Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell

Sceptre, 2021, 567 p.

Mitchell has form with unusual novelistic structures. In Cloud Atlas he embedded several stories physically one within another. Here, in a book about the history of a briefly flaring sixties band (the Utopia Avenue of the title,) he doesn’t go as far but has set his novel out as if its sections were tracks on their three LPs. Each of its six main sections is prefaced by an image of the supposed label of one side of an album and its chapters focus on the lives of the writers of its songs, bassist Dean Moss, ex folk singer Elf Holloway and virtuoso guitarist Jasper de Zoet. The group’s drummer, Peter ‘Griff’ Griffin, didn’t compose but gets one writing credit for devising a drum pattern for one of Elf’s songs. Occasional scenes are seen from other viewpoints but these are rare.

All three main viewpoint characters are beautifully inhabited, living, breathing creatures, each replete with flaws and doubts. Dean had a troubled upbringing and his connections with old friends from Gravesend add complications he could do without, Elf’s family background was safe and secure but she harbours questions about her sexuality (incidentally her initial boyfriend here, the Australian, Bruce – perhaps a little too programmatically named – is a perfect evocation of the selfish misogynist,) Jasper’s connection to the de Zoets comes from a wrong side of the blanket liaison during World War 2. The relatively minor characters are agreeably nuanced.

Mitchell also has a habit of incorporating in his work cross-references to previous novels. Among others here Jasper’s surname is a nod to The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, and indeed he turns out to be descended from that gentleman. There is a mention of The Cloud Atlas Sextet, a musical piece which featured in Mitchell’s third novel and once again we encounter the enigmatic Dr Marinus, a character whose absence from a Mitchell book would now be more noteworthy than his appearance.

It is a trifle odd to say it for someone who lived through the times depicted but since Mitchell was born in 1969 this is technically a historical novel. The text is peppered with encounters with sixties names – Sandy Denny, a pre-fame David Bowie, Steve Marriot, Syd Barrett, Joohn Lennon, Francis Bacon, Steve Winwood, Kaith Moon, Marc Bolan, Brian Jones, Rick Wakeman, Jerry Garcia, Crosby, Stills and Nash, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Jackson Browne, Allen Ginsberg, Frank Zappa, Cass Elliott, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison, not to mention a certain peroxide-haired Top of the Pops presenter. However, the dialogues these real people engage in with the novel’s characters are sometimes not entirely convincing. The way Mitchell ties it in to his wider œuvre means the book can also be classified as a fantasy.

Jasper’s mental peculiarity (he hears knocking no-one else can and experiences another mind within his) is explicitly linked to his de Zoet history as in that previous book and provides the fantastical and speculative elements of this one – Marinus carries out psychosurgery on him – but could be read simply as psychotic episodes if fantastical speculation is not to your taste. Then again, readers of Mitchell ought to be used by now to his flights of fancy.

The band’s adventures include a brush with Italian police corruption followed by a tad unlikely UK tabloid support and eventually taking the US by storm. Their USian promoter sounds off about the violent history of the United States, “We need war like the French need cheese. If there’s no war we’ll concoct one,” and adds a warning, “Here in the land of the free, you’ll meet some of the gentlest, smartest, wisest people who ever lived. But when violence comes it’s merciless. Without warning.” All too true, then and now.

In Utopia Avenue Mitchell has worked his magic again. It is by degrees warm, tragic and affirmative: like all the best of literature, capturing the human condition.

Pedant’s corner:- a missing comma before a piece of direct speech (x 2,) “Eric Burden’s intro on the Animals’ version” (it was Hilton Valentine who played the intro on the Animals’ recording of House of the Rising Sun,) “Sergeant Pepper’s” (no-one in Britain in the sixties – and for about fifty years afterwards – ever said Sergeant Pepper’s, that LP’s title was always abbreviated to just Sergeant Pepper.) “A producer told them that Elf’s the first woman ever to ‘play’ an instrument on Top of the Pops” (so had he – or is it perhaps Mitchell – never heard of Honey Lantree? Or do drums not count as an instrument?) “the hairdressers” (the hairdresser’s,) “the audience are clapping out the rhythm” (the audience is clapping out,) “Andy Williams’ company” (Williams’s,) “the callous on his hand” (callus,) “or he would have thrown Jasper arranged in a list the SS Arnhem on the crossing from Harwich.” (I can’t make any sense of this at all,) “the band drop away” (the band drops away,) “on his next LP.A coloured model” (needs a space between the full stop and the ‘A’ – LP. A coloured.) “The tennis players’ skin turns first albino-milky” (the tennis players’ skins turn first.)

Tags: , , , ,

Leave a Reply

free hit counter script