Writing and Other Afflictions

"If it was easy, everyone would do it." –Jimmy Dugan, "A League of Their Own"

Monthly Archives: May 2009

Review: Black Swan Green

Black Swan Green, by David Mitchell
10/10, a coming-of-age story that is evocative and engaging

Life is tough when you’re thirteen, and nobody knows that better than Jason Taylor. In the English parish of Black Swan Green, we are introduced to the ranks of Jason’s class of schoolboys through an afternoon on a frozen lake, in a game of British Bulldogs, played thus: they split into two sides, and when the non-Bulldogs capture a Bulldog, he has to join their side on the next attack. Jason hates this game, not just because of the physical nature of the attacks, but because you’re forced to turn and betray your friends.

Jason peppers his narrative with observations like that, coming across as a thirteen-year-old making discoveries about life. He walks us through the life of a boy who not only has to navigate the perilous social strata of the schoolyard, but also a tumultuous family life and a personal issue, a stammer that comes up so subtly that he almost sneaks it up on us. He personifies the directions in which his teenaged pysche pulls him, assigning a personality to each of his impulses. One of the strongest is the Hangman, the one who seizes his tongue and makes him stammer. It’s no coincidence that his biggest fear is his stammer being discovered.

Cloud Atlas proved Mitchell to be gifted at narrative voice. We see that gift here, not only in Jason, but in the personalities of his world in Black Swan Green parish. And although the story reads at first like a series of diary entries, it soon acquires a coherence thanks to the different plot threads that recur: his sister’s boyfriends and transition to law school; his parents’ struggle to maintain their marriage; his own personal trauma involving his grandfather’s watch; the odd social stratification in the parish that is rarely brought to the surface but always lurks just beneath it.

But Black Swan Green is much more than simply an exercise in character. It’s a full-fledged story, engaging enough to bring me back to it night after night, with (a rarity) a believable and satisfying (and beautiful) ending. You might find the slang difficult to follow at first, but Mitchell knows just how to use it with enough context to give you the meaning, and eventually you won’t even ask what “poncy” or “sarky” mean.

If you thought Cloud Atlas was too esoteric, give this one a whirl. It’s more accessible and just as good.

Being An Editor

I somehow seem to have slipped into this space where I am an editor. I look at TV shows now and ask why certain elements were introduced as thematic images. I read stories and see movies and get more annoyed at plot contrivances than I used to. And I appear to have unreasonably high standards for fiction now. I recognize all of this. I try to not subject people to it unnecessarily.

But here’s the thing: if I’m editing your work, for a magazine or something, I am trying to help you. I am not picking at your work because I don’t like you, or because I was in a bad mood, or because it’s fun to tear people down. I’m picking at your work because I want to find out what your vision is, what’s the best and clearest and most compelling way to convey that to your audience. You have the right to ignore my advice, of course you do. It’s your work. But getting defensive and argumentative is not a helpful response, ever. All it does is make ME want to ignore YOU.

Review: 2666

2666, by Roberto Bolaño
A sprawling, epic, literary journey through Europe and Mexico.

I have gotten into the habit of assigning grades out of ten to the books I read, and I find that most of the ones I enjoy end up getting grades around 8. I have no idea how to grade 2666. I never got tired of it, as I did Europe Central, but I can’t really say I would recommend it enthusiastically. I’m glad I read it, because and in spite of the fact that it doesn’t conform to the style of books I usually read, but I can’t think of anyone I know that I would highly recommend it to.

It begins with the story of four scholars of German literature, all devoted to a particular novelist by the name of Benno von Archimboldi. The man himself is a recluse, and so the search for him becomes as important to the scholars as the search for the meaning of his books. It leads them to a Mexican city, Santa Teresa, where Archimboldi may or may not have been found. There they meet a professor by the name of Amalfitano, and hear about a series of killings of women in the town that remains unsolved.

The second part tells the story of Amalfitano, and that is all we will hear of the scholars we have gotten to know in part I. Amalfitano, a professor whose strange obsessions with certain numbers and aspects of scientific theory drove him to Mexico from Spain, brings his daughter to Santa Teresa. In the third part, an American journalist named Oscar Fate travels to Santa Teresa to cover a boxing match, becomes intrigued by the murders of women, and meets Amalfitano’s daughter.

Part four is a recital of the various murders, 108 of them, almost as a police report. Interwoven with those reports are the stories of a young bodyguard-turned-cop, a seer, a detective who falls in love with the head of an insane asylum, and the owner of a computer repair store, a German-born naturalized American named Klaus Haas, who goes to prison under suspicion of having committed some of the crimes. Surprisingly, though I was most apprehensive about reading this part, it turned out to be the most engaging and offers at least a partial resolution.

And part five, finally, is about Archimboldi. It does not reveal much about him except to show us what has happened to him. It shows the writing of his books but not what they are about; why his publisher loves him, but only in the abstract (“he was restoring German literature to its rightful place”); the troubles he experienced but not, really, anything about him. He remains a remote and fairly mysterious figure in his own narrative. We do find out why he traveled to Santa Teresa, and the end of the book is, if not a resolution, at least a satisfying note, a very “Remains of the Day” sort of thing.

Bolaño writes in a variety of styles; he is just as likely to use a two-word sentence as he is a two-page one (you think I’m joking, but I’m not). He will wander off course to tell you the story of a minor character, he will embed narratives within narratives (the young Archimboldi at one point begins reading a journal he finds, in which the author begins to recount other stories), he will be poetically lyrical or brutally terse. I am certain that there is a point, a unifying theme, but I only know this because some of the reviews have told me so. This is the sort of book I would have to read over again in order to pick out these things; it is the kind of book one would have to study, and at 900 pages, I would rather register my admiration for the scope of the work and move on.

There are passages I loved, and very few passages I felt the urge to skip over. This is an unusual, unique book. If that sort of thing interests you, then I highly recommend it. If you are looking for something with a cohesive story arc, with characters who change according to what happens to them, to narratives that don’t stray for more than a paragraph or two from their central story, then this is probably not the book for you.