marcy ave, dusk


SURVIVOR: tree of smoke (denis johnson)*
CHALLENGER: black swan green (david mitchell)

i like david mitchell (an englishman)'s black swan green, a novel about being thirteen in worcestershire in the early eighties, even more than i liked number9dream, a novel about being nineteen in tokyo in the sortafuture. i like it so very much that i imagine i'll prefer it to cloud atlas, his violently celebrated novel about...being at least nine ages in nine places, or so i hear. this is an intellectual failing, if the guardian's steven poole is to be believed.
There is a certain kind of novel-reader who likes to engage the muscles of empathy, but not those of ratiocination. In the US Black Swan Green has been welcomed with relief by some who are pleased that it seems to represent a shucking-off of the ebullient architectural and fabular playfulness on display in Mitchell's previous work. See, they say, that annoying postmodern stuff was never really necessary. In fact, the playfulness is still there: the author has just snuck it under their radar by turning the dial down, from nine to about three.
don't be fooled; while it sounds like poole is giving black swan green fans a pass, he concludes by damning the book with faint praise.
Perhaps Mitchell has confined himself to such a rigidly conventional format - one year in the life of one boy in one village is almost a set of Aristotelian unities for a novel - as a kind of exercise, as though a talented painter were to spend a year filling in the crude line-drawings of a child's colouring book in order to concentrate on brushwork and palette. The result is impressive, but it makes one wait even more eagerly for the next large canvas.
say, i wonder what poole would have to say about denis johnson (an american)'s bone-dry noir in nobody move after the extravaganza of the bookprizetastic tree of smoke.
After the 2007 publication of Tree of Smoke, his stupendous 600-page Vietnam war epic, Denis Johnson might well have wanted to kick back and let off some steam. He does so in grand style here. Nobody Move is a terse little hardboiled entertainment that originally ran last year as a four-part serial in Playboy magazine. Relatively speaking, the author may be slumming it, but he can't help slathering the story's pages in his usual idiosyncratic brilliance.


He knows what to leave out, as well as what to put in. Reaching the end, the exhilarated reader is blindsided by the hint of something huge.
who was it who attempted to compliment meg white back in the day by saying she knew when not to drum? i'm also reminded of my oxford poetry tutor, a formidable woman who loved the sonnet i wrote about a gay biker i met at home in california and sicced her corpulent lap dog on me when i gave her a new piece on the high street chimneys i could see from my garden in england. but surely that's neither here nor there.

black swan green, as i was saying, is lovely. mitchell does a fine job of turning out a young narrator, jason taylor, who's eloquent and inarticulate in plausible proportions. jason happens to stammer (as does mitchell, apparently; he's done some fascinating interviews with groups like the british stammering association); in his mind, his stammer is an actual character (called hangman), and the way he choreographs his speech to dodge hangman's strangling fingers is cleverly done. the way an elderly belgian woman (a character from cloud atlas, as it happens) gives him shit for using look-at-me phrases in the poetry he writes in secret for the parish magazine, in turn, is hilarious, particularly since he regularly sneaks them into his descriptions of his neighborhood ("Venus swung bright from the ear of the moon."):
"Beautiful words ruin your poetry. A touch of beauty enhances a dish, but you throw a hill of it into the pot! No, the palate becomes nauseous. You belief a poem must beautiful, or it can have no excellence. I am right?"


"Beauty is not excellence. Beauty is distraction, beauty is cosmetics, beauty is ultimately fatigue. Here"--she read from the fifth verse--"'Venus swung bright from the ear of the moon.' The poem has a terminal deflation. Ffffffffft! Dead tire. Automobile accident. It says, 'Am I not a pretty pretty?' I answer, 'Go to the hell!' If you have a magnolia in a moonlight courtyard, do you paint its flowers? Affix the flashy-flashy Christmas lights? Attach plastic parrots? No. You do not."
both she and jason ("Once a poem's left home it doesn't care about you") have fine things to say about poetry; mitchell has fine things to say about the falklands, and bullying, and hauntings, and moon-gray cats (who pop up just often enough to be pleasing rather than gimmicky - i'm looking at you, john irving). black swan green is cleverly quotidian, clumsily dashing, and occasionally painfully pitch-perfect; as a few readers have noted, it could be literature's answer to my so-called life. steven poole can suck it. from daniel zalewski (an american, if i'm not mistaken):
[A]s a reader, I don't want to be without the verbal play and inventiveness of the generation that came before Mitchell's. There has got to be a way to write fiction that pays attention to people at the same time that it represents the breadth and complexity of the kinds of societies we live in now. Mitchell is the rare novelist who makes me see that path clearly: it starts among suburban houses, passes through a meadow where boys are fighting, and somewhere up ahead leads into a shrinking wood, populated by ghosts on skates, lunatic beekeepers and Gypsies crouched around a dying fire.

VICTOR: black swan green - not because mitchell mopped THUNDERTOME with johnson, but because at the end of the day, the empress can execute whomever she likes.

imaginary reading group discussion questions

01 do you think british reviewers expect more of british authors (and british audiences) than they do of american ones? i realize how broad that question is, but hey, i'm american.

02 have you ever been mauled by a lap dog?

03 why are the english so possessive of their urban symbols?

04 fellow poem-writing types, are you guilty of the flashy-flashy?

05 would you be interested in joining up with GRAVITY'S RAINBeh, a gravity's rainbow-reading support group for folks who tend to get tripped up around the banana pancakes scene? we'll read about fifty pages a week, i think; i'll post a weekly introduction and a few questions in dedicated posts here on the 'champ, and anyone and everyone are invited to read along and comment, provided you don't read ahead (brothers karamazov reading group, i'm looking at you). hateration, holleration encouraged.

*previous battle here.


Amanda said...

02 Twice, with varying degrees of success.
03 God save the Queen.
04 They're just so TWINKLY, those jewels.
05 No. Also, yes.

Milkmaid's dumb friend said...

01: That’s their peeps.  I expect more of my peeps.
02: I took a diagonal across the wrong front yard coming home from first grade once and a dog living under a camper made a tiny meal of my ass.  Later, C L Familiaris was redeemed by therapy dogs at the hospital, e.g. “She had a black Labrador which she had trained to lay its head on the laps of her young patients.  I remember the weight of that big warm head and the coolness of his ears… With the dog’s head on my lap, I’d have to keep very still and watch a multicoloured disk spinning in front of me.  When it spun fast, it lost all of its colour and turned into a spiral of black, a blur, which made me want to blink and push at my eyes.  If I shifted in my seat the dog would nuzzle his head deeper into my lap, and produce a long deep sigh.” –Evie Wyld
03: If my readings from Boswell are any clue, venereal disease.
04: The sinful painter drapes his goddess warm, Because she still is naked, being drest; The Godlike sculptor will not so deform Beauty, which bones and flesh enough invest. -RWE
05: Enlisted.

wabes said...

thank you, friend, for getting the train track thumping on this fine day.  why do i not own any mary j.?

LPC said...

01 I don't know
02 I don't know
03 I don't know
04 I don't know
05 No, I read it when I was young and had all my neurons please help me read DFW instead.
06 I prefer A-1 Sauce to Worcestershire.