Book Review: Utopia Avenue

From very little on this blog about music to a surfeit of musical goodies all at once! Alternatively, in book-only terms, we proceed here from a review of a book about an automated human to a writer whose first novel, Cloud Atlas, also featured a created hero (and a female one, at that).

Utopia Avenue is David Mitchell‘s eighth book and whose title is the eponymous band – the ‘strangest British band you’ve never heard of’ – emerging out of the Soho scene in the late 1960s. A four-piece (keyboards, guitar, bass and drums, with vocal duties shared between the first three who also contribute most of the songs), featuring one woman and three men with disparate class backgrounds, Utopia Avenue mix elements of folk, jazz, psychedelia and blues into a successful, and chart-busting, brew. The band were deliberately put together – curated, in modern parlance – by a manager seeking a new project after the break-up of a previous band: but Utopia Avenue are no Monkees put together largely for their looks: despite diverse backgrounds, all have pedigrees in their fields and no little amount of musical chops. Utopia Avenue play gigs, get noticed and signed, make a couple of records, be seen, and get the chance to try and break America before the band’s rising star is extinguished just as things start really coming together.

This being David Mitchell, we also have a sub-plot featuring some pyschosoterica – Mitchell’s term for the psychic abilities of some of his characters and the compelling good vs evil struggle in which they are engaged – although this does not include epic battles akin to The Bone Clocks, his previously published work. Mentioning that the character involved here is the guitarist, Jasper de Zoet, immediately strikes a chord for those familiar with Mitchell’s oeuvre, but this aspect doesn’t take over the novel and it reads well as a study of a genuinely terrifying mental illness and a character’s own neurodiversity, as well as the links between mental health and tortured virtuosity (Mitchell is currently reading about Vincent van Gogh, which may well indicate some planning for a future work). At the same time, the late 1960s provides some fruitful contextual background for the study of mind-altering abilities.

Each of the chapters is titled for a song on the two Utopia Avenue LPs and tells of a stage in the band’s development predominantly, but not exclusively, from the perspective of that song’s composer. This leaves the drummer (and the manager) somewhat unstoried (this is, of course, a running gag when it comes to drummers) although they each get one writing credit and thus one chapter. Nevertheless, both are well fleshed-out characters – indeed, Griff, as might seem befitting for the drummer in a band in a Mitchell novel (i.e. the one whose responsibility it is to keep time), gets a lot of very good lines during band interviews and press conferences. This sort of structure gives the work a clean, chronological progression (even if it does deal with only with a highly compressed period of time) in Utopia Avenue’s rise to fame – this is quite clearly (and deliberately) written about on the way up – and, as such, this is one of Mitchell’s more conventionally structured novels, as the writer himself has acknowledged. Nevertheless, Mitchell is careful enough to sow sufficient seeds of the many petty trivialities that end up destroying bands.

Where Utopia Avenue really scores, however, is its depiction of scene. There are three aspects to this. Firstly, Mitchell has evidently done a phenomenal amount of research into the period which allows him to describe the scene predominantly in London, but also in New York (the band stay at the legendary Hotel Chelsea) and at Laurel Canyon in the US, accurately and with impressive detail and yet without succumbing to nostalgia or sentimentality. In the process, he read 50-60 music memoirs, biographies and autobiographies (including, I suspect, Springsteen’s Born To Run). It might be true that, ‘If you remember the 1960s you weren’t really there,’ but there are enough accounts around to allow Mitchell to be absolutely authentic in his descriptive detail of the bars and the dives of Soho (this being a band, much of the action takes place inside and after dark), although Mitchell is also very capable of describing the dynamics and breathtaking stillness of nature at work. This is done with such an easy touch that the essential detailing never appears laboured.

Secondly, Mitchell took piano and guitar lessons some ten years ago because he knew one day he would be writing some kind of rock novel. Consequently, he can write with accuracy about musicianship and the creative process. This is as true of guitar tunings, for example, as it is of the on-stage scenes as the band are playing at gigs. I’ve never been in a band, though I have been around them, and the dynamics and conversations between and about the band members, both on stage and while endlessly travelling to and from gigs, ring absolutely true while rarely falling into cliche. Mitchell is persuasive in letting the reader develop the impression that this might well be the best band they’ve never heard.

