The Magic Numbers


1. David Mitchell’s fourth novel could masquerade as his first. His previous books, head-spinning page-turners that span centuries and playfully juggle styles, barely touch down in England, but Black Swan Green escapes bleak Worcestershire just once in its 13 chapters, to a hardly exotic Lyme Regis. The book’s the 13th year in the life of Jason Taylor, a sensitive stammerer who navigates bullies and occasionally pens poetry (as “Eliot Bolivar”) in his literal joke of a Midlands town. (Black Swan Green has no swans to speak of.) The cover’s a great visual joke: The title’s Swan‘s replaced by a picture of a swan—a reprieve for Jason, who finds S-words a particular challenge.

2. It’s 1982. As if the brutes at school weren’t bad enough, Jason’s mind teems with enemies conjured by his speech impediment and low self-esteem: Hangman, Unborn Twin, Maggot. His thoughts sometimes burst as haiku-like compressions: “Music’s a wood you walk through.” Contractions abound, as if he wants to use as few words as possible to minimize stammering: “Even Giant Haystacks’d’ve whimpered.”

3. Two minor characters in Mitchell’s globe-trotting debut, Ghostwritten (1999), pop up in more central roles for Cloud Atlas (2004). In BSG, we again meet Eva van Outreyve de Crommelynck, a secondary figure attached to Cloud Atlas‘s strongest narrative thread, “Letters From Zedelghem.” The Belgian beauty who broke a budding composer’s heart has aged decades by the time Jason meets her in “Solarium,” BSG‘s middle episode. We read her forward in time. N.B.: Jason accidentally breaks his grandfather’s watch early in the book, unlocking the mausoleum of all hope and desire.

4. “Goatwriter, digitize yourself to my loving embrace, and we shall iron out that troublesome speech dddddddddefect!” someone taunts in Number9Dream (2001). “Imagine, you uttering sentences at the speed of charged particles instead of an amputee marathon!” Goatwriter replies, “My stammer discerns my true friends from the false.” It’s a secret glimpse into the impediment Mitchell himself faced, buried deep in a freaked-out tale of anthropomorphized animals, buried deep within a novel set in a virtual-reality-rigged Japan—i.e., as far away from autobiography as possible.

5. Drenched in nerve sweat, Neal Brose is the divorced, maid-shtupping, doomed financier in Ghostwritten
‘s “Hong Kong” chapter. N.B.: In BSG we read him backward in time, as a financially minded bully in Jason’s school.

6. Subtly, a chapter title (“Souvenirs”) will become the title of a poem Jason’s working on in a subsequent chapter. We aren’t privy to much of Eliot Bolivar’s actual writing, but the alchemy is happening under the surface.

7. Ghostwritten nearly ends on the same sentence it started with.
Cloud Atlas shears its first five narratives, cliffhanger-style; throws itself into a long, uninterrupted sixth section, in which language itself seemed to be smelted and forged anew; and then slides the reader out onto a descending scale to meet the conclusions of the first five narratives in reverse order. It’s an epic palindrome. Black Swan Green‘s outermost chapters are both entitled “January Man.” Imagine BSG as the hinge in a palindrome seven books long.

8.Then imagine Mitchell disappearing, with the requisite puff of smoke.

9. When Jason retaliates against Neal Brose, the bully “saw what’d happen next, and next, and next.” Mitchell’s books’re chains you don’t mind getting wrapped in.

10. Jason’s first kiss is scored to “9 Dream.” Songs throughout (“Once in a Lifetime” et al.) make BSG the perfect fictional counterpoint to the new postpunk history Rip It Up and Start Again—a title befitting Mitchell’s usual multi-narrative m.o.

11. One of Mitchell’s touchstones is Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes (1913). N9D‘s narrator reads it; here, Eva presses it on Jason, demanding that he translate a chapter before their next meeting.

Written in “little tight voluptuous paragraphs” according to its author, Le Grand Meaulnes is a dose of nostalgia so pure as to approach the cryptic. The narrator, who as an adolescent idolizes the adventure-ready Meaulnes (it’s all very Seth-Ryan, in OC terms), searches for “something . . . mysterious. It is the path told of in books, the ancient obstructed path, the path to which the weary prince could find no entrance. It is found at last in the most forlorn hour of the morning . . . it appears in sight as a long shadowy avenue, the outlet of which is a small round patch of light.”

In “Bridle Path,” BSG‘s bravura set piece, Jason decides to follow the titular trail to its “mysterious end,” where supposedly lies a tunnel from Roman times. Soldiering through a year’s worth of escapades (attack dogs, a scrap, his crush) in a single epic day—Jason winds up on the grounds of an asylum, where a far-gone woman claims he’s “Augustin Moans” (sic). She gives a précis of that book’s plot; since the episode precedes the encounter with Eva, Jason already knows Le Grand Meaulnes without knowing it.

12. The period details’re pungent. It’s fun to see Asteroids as the hottest game going, at the far end of the tunnel from the cutting-edge cyber mayhem in N9D. And it’s thrilling to imagine such particulars spurring the young imagination of a Jason-like Mitchell. (Naysayers might grumble that Jonathan Coe’s The Rotters’ Club, set a bit earlier in a similar latitude, provides enough info for this era.)

13. N9D’s last section is a blank page. BSG ends with “it’s not the end.” Mitchell is great at beginnings, reluctant with conclusions. He loves even his most minor characters so much that he resurrects them, sets up new resonances, fresh recognitions. Let’s step back to admire. On his disastrous outing to Lyme Regis with his father, Jason buys a connected set of 13 postcards, each depicting a dinosaur, “but if you put them end to end in order, the background landscape joins up and forms a frieze.”

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 11, 2006

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