t mean Mitchell has to be straightforward. Each section alternates between Miyake’s adventures in Tokyo and another story: either one he is telling himself (a series of fantasies, or memories, or dreams), or one that he is reading (the diary of his great-uncle, written while preparing for a submarine suicide mission towards the end of World War Two, or a series of whimsical fables about a ‘Goatwriter’ that he finds in a house where he is hiding from gangsters). Some of them – notably Miyake’s childhood memories – work better than others: the Goatwriter stories, full of irritating sub-Joycean rhymes and puns, seem the work of a writer struggling to fulfil his self-imposed schema.

Cloud Atlas (2004), Mitchell’s third novel, has the most elaborate schema of all: six narratives embedded one within another, like a set of Russian dolls. The journal of an American notary crossing the Pacific in the 1850s is interrupted midway through, and mid-sentence, by a series of letters from a young English composer in Belgium in the 1920s, who comes across the notary’s journal, now torn in half. The recipient of those letters, fifty years later, is involved in an attempt to unmask the nefarious goings on at a nuclear plant in California. And so on.

The first half of the novel consists of the beginnings of six stories; the second half consists of their endings, in reverse order – so the sixth story, set in the aftermath of a nuclear war, is told straight through, and the novel ends with the conclusion of the notary’s journal. Cloud Atlas is inspired in part by If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller. When he read Calvino’s book as a student, Mitchell says that his ‘curiosity got stung to its core by the question, “What would a novel where interrupted narratives are continued later look like?”’ But one of the reasons If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller is so impressive is that its beginnings don’t require continuation, indeed would be spoiled by it: they are open-ended, but self-contained. Cloud Atlas is routinely described as ambitious, but hubristic might be a more fitting epithet. It is not so much one big novel as a collection of short-winded novellas, each with a beginning and an end, but not much of a middle. All the postmodern trickery in the world can’t disguise the fact that Cloud Atlas is, like a matrioshka, hollow at its core.

So the narrowing of focus in Mitchell’s new novel is to be welcomed. Black Swan Green is set in a village in Worcestershire, England’s ‘most boring county’, as the narrator tells a girl from Blackburn he meets on holiday in Lyme Regis. It is concerned not with globalisation, artificial intelligence, cloning, the legacy of colonialism or the impending self-destruction of the human race, but with the everyday difficulties of being a 13-year-old boy. The plot doesn’t cross continents or span centuries, but records one year – 1982 – in the life of Jason Taylor.

Jason lives with his parents and older sister at No. 9 (of course) Kingfisher Meadows: they moved to the village soon after Jason was born and, like other recent arrivals, are quietly resented by the locals. His sister, Julia, is in her last year at school; his father is a middle manager for a supermarket chain; his mother is a housewife when the novel opens, but gets a job running a gallery in Cheltenham, against her husband’s will, halfway through. Black Swan Green doesn’t lack a schema, but it’s a refreshingly simple one: there are 13 chapters, one for each month of the year and one for January 1983, which has the same title, ‘January Man’, as the first chapter. The novel has come full circle, only to find itself in a very different place.

Each chapter contains a discrete episode, though a chain of consequences runs through the book. In the first ‘January Man’, the lake in the woods has frozen over, and all the village teenagers have gone down to play British bulldogs on the ice. In a couple of pages, ‘twenty or twenty-five of us boys, plus Dawn Madden’ are introduced to the reader in a bewildering welter of names: Dean Moran, Nick Yew, Gilbert Swinyard, Nicholas Briar, Floyd Chaceley, Neal Brose, Pete Redmarley, Ross Wilcox, Gary Drake, ‘Squelch’, Grant Burch, Philip Phelps, Lee Biggs, the Tookey brothers, Ant Little, Darren Croome. There are too many to take in, but almost all of them feature more or less prominently later in the novel, and one of the difficulties of being a teenager, too often oversimplified in stories, is having to negotiate the social complexities of large groups of other people you’re thrown together with.

Later in the day, Jason goes back down to the lake by himself. He slips and falls, spraining his ankle and, worse, destroying his most treasured possession: the watch he inherited from his grandfather, ‘an Omega Seamaster de Ville. Granddad bought it off a real live Arab in a port called Aden in 1949.’ That he has smashed his grandfather’s watch is the first of many secrets, both his own and other people’s, which Jason has to decide whether to keep or disclose. Sometimes he keeps quiet out of an instinct for self-preservation: having seen, by chance, a couple of older teenagers, Tom Yew and Debby Crombie, having sex in the woods, he considers telling his friend Dean. But:

The chain of gossip laid itself out link by link. I’d tell Moran. Moran’d tell his sister Kelly. Kelly’d tell Pete Redmarley’s sister Ruth. Ruth Redmarley’d tell Pete Redmarley. Pete Redmarley’d tell Nick Yew. Nick Yew’d tell Tom Yew. Tom Yew’d come round to my house this evening on his Suzuki 150cc, tie me in a sack, and drown me in the lake in the woods.

