I never made the first team, I just made the first team laugh

David Mitchell is to bullies what Rubens was to zoftig girls, so we are not surprised to find a rainbow of them in Black Swan Green, from Margaret Thatcher to corporate bosses to husbands to the archetypal middle-school variety.  The appearance of the last becomes almost inevitable once we learn that our narrator is Jason Taylor, a stammering, nerdy 13-year-old who writes poetry in secret because poetry is gay.  The story of his struggle against predation is emotionally compelling when it doesn’t lower itself to YA boilerplate, but what sets the book apart is Jason’s language, which is the fabric  of his world.

Here is Jason, alone in the house for once:

For breakfast I ate McVitey’s Jamaican Ginger Cake and a cocktail of milk, Coke, and Ovaltine.  Not bad…oh, better than not bad!  Every single hour of today is a Black Magic chocolate waiting in its box for me.
I retuned the kitchen radio from Radio 4 to Radio 1; that fab song with the dusty flute in it by Men At Work was on.  Three Marks & Spencer French Fancies I ate, straight out of the packet.  Vees of long-distance birds crossed the sky.  Mermaid clouds drifted over the glebe, over the cockerel tree, over the Malvern hills.  God, I ached to follow them.

 

Weren’t expecting the glebe, were you?   Can Jason really mean a plot of land cultivated for the benefit of an Anglican priest?  Possibly, but I suspect it’s a term appropriated by the designers of the fancy subdivision where Jason lives, as a way to tart up the landscape.  That would certainly fit with the rest of his diction, such as the loving description of commercial junk food—as Taio Cruz would say, he is eating all his favorite brands brands brands brands.

The British sweets have a quaint charm to a foreign ear, and I don’t fault Jason for his taste, given the nightmare of English food to which he is otherwise exposed (spaghetti Bolognese consists of “spaghetti, mince, and a blob of ketchup”—if you are willing to fine out what mince is, you’re a better man than I).

The pop music reference is also characteristic; just off the top of my head, I can recall mentions of the following in BSG: Duran Duran, Fun Boy 3, Kate Bush, Roxy Music, Sex Pitstols, Talking Heads, Adam and the Ants, Human League, Elvis Costello, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Who, Donna Summer, Gary Numan, the Police, and woever did “Video Killed the Radio Star.”  These allusions have their nostalgia value and create atmosphere, but bizarrely, the lyrics never find their way into Jason’s consciousness, so far as I can tell.  How a writer so obsessed with popular songs can be totally unaffected by their lyrics is beyond me.

Jason does sometimes wax rather lyrical, as with the birds and clouds above, and though he gives no hint of ever having read an actual poem (why, then, does he write poems?  Beats me.) he mentions some favorite writers including Tolkien, LeGuin, and Stephen King.  I would have guessed Ray Bradbury, who had a special line in boy-lyricism, but King has a lot of Bradbury in him.

Eventually, Jason meets an artistic mentor in the form of an elderly Belgian lady who has read his poems and sussed out his identity.  Her tutelage suggests to me that Mitchell, for all his virtuosic command of biscuitology and the chart-toppers of 1982, has plunged in way over his head when it comes to poetry.  She tells Jason that he may think blank verse is a liberation, but should stick to rhyme.  I would like to think that she is expressing her disdain for Shakespeare, Milton, and Wordsworth, who all favored blank verse, but I fear that she has confused blank verse with free verse.  Bad news either way.

She then reminisces about her salad days in the 1930s:

 

“William Carlos Williams asked me to abandon my husband” (she uttered the word like a pantomime witch) “elope.  Very romantic, but I had a pragmatic head and he was destitute as…how you say the man in a field who frights birds?”
“Scarecrow?”
“Scarecrow, exactly!  So I tell him, ‘Go to the Hell, Willie!  Our souls eat poetry, but one has seven deadly sins to feed.”

At the time of which we speak, WC Williams was a married man with an MD from an Ivy League school who had been practicing medicine in New Jersey for 25 years.  So if this lovely Belgian noblewoman had unaccountably turned up in his pediatric clinic and stolen his heart, I’m sure he would have had the money to back up his offer.  Perhaps he was still in his wife’s doghouse over eating all those plums she was saving for dinner.  On the other hand, no way in hell was he going to elope with someone who didn’t know the difference between blank verse and free verse.

