Sunday, October 03, 2021

Thomas More Boulevard

I'm a little surprised that it took me this long to read Utopia Avenue, since I usually claim David Mitchell as one of my top three-or-so favorite active authors. I caught up to his extant published work through Slade House, then... well, he isn't on social media, and I'm not currently subscribed to any book-review-type magazines, so I only learned about his new novel after my dad clued me in. Even then it took a while for me to finally read it. Now I have! And it's good!


I went into this cold, knowing absolutely nothing beyond the cryptic title. Particularly for David Mitchell, it could be anything: he's famous for hopping between genres and time periods and literary styles, both between and within books. The main thing I was wondering heading in was, would this be more on the realistic side of his writing, like Black Swan Green, or one of the more surreal adventures, like The Bone Clocks? Ultimately it tilts more towards the former, while still having some good snatches of the latter.

The action in this book is set in England, mostly from 1966-1968. It's around the peak of the 60s rock scene. "Utopia Avenue" is the eventual name of a fictional band that emerges in this very real scene. It's an odd but believable band, sort of a supergroup of unknowns or a serendipitous prefab. Levon, a Canadian record agent and music enthusiast, assembles a foursome and manages their grueling path towards stardom. Three of the four members write and sing, and everyone comes from a different background (jazz, folk, blues and psychedelic rock), so the resulting sound is hard to categorize.

That said, Mitchell does a bang-up job at attempting to describe this sound. One evergreen comment about music criticism is that the written word is a very poor substitute for an aural experience; there's a quote I love that goes something like "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture." So lots of critics fall back on describing what other things this new thing sounds like, inevitably frustrating bands and consumers alike. Anyways, Mitchell's passages describing their playing are really visceral and engaging. He often inhabits the mind of one of the musicians, noting their experiences as they track the performance of their bandmates and the reaction of the crowd. Occasionally he steps back and presents the band as a whole as others perceive them. An early solo performance goes down like so:

Elf grasps the hairiest nettle first and plays the intro to "Never Enough." During the middle eight she veers into "You Don't Know What Love Is." She saw Nina Simone do this at Ronnie Scott's - splice a passage of one song into the middle of another. The two songs resonate. Elf returns to "Never Enough" and ends on a clanging unresolved F-sharp. Applause swells up and buoys her. Al Stewart's over to the side, clapping with delight. Elf returns to her guitar to play "Your Polaroid Eyes," and "I Watch You Sleep." Next, she sings a capalla a folk song she learned from Anne Briggs called "Willie o'Winsbury," cupping her hand to her ear à la Ewan MacColl. She sings the king's lines imperiously, his pregnant daughter's lines defiantly, and Willie's lines coolly. She's never sung it better.

Much later, the band is performing in the States after the bassist Dean has partied too hard before the show.

He fluffs the riff a little - if his fingers were a sports car, the brakes would need seeing to - but at least he remembers the words. Swear to God, I'll never do cocaine before a show again, ever, ever. Here comes Jasper and Elf to join in the chorus:

  I'll roll away the stone, my friend.
  I'll roll away the stone --
  put my shoulder to the rock
  and roll away that stone.

Verse two: the Ferlinghetti Verse. Dean plays his Fender safely and solidly, a fraction of a beat behind Griff, like a drunk sober enough to know he's drunk and needs to let someone else lead:

   If Ferlinghetti frames yer
   And throws away the key --
   If you were there in Grosvenor Square
   Where Anarchy killed Tyranny--

Dean realizes his mistake immediately: it's "Tyranny killed Anarchy." Anarchy killed Tyrrany means the good guys won. Maybe no one will notice, he tells himself, or maybe everyone noticed.

Anyways, I really love the details of these sections, where your imagination really can sort of fill in what those concerts might have sounded like.

Another thing I really love is how much the band struggles. I think it's relatively common to have a story like "These people came together, it was magic, everyone knew they had talent, and they embarked on their ride to the top!" That isn't the Utopia Avenue story, though. They knew that they had potential, and there were people around who believed in them, but not all that many. There's a long and grueling ordeal of touring throughout England, facing hostile crowds, fighting for the support of their record label. They have some early successes, but it isn't a constant upward trajectory, and there's some soul-searching and angst at whether they've already peaked. Their eventual triumph feels very earned because we've seen all the hard work and dedication that's gone into their craft.

One of the most striking things about the book Utopia Avenue is the large number of real-world characters in it. Throughout the book we're treated to a parade of musical luminaries, a fraction of whom include Brian Jones, Syd Barrett, Mama Cass, Janis Joplin, Jerry Garcia, John Lennon, David Bowie, and many more. They aren't just named-dropped: they're honest-to-goodness supporting characters, with reams of dialogue and insight and plot-moving agency. I don't think Mitchell has ever used real people like this before, and it's a really interesting effect.

The main characters are the real draw here, though. The book is organized a little like The Bone Clocks in that it alternates between different point-of-view characters from chapter to chapter. The timeline advances linearly from one chapter to the next, but sometimes a character will reminisce about an earlier event in their life, often prompted by something in the present. Each chapter's title eventually becomes a song title, and the chapters are collected into A-sides and B-sides of the three LPs the band will eventually record.


