Black Swan Green by David Mitchell

Are writers more likely to be bullied at school?
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The Independent Culture

While Jason's parents' arguments grow more serious, and the seasons move gracefully onwards from depictions of a frozen lake (and the ghosts of drowned kids) to "druggy pom-pom bees", Jason travels the painful arc from middle-ranking kid to a (brief) popularity and then to a phase in which he is known as "Maggot". Instead of asking him to join their gang, the popular kids now enquire whether he "frenchied" his mother when he went with her to watch Chariots of Fire, ("Slip yer finger in, did yer?") and put a mouse's head in his pencil case.

Those already familiar with Mitchell's work, especially the brilliantly metafictional number9dream and the exhilarating structural adventure that is Cloud Atlas, may be forgiven for wondering what exactly is going on here. After all, five years ago, when all novelists born between about 1966 and 1974 seemed to be publishing the same School-Dinners-'n'-Thatcher's-Britain memoirs, Mitchell was doing something strikingly different. Number9dream stood out because it presented such an effervescent, disturbing picture of who we are now. It explored the connection between fiction and identity (what if we don't make it up; what if it makes us up?), and did so in a narrative based mainly in Tokyo, with gangsters, motorbikes and a talking goat. Cloud Atlas showed us the end of the world. The only obvious connection between those books and this one is that the former are the kinds of novels likely to come from the mind of someone like Jason Taylor. And it certainly seems that this book is semi-autobiographical (and contains not only references to Cloud Atlas, but positions John Lennon's #9dream in a pretty unforgettable place, too).

The biggest question that occurred to me while reading it was whether all British writers of about Mitchell's age and class (including me) had the same childhood (give or take), or whether, in fact, everyone did. Are writers more likely to be bullied, or is everyone bullied at some point? Since this childhood seems to be rather common, the next question is how the act of recounting it can avoid the clichés of late-night talking heads shows in which everyone had a Space-hopper and someone always wonders what ever happened to white dog shit.

In a convincing voice that performs almost impossible feats of contraction ("I was dying to tell that prat that actually, if the Japanese hadn't bombed Pearl Harbour, America'd never've come into the war, Britain'd've been starved into surrender and Winston Churchill'd've been executed as a war criminal"), Jason Taylor avoids the most obvious clichés, but still consumes Findus Crispy Pancakes, rhubarb and custard sweets and Irn Bru, while name-checking almost every early-Eighties brand and icon you can think of, including Etch A Sketch, Rubik's Cubes, Cliff Richard, Madness, Casio watches, Doc Martens and the game Operation. He makes a Falklands War scrapbook and thinks Mrs Thatcher's "bloody ace".

Much dramatic irony in the book comes from the reader knowing what Thatcher's policies did to men like Jason's father, an area manager for "Greenland", a chain of retail outlets selling frozen food, and to young men like Tom Yew, sent off to war on HMS Coventry. So this novel reveals what we already know: that Thatcher was not bloody ace, war is cruel and absurd, and the best way to deal with bullies is to earn respect through integrity rather than through trying to be popular. "Adolescence dies in its fourth year. You live to be 80", advises a piece of paper Jason finds on a teacher's desk. Quite what we're supposed to do with this information now, 20 years too late, is a bit of a mystery.