Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell
If you’re a fan of David Mitchell (I am) and think five years is way too long to go without a Mitchell novel (I do), you’ll probably eat up his latest, Utopia Avenue (I scarfed it down in two sittings). If you love music (yep) and are particularly a fan of the incredibly fertile 1960s music scene in both England and America (check), you’ll almost certainly absolutely revel in the novel (revelry was had). If you enjoy vivid characterization, crisp natural-sounding dialogue, multiple character POVs that sound utterly distinctive, and master craftsperson use of language via word choice, syntax, allusion, etc., (yes, yes, yes, and yes), then your readerly love of great writing will most likely be fully sated (it was). Utopia Avenue (2020) isn’t my favorite or most admired Mitchell work, but it may have been the one I most enjoyed in sheer fun and immersion.
The novel follows the creation of an eponymous London band in the mid 60s (“take a prime cut of Pink Floyd, add a dash of Cream, a pinch of Dusty Springfield, marinade overnight”) and its subsequent rollercoaster ride up the charts in both England and the US. Making up the quartet are:
- Elf Holloway, lyricist, keyboards and guitar, comes out of a folk background
- Dean Moss, bass and lyrics, blues
- Jasper de Zoet, guitar prodigy and lyricist, psychedelic/eclectic
- Griff Griffin, drummer, jazz
The novel shifts point-of-view amongst the band characters and their manager Levon, and is cutely structured as the three albums (sides one and two) from the band — Paradise is the Road to Paradise, The Stuff of Life, The Third Planet — with each chapter a song title from the respective album.
Each of the band members is a distinctive, fully fleshed out character who grows over the course of the novel. A usefully concise sense comes from an Italian promoter’s description of their lyrics: “Your songs, Elf, they say ‘Life is sad, is joy, is emotions.’ Is universal. Jasper, your songs say, ‘Life is strange, is wonderland, a dream.’ Who does not feel so sometimes? Dean, your songs say, ‘Life is a battle, is hard, but you is not alone.’ You Greef, is a drummer intuitivo.” Mitchell similarly shifts voice in each of their section so that dropped in the middle, one can almost immediately tell without context if we’re in an Elf or a Dean chapter, a Griff or a Jasper segment.
Adding a bit more detail, Elf is middle-class, the middle child in a family of three daughters, a bit ethereal, lacking in self-confidence, and coming to grips (eventually) with her sexuality. Dean comes out of poverty and abuse and finds power and acceptance through music and lots of hook-ups. Griff is rough, gruff, simple on the surface, and full of heart. Jasper is the schizophrenic bastard scion of a wealthy Dutch family (he doesn’t get the wealth), an “emotional dyslexic” who has since his teens suffered from a “knock-knock” in his head, a presence that drove him into a sanitarium for several years and which threatens to flare up yet again. Fans of Mitchell will also recognize Jasper’s last name from The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet — more on that later.
The usual rock music story tropes are here: sex and drugs, clashes over direction and credit, unscrupulous people in the business, betrayals, triumphs and failures, highs (a song moving into the two twenty, the band performing “in the zone”) and lows (a thrown bottle, empty venues), groupies, none-too-happy parents. Even Jasper’s mental illness is part and parcel of the rock biopic, one poignantly echoed by the appearance of Syd Barrett, former lead of Pink Floyd who spiraled into his own mental pit in the late 60s. His is only one of many cameos, including but not limited to David Bowie, Diana Ross, Leonard Cohen, Janis Joplin, and Jerry Garcia. I can’t say, therefore, that the plot elements of the novel are all that original, making this probably the least inventive of Mitchell’s novels (also the least structurally playful). But Mitchell is a master storyteller, and so if the story isn’t “original,” it’s incredibly well executed. One is immediately immersed in the characters and their journey and stays fully so throughout, rooting for them both as a group and as individuals. Thanks to their varied personalities, voices, and backgrounds, the novel offers up a broad tonal range, so there are laugh-out-loud moments, thought-provoking ones, and times of biting poignancy and grief. Mitchell also scatters a number of original song lyrics throughout, each again nicely attuned to whichever band member supposedly wrote them. Readers who are also music fans will enjoy seeing how some of those songs are born and developed, as well as enjoy Mitchell’s several moment-to-moment descriptions of actual performances.
Those who have read Mitchell before know his novels take place in a shared universe. Jasper sharing a last name with the title character of a prior novel makes clear this one is part of said universe. Mitchell fans will also happily pick up on references to other characters and events and smile at the lingering appearance of one character in particular. Meanwhile, the more fantastical elements of that shared universe, involving a long-running battle between groups of immortals (most detailed in The Bone Clocks) is connected to Jasper’s mental illness but only really fully enters the novel for a single chapter toward the end. Those who haven’t read Mitchell might wonder what the hell is happening at that point, but it’s relatively short-lived. I didn’t think the novel needed that connecting chapter, but it didn’t detract from my enjoyment. And it does connect in a different way to one of the seeming themes of the novel, the way life is a single road with an infinite number of random branches one could have traveled down but didn’t, a concept physically evoked by how the band chooses (much to the dismay of their manager) to decide what order to release their potential singles — dice rolls.
Similarly, another theme running through is the idea that each of us is made up of many parts that co-exist to create a “whole” identity. The band itself is the obvious metaphor for this, as is Jasper’s schizophrenia. The urge to pigeonhole people by class or gender, or to break out of that pigeonholing (even if done by oneself) runs throughout. The same idea applies to art as well, as per a discussion where an interviewer tries to nail down the category the band’s music falls into (he even calls their album schizophrenic), to which Jasper eventually replies: “You’re like a zoologist asking a platypus ‘Are you a duck-like otter? Or an ottter-like duck? Or an oviparous mammal? The platypus doesn’t care.”
Utopia Avenue doesn’t have the structural pyrotechnics or stylistic flair of some of Mitchell’s other works. But I absolutely loved it throughout, was sad to finish it, and would happily pick it up the next day to reread it. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go make a Utopia Avenue playlist for future listening pleasure. Let’s see, Pink Floyd, The Byrds, Baez, Traffic, Billie Holiday, Janis…