Though the whole poetry thing is a fiasco, it does not ruin the book.  Mitchell has a keen ear for social distinctions and the exploitation that they underwrite, and this is reflected in Jason’s linguistic world.  For example, he is sensitive to all the names people use: Jason is Jason to his few friends, Jase to kids trying to suck up during the moments of his popularity, Taylor to higher-status kids or those who would like to be, Thing to his big sister, Blue to the shopkeeper who addresses all boys that way, and Maggot to the bullies, and to almost everyone when he is identified as a loser.  This kind of nuance shows the difference between writing about a world you know intimately and just faking it.

 

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8 Responses to I never made the first team, I just made the first team laugh

  1. Mary says:

    Love the last comment about the nuance of the naming. I wonder what Mitchell would think of your comments – especially the WCW blunder, which most of us wouldn’t have caught, Mr. White

    • Roy says:

      I thought it was reasonably well-known that WCW was a respectable doctor and not some fly-by-night romantic Rodolfo, but I may not have a good read on that. It is just possible that Mitchell has planted these errors of Madame Kromlinech (or whatever), as he certainly plants howlers in the mouth of Jason’s odious uncle. But I don’t get that vibe at all, and what she says about her early life is backed up by _Cloud Atlas_, in which she is a character. I can’t recall any sign in any of Mitchell’s writing that he has much feel for or familiarity with poetry. This is no shame, Dog knows. I know absolutely nothing about ballet, but then again I wouldn’t write a novel about an aspiring ballet dancer.

      On Fri, Jul 26, 2013 at 5:20 PM, lippenheimer

      • beth mchugh says:

        Loved this whole post, Roy! I never knew about WCW being a pediatrician until I saw a memorial sign (back in the 90s) at Passaic General Hospital where he was chief of peds for awhile. Rutherford NJ has an arts center, a street, and many other places named for this favorite son. Even though he was then and has always been in my top 10 poets list, I never knew much about him until seeing that sign challenged me to look him up. Of course, I loved your mention of both the plums and the wheelbarrow, my two very favorites!

      • Roy says:

        I suppose WCW deserves a niche in the pantheon of Garden State bards along with Bruce Springsteen, Frank Sinatra, and Stephen Dunn. Perhaps he will someday be honored with his own rest stop, like Howard Stern.

        On Wed, Sep 18, 2013 at 12:01 PM, lippenheimer

  2. Ann Foxen says:

    Now, I wouldn’t be so hard on the elderly Belgian lady. Who among us hasn’t dreamed that WCW asked them to run away with him? Some know it’s just a dream, and the rest of us don’t.

    • Roy says:

      His pickup line never failed: Get out of my dreams and into my wheelbarrow.”

      On Sat, Jul 27, 2013 at 2:22 PM, lippenheimer

  3. Tyler! says:

    “How a writer so obsessed with popular songs can be totally unaffected by their lyrics is beyond me.”

    I’m not a writer, but I have a similar problem. I love music. It adds a lot to my life. But I almost never pay attention to the lyrics; it is purely a sound thing for me. I have favorite songs that I know all the words to, but I couldn’t for the life of me tell you what the song is about. I have no idea what this says about me.

    Anyways, it’s cool you decided to pick up Black Swan Green. As far as books about adolescence go, I still think ‘Sag Harbor’ is the best I’ve read as an adult, but my Mitchell fanboy-ness skews my recommendations a little.

    • Roy says:

      Thanks for the recommendation–I did enjoy the book, especially Jason’s goofily syncretic style. As for songs…you wouldn’t have to know what they’re about for the words to be running through your head and infecting your language. I admit that I am probably extreme, in that if someone tells me a plant is snow on the mountain, I almost can’t resist repeating it to the tune of Smoke on the Water. Do you not also find fragments and phrases from songs popping into your head? Maybe not. Anyway, this probs reflects a substantial aesthetic difference between me and Madame Pumpernickel. She tells Jason to become the master of his words, which is all very well, but I’m not sure how much conscious control good poets have over where their words come from.. My guess is that the best poetry Jason can write at this point would include lots of snack-food brand names, and that will only change when he reads some real poetry (or real prose) that resonates enough to colonize his mind. Or maybe his poetry will always be full of Twiglets and McVitey’s, alongside traces of Seamus Heaney and Octavio Paz. I don’t have a problem with that.

      On Sun, Jul 28, 2013 at 11:09 AM, lippenheimer

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