Register Tuesday | January 21 | 2020

Hackneyed Realities

With his boring new book, David Mitchell reveals the virtues of sci-fi

I have a confession to make. I do not love David Mitchell's new book, Black Swan Green.

I feel terrible about it. David Mitchell is the guy who wrote Cloud Atlas and Ghostwritten, which are two of my favourite books pretty much ever. They're both complex novels written as a connected series of short stories. In Ghostwritten, a disembodied spirit travels around the world, inhabiting the lives of wildly different characters while looking for clues to the world's origin. In Cloud Atlas, six characters' stories move forward in time from the nineteenth century to a distopian future. All the characters are connected by the artifacts they leave for the next generation, and each story is interrupted by the next. The book creates a fascinating ziggurat-shaped narrative that forces the reader to question the way that time and history work. Basically, this guy blew my mind.

So when I read reviews of Black Swan Green-the New Yorker's came as close to a rave as it ever has-I couldn't wait to get my hands on it. Black Swan Green is the story of Jason Taylor, a stuttering adolescent growing up in Maggie Thatcher's England. Jason is a very believable thirteen-year-old, living in a very realistic small town. The first chapter was a little bit meh. A hundred pages in, I was still bored and a little worried, but held out hope for a drastic turnaround. Halfway through, I realized that I really wasn't enjoying myself. I almost didn't like the book at all. I wanted to like it, but I just didn't. It's not really bad, per se; it's just so ordinary-almost cliché.

To be fair, the New Yorker didn't mislead. The reviewer, Daniel Zalewski, called the book a "welcome act of simplification" that "skip(s) the pyrotechnics" to "come by something that eluded (Mitchell) before: a sense of earned emotion." Okay, fair enough. But so many elements of the book are so well-trodden; a nerdy kid who secretly writes poetry, his semi-painful coming of age and struggles for adolescent popularity and acceptance, the personification of his speech impediment as a character named Hangman. There is a scene where Jason meets an elderly, regal Belgian émigrée who attempts to teach him about beauty and truth in poetry-it's like bad Keats by way of a freshman philosophy class.

Mitchell's shift in subject matter isn't merely disappointing; it has much larger implications. No matter how well-written the story of a year in the life of a thirteen-year-old kid is, it's not going to be as exciting to me as the intricate interweaving of stories about clones and cannibals and drunken literary agents stuck in nuthouses. I've always thought that if an author could write a convincing Mongolian peasant and a convincing average British kid and I had to choose between the two, the peasant was a no-brainer. It is my experience with Black Swan Green that's made me realize that not everyone feels that way.

It seems I am a fan of a genre that dares not speak its name: literary sci-fi. No one wants to admit that these books are sci-fi because that would taint them with some kind of dumbness. It would banish them to the ghetto of shitty trade paperbacks with embossed dragons on the front. That is what sci-fi (or, more properly, sci-fi/fantasy) is to literary snoots. You know the folks I'm talking about-people who have read every volume of A la recherche du temps perdu in the original French and would sooner poke out an eye than admit to having enjoyed Pet Sematary. Being shamed by these people is not fun and I think they tend to have an undue influence on what most folks will cop to liking. Snoots claim to like Gravity's Rainbow because it is a sprawling masterpiece of postmodern fiction, not for the real reason everyone likes it-poop-eating and a giant adenoid.

So I'm going to come out and say it, snoots be damned: I liked Fortress of Solitude for the flying. I found the wheelchair-enabled international intrigue, the packs of feral hamsters and the adult-diapered Statues of Liberty in Infinite Jest to be hilarious and awesome. Cloud Atlas, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Civilwarland In Bad Decline-I love you because you are sci-fi/fantasy, dammit!

Obviously there's tons of awful sci-fi out there, but that doesn't mean that non-realist fiction is necessarily bad. Consider the clever dodge that is "magical realism." I'm sick of hearing people dismiss a compelling plot as precious or show-off-y in favour of rich characters or well-wrought prose. That is MFA bullshit. Of course you need good characters and sparkling prose to make a truly great book, but if I had to choose, I'd pick a Neal Stephenson (great story, iffy writing) every time. It isn't a crime to think that storytelling is primary to great literature!

That's just me, of course. I love Stephen King and Philip K. Dick and Philip Pullman, so it could just be that my literary tastes are deeply unsophisticated. I would just like it if we could all stop pretending to enjoy books like Cloud Atlas in spiteof their fantastical elements and admit that we might enjoy them because of those elements. No one's going to make you read Dragonlance. I promise.

Audrey Ference tries her darndest to keep up with what the kids are into these days. Her column appears every two weeks. Read other recent columns by Audrey Ference.