The brilliant, compulsively playful British author David Mitchell has said that as a child he wanted to be an inventor. You could argue he’s fulfilled that ambition. His genre-blending fictional contraptions, like 2004’s glorious The Cloud Atlas, come spring-loaded with tricks, jokes, and supersubtle ironies, with mini-mysteries, stories within stories, and manic streams of dialogue, all powered by the sheer joy of invention.
But invention isn’t always enough. While Mitchell’s previous novels were stylistically breathtaking, they lacked the emotional gravity and focus that he brings to his dazzling new Black Swan Green. This frankly autobiographical portrait of the artist as a young nerd arrives complete with sound moral lessons, tender realizations, and a first kiss. But has there ever been a more hectic, multilayered, virtuoso coming-of-age?
Thirteen chapters span 13 months in the life of 13-year-old narrator Jason Taylor, who lives in the semirural English town of Black Swan Green circa 1982 with his know-it-all older sister and their bickering parents. Jason has a severe stammer, but his imagination is as fluent as his speech is stoppered. His buoyant narration marries vintage slang — ”books’re gay” — to the cracked similes of an adolescent poet: ”Over the English Channel the sticky afternoon was as turquoise as Head and Shoulders shampoo.”
Each kaleidoscopic chapter begins with glimpses of semicomic domestic normalcy (Sis listening to Human League, Mum hoovering the living room, the washing machine on ”berserk cycle”), then reels off in a totally unexpected direction, sometimes landing Jason at a fantastical destination — say, a gypsy encampment — and sometimes punishing him with crushing social humiliation at the hands of his schoolmates.
Maybe only adults are shocked at the viciousness of youth. Jason takes his peers’ cruelty for granted, and matter-of-factly works around it, practicing his own acerbic put-downs. And while his world may be nasty, it’s also crowded with marvelous characters: an elderly gypsy who sharpens Jason’s mother’s knives; a cross-dressing antiques dealer; an imperious old Belgian intellectual (her knuckles ”ridged as Toblerone”) who regales Jason, over two surreal afternoons, with stern lectures on art and beauty: ”T.S. Eliot expresses it so — the poem is a raid on the inarticulate. I, Eva van Outryve de Crommelynck, agree with him…”
Readers of The Cloud Atlas will recognize Eva, who here lays the foundation for Jason’s future as a writer. Likewise, gypsies model what it means to be an outsider, and his schoolmates teach him crude survival skills. Jason doesn’t absorb these lessons in heavy-handed, self-conscious epiphanies. This book is so entertainingly strange, so packed with activity, adventures, and diverting banter, that you only realize as the extraordinary novel concludes that the timid boy has grown before your eyes into a capable young man.