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26 August 2020

David Mitchell’s Utopia Avenue: a band Bildungsroman in the Swinging Sixties

The novel begins in 1967, in the clubs of London's psychedelic music scene, as the band find their groove amid the cultural revolution of the 1960s. 

By Erica Wagner

The temptation, in reviewing a new novel by David Mitchell, is to approach the process along the lines of the “David Mitchell Universe Wikia”. These web pages are a delightfully spoddy assessment of the ways in which Mitchell’s novels – he has called the whole project his “über-novel” – can be linked one to another.

Let’s start by noting that the lead guitarist in the eponymous band of this capacious new book is one Jasper de Zoet; it doesn’t take a horologist to discern the link to The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, published in 2010. The band’s bassist, Dean Moss, shares a Gravesend childhood with Holly Sykes of The Bone Clocks, Mitchell’s last novel, which appeared in 2014. Here’s Dr Marinus, found in The Thousand Autumns and The Bone Clocks too; and Luisa Rey, last seen in Cloud Atlas from 2004. But I’m not going to give in to to this temptation, at least not any more. There will be Mitchellians far better equipped than I am for such a game, and in any case, it doesn’t get us any nearer to assessing Utopia  Avenue as a novel in its own right.

One thing is for certain: this book is a  labour of love, constructed with the fierce attention to detail that distinguishes all of Mitchell’s work. The novel begins in 1967, in the little clubs and hideaways of London’s psychedelic music scene, when a band begins to come together, its unique sound powered by the different disciplines of its members. There’s Elf Holloway, singer, guitarist, keyboards, making a name for herself on the folk scene and discovering the different shapes love can take; Dean, a bluesy bassist with a tough past who’s getting kicked out of his bedsit as the book begins; Jasper, a Clapton-esque guitar god; and Griff Griffin, a down-to-earth jazz drummer by way of Yorkshire.

They’re not a band like the Beatles, organically built by friends: they are instead the brainchild of music manager Levon Frankland, Canadian impresario of Moonwhale Music. They might be a confection, sure – don’t mention the Monkees – but the novel is a band Bildungsroman, as they find their groove, a way to work together, and as they each discover a path to adulthood amid the cultural revolution of the Sixties.

The book’s sections are named after the band’s albums, the chapters after song titles. What do the songs sound like? The reader is left to make up her own mind, but the Village Voice, reviewing Utopia Avenue’s second album Stuff of Life, finds them unflaggingly inventive, which is fortunate, both for the band and for us: having three singer-songwriters “affords a spectrum of musicality few bands can match”. We take Mitchell’s word for it, thanks to his endearing narrative energy.

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Over the course of more than 500 pages Utopia Avenue suffer the slings and arrows we might expect; that they are expected rarely makes them less engaging. Dean wrestles with the legacy of a violent father; when he finds himself in an Italian jail it’s a surprising boost for the band. Elf makes her voice heard as the only woman in the kind of outfit that’s usually men-only; hers, I have to say, is the music I really wanted to hear. Griff’s life as a musician is threatened by personal tragedy. Mitchell weaves all these strands together nicely; the storytelling has the pull of a good box set.

And what about Jasper? He suffers from schizophrenia, or at least so it seems; he spent time as a teenager in a Dutch asylum. But the knocking he hears in his head, a premonition of madness, can’t finally be quieted by drugs, and it is this strand of the novel that brings out Mitchell’s gift for blending the real and the surreal. So we get the shabby, exciting streets of London’s Soho, the skanky corridors of Manhattan’s Chelsea Hotel, the dreamscape of Haight-Ashbury – along with the possibility that souls might be able to migrate between bodies and through time. And why not? Genres are made to be shattered, and Mitchell has always refused to be confined.

Occasionally there are hints of what feels like self-indulgence. Of course David Bowie is coming up the stairs, and of course he has words of wisdom to impart; the same can be said, in this novel, for Janis Joplin, Leonard Cohen and Jerry Garcia. Towards the end of the book Allen Klein, notorious manager of both the Rolling Stones and the Beatles, hands Dean his card but Dean and the band stick with Moonwhale Music. Phew! That was a narrow squeak. There are perhaps a few too many of these encounters, but – especially in 2020, when any sighting of Bowie is welcome – I was willing to forgive. Utopia Avenue, rock on. 

Utopia Avenue 
David Mitchell
Sceptre, 576pp, £20