The opener and the closer both belong to Dean, who is basically the "bad boy" of the group. He has a lot of rough edges: he's confrontational, has a foul mouth, frequently drinks to excess or takes drugs, and cheats on each of his girlfriends. Despite all this, he's bluntly charming and you can't help but love the guy. He really does want to do the right thing and in his chapters we can see just how awful he feels when he fails to be good.

One great thing Mitchell does here is show how each person's personality in the present was shaped by their upbringing in the past. Dean has the harshest origin of the band, coming from a very rough background that includes poverty, a mother who died of cancer and an abusive, alcoholic father. So of course he isn't as stable or put-together as his more posh bandmates. Near the end of the book, his arc is probably the most moving and emotional. Dean breaks through and makes some brave decisions related to forgiveness and grace. It feels like his soul is pure at the end.

Dean's music is bluesy, raw, and energetic.

Elf is probably the most "normal" of the three main characters, although to their fans she stands out the most as the sole woman on the stage. She's the most musically versatile of the group, playing the hammond organ and acoustic guitar and tambourines and singing. Her chapters have a lot to do with her relationships: a really toxic boyfriend, a loving but tense family, and a newborn niece. Bruce's insertion into Utopia Avenue's recording sessions made me think of Yoko Ono's presence at the Beatles'.

I was surprised (and pleased!) to see Elf hook up with Luisa Rey. I don't remember any indication in Cloud Atlas that Luisa Rey was attracted to women... but of course that was a pulp novelization of Luisa, not the actual person. Elf is married at the end, but we never hear her wife's name, which makes me think it isn't Luisa. It's interesting to think what might have happened later in the 60s that led Luisa to San Francisco and Elf back to London.

Elf's music is folksy and complex, with a lot of interlocking parts and creative instrumentation.

Then we have Jasper de Zoet, whose storyline I enjoyed the most. This is the only part of the novel that really channels the more supernatural aspects of David Mitchell that I enjoy so much. Jasper is descended from Jacob de Zoet from the Thousand Autumns book. David Mitchell often writes reincarnated characters, but I think this is the first time he's written a biological ancestor or descendant of another character of his. Jasper's story has a strong tie-in to Thousand Autumns, of course, but also The Bone Clocks, and we get some brief glimpses into Horology and get to spend more time with Dr. Marinus.

Jasper is an outsider, a bastard from a very wealthy and influential Dutch family. He's a little hard to place in the social hierarchy of the band, as he doesn't have any money to his own name, but did receive an expensive education and a much more cosmopolitan upbringing. Jasper also seems to have Asperger's Syndrome; since it's the 1960s nobody calls it that, but it's very well described. It's fascinating to read Jasper's passages as he will observe someone saying something that isn't true, then wonder "Is that a joke? Should I laugh? Maybe it's irony?" At first he seems abrasive and weird, but as his bandmates get to understand him better they become protective and loving of his quirks.

Jason's musical style is psychedelic, and he's often compared to Jimi Hendrix.

The three songwriting bandmates get the most pages in this book, but it was cool to get some brief insight into the minds of Griff and Levon during the interlude. Griff is the drummer. He comes from a lower-class background like Dean but seems a bit more stable. He's no pushover, though! He's probably the most outspoken member of the band, brave enough to confront tweaked-out Mods and smarmy record executives alike. He gets injured, takes his licks and keeps on drumming.

Griff gets into an accident while driving with his brother: he's almost killed, and his brother dies, and Griff nearly quits the band. It's the one time in the novel when Griff seems down, defeated, unhappy. We really feel for him. Even though he isn't as developed as the other characters, he's incredibly likeable.

Griff's drumming style is jazzy but reliable.

Finally, there's Levon, the manager. He starts off as a very intriguing character: when he's first introduced, I thought he might also be a representative from the more supernatural strain of David Mitchell novels: he seems to know that Archie Kinnock will implode before it happens, much like some characters in the Bone Clocks can predict the future. After that initial incident, though, there isn't any other possibly-supernatural business, including in his sole POV chapter. That makes me wonder whether Levon caused the breakup to happen, arranging for the information to get out when and how it did, which is not unlike what Rod ends up doing to Dean.

We learn fairly early on that Levon is gay, which was much more fraught in the 1960s than today, and the band members occasionally worry that Levon will be harmed if people in these music clubs discover his orientation. Like nearly everyone of his generation, Levon is closeted, but there's a great long sequence in his chapter where he's swept up into the underground gay nightlife scene of London. This section is dreamlike and surreal and wonderful.


I honestly felt a little apprehensive when I started reading Utopia Avenue: would it live up to my expectations? That's the risk of declaring an author one of your top three-or-so favorites: with each new book there's a risk that you'll feel disappointed. Fortunately, Mitchell's position remains secure. I don't think I liked this one quite as much as Cloud Atlas or The Bone Clocks, but it was a great read, breaking some new milestones in Mitchell's style while remaining tied into the shared universe that he's been patiently building for decades. As for reading order, I think it would be a fine introduction into that universe on its own: there are a few ties to his other books, and it might be better to read this one after The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, but I think they would work fine in the other order as well. So yeah, this was really fun, and now I'm looking forward to seeing Dean, Elf, Jasper and/or Griff make cameo appearances in some other future Mitchell novel.