Sometimes nobler motives trump self-preservation. In order to qualify for membership of a local gang, Jason and Dean have to hedgehop across six back gardens in less than 15 minutes without being caught. Jason goes first. Behind him, Dean crashes through the roof of a greenhouse. The rest of the gang scarper. But Jason goes back for his friend: he is at heart a brave and honourable boy, though he’s too callow to realise it. As are his contemporaries: at the start of the next school year in September, Jason has sunk to the bottom of the pecking order.

Another of Jason’s secrets, though one which everybody knows – that it isn’t really a secret is a secret he keeps from himself – is that he has a stammer. When Ross Wilcox takes up bullying him for it, it’s not because it’s suddenly revealed itself, but because Jason has been selected as a victim: for Wilcox, his stammer simply provides a juicy target. For Jason, it’s a malicious demon lurking inside his head. He calls it Hangman. ‘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.’

His ability to think one sentence ahead is evident in his articulacy on the page: the difficulty he has in speaking is matched by an impressive fluency in his writing. For Jason is also a writer: once a month, he sneaks to the vicarage and posts a poem, signed ‘Eliot Bolivar’, through the door, for publication in the parish magazine. In July, he finds an envelope ‘Sellotaped over the letter box. for the attention of eliot bolivar, poet. Inside was a short letter written in lilac ink on slate-grey paper. It invited me to come to the vicarage to discuss my work at three o’clock on Sunday. “Work”. Nobody’s ever called Eliot Bolivar’s poems work.’ The invitation is from an ‘old toady lady’ called Madame Crommelynck, who has been passing the poems on to the vicar for publication (Jason hasn’t realised that the vicar no longer lives in the vicarage). Mitchell’s fans last encountered Madame Crommelynck as a teenage temptress in 1920s Belgium, in Cloud Atlas. (He does this quite a lot: the Mongolian assassin from Ghostwritten has a cameo in number9dream; two other minor characters from Ghostwritten return in starring roles in Cloud Atlas.)

Eliot Bolivar’s poems turn out to have the same titles as the chapters of Black Swan Green: we never get to read the poems, but we have something better – a full account of the events that provide them with their shadowy subject-matter. Jason has to be evasive in his verse, to avoid being identified as its author, because writing poems is ‘gay’. In December, Jason is banished to the stationery storeroom at school:

Mr Kempsey’d told me, curtly, to get on with my homework till I was sent for, but for once I was up to date. A poem kicked inside my belly. Since I was in so much shit already, I nicked a nice exercise book with stiff covers off a shelf to write in. But after the first line I realised it wasn’t a poem. More of a . . . what? A confession, I s’pose.

There follows, reproduced in facsimile, the ‘manuscript’, in 13-year-old handwriting, of the opening sentences of the previous chapter, verbatim. ‘And on it went. When the bell went for morning break I found I’d filled three sides.’ Black Swan Green is in part the story of a stammering poet finding his true voice as a writer of fluent prose. The idea that a novel like this would stream out of a 13-year-old’s pen isn’t convincing, however: Mitchell may work fast – he’s had four novels published in seven years – but that doesn’t mean the prose splurges out. The supposed naturalism of Jason’s voice is highly artificial, and making romantic claims for its authenticity puts it under more strain than it is able to bear.

‘Small children have many more perceptions than they have terms to translate them,’ Henry James wrote in his preface to the New York Edition of What Maisie Knew. ‘Their vision is at any moment much richer, their apprehension even constantly stronger, than their prompt, their at all producible, vocabulary.’ This is also true of not so small children; and in Jason’s case, his producible vocabulary is further limited by his stammer. Part of James’s point is that in order to delineate the contours of a child’s consciousness with the subtlety they deserve, the last thing you want to do is to try to speak in the child’s own voice. Mitchell’s intention, by contrast, is to tell Jason’s story in Jason’s voice, or at least in the way he would speak if he could always cheat Hangman. But all too often, his creator’s hand is visible: under interrogation by Madame Crommelynck, Jason confesses, reasonably enough, that he hasn’t read Chekhov, Flaubert, Hesse or Kafka – the most ‘impressive’ names on his bookshelf are Isaac Asimov, Ursula Le Guin and John Wyndham – but at a village meeting to discuss what to do about a proposed Gypsy campsite, he reflects that ‘the villagers wanted the Gypsies to be gross, so the grossness of what they’re not acts as a stencil for what the villagers are.’ He has somehow managed to absorb the basic argument of Orientalism.

Mitchell overdoes the period detail, too, striving to situate his story in 1982 in a way that someone actually writing in 1982 would never bother to. There are too many references to early 1980s popular culture – TV programmes, movies, pop songs, football matches, board games, snack foods – which would have been unremarkable at the time.

More serious history impinges on the novel. Black Swan Green contains its fair share of victims of Thatcherism: Jason’s father’s job is far from secure; Tom Yew ‘serves in the Royal Navy on a frigate called HMS Coventry’. HMS Coventry was sunk by Argentinian aircraft on 25 May 1982; 19 members of its crew were killed. In Black Swan Green, too, 19 sailors die, among them Tom Yew. The ghosts of drowned boys are supposed to haunt the lake in the wood, and Jason convinces himself that he sees one of them in the January dusk; but Mitchell has conjured another. If, in the alternative universe of the novel, Tom Yew is one of the 19 who died, whose place did he take? Which of the real dead men does Mitchell imagine survived?