On the other hand, for all the excellence of his prose, Mitchell is not a lyricist – song lyrics appear throughout the book as the band perform their songs, as they have to in order to provide at least a ghost of how the band sounded, but several are not particularly convincing either in themselves as songs or in terms of aiding the impression of the star quality of Utopia Avenue. As Mitchell notes, there is no speaker in a novel to let you hear the music – and putting one in presents real challenges which, here, he is not fully able to overcome. It is – without the music – a tough thing to do to write song lyrics.

Thirdly, authenticity is hugely increased by the appearance in the novel of a large number of well-known contemporary names and faces. All of Sandy Denny, John Martyn, Keith Moon, Francis Bacon, Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon, Syd Barrett, Brian Jones, David Bowie, Janis Joplin, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Frank Zappa and the Grateful Dead – amongst dozens of others – have small walk-on parts and dialogue. This not only places Utopia Avenue at the heart of their milieu, while also increasing the accuracy of Mitchell’s scenic depiction, but also allows him to develop characterisation further as the members of Utopia Avenue become accustomed to their own growing stardom. At the same time, this adds additional strength to the novel’s exploration of the brief hopes of 60s musicians for a route to an alternative way of organising society – for a Utopia Avenue – before being dashed amidst commercialisation as well as rising violence.

It has to be said that this sort of placement doesn’t always work, either in terms of dialogue or in terms of accurate placement. Rick Wakeman appears on the first page of the novel – but he wouldn’t be building a reputation as a session man until 1969, after Utopia Avenue had already called it a day. Brian Eno also appears, not personally but in the sense of his description of the ‘scenius’ (the relationship between art and place); again, the period covered by the novel is simply too early for this. Mitchell does attach an acknowledgment that there are ‘lyrical anachronisms’ but invites us to look the other way on the basis that ‘music is timeless’.

That may be so, but I’m reluctant to call these – along with a small number of other aspects of dialogue that appear more 2020 than 1967 – as mistakes firstly because of the quality of the attention to detail that has otherwise gone into the work; and, secondly, because Mitchell is a writer whose work describes some aspect of people travelling through time. My suspicion, which is drawn not only from a desire to give Mitchell a bit of leeway on this, as he’s a writer I admire hugely, is that these things are not errors at all and may indeed be resolved in a later novel, perhaps in the Über-novel dealing with ‘unresolved characters with unfinished business’ about which he has frequently spoken in interviews and as he finds out more about his cast of characters.

For this is the thing with David Mitchell novels – not only is it a feature of his work that his characters (Levon Frankland, Utopia Avenue’s creator and manager; Luisa Rey, Crispin Hershey), places (Gravesend, here for Dean Moss, bassist, and previously for Holly Sykes in The Bone Clocks) and motifs (the ‘Star of Riga’; the Cloud Atlas Suite; the film PanOpticon; cats; butterflies; N9D) repeatedly appear and add richness to the ‘shared universe’ in which his novels exist, but he has his future novels already mapped out. As far back as 2014, for example, he was talking in interviews, and in a detailed way, of his next five novels (of which this is only the first). A writer who knows that much about his forthcoming works and who is in absolute command of his abilities as a writer tends not to make such basic errors, especially when the research is evidently otherwise so sharply on point and when such facts are easily checkable. I’m fully therefore expecting to see Elf Holloway, the woman keyboardist in Utopia Avenue, in one of these future books.

Ultimately, Mitchell has written a lucid, elegant narrative about people’s journeys of self-discovery and, in a musical context, of the connections they make which drive them in the process of making a band greater than the sum of its parts. He is a writer of great technique (repeating paragraphs at the end and start of chapters, for instance, thus creating a moment in and out of time for the ones in between). It’s no mean feat to extend such a narrative over a novel of some 560 pages without losing pace or direction, and to keep the reader turning the page and guessing as to the likely reason(s) for the band’s break-up. And, when it does, it has the capacity both to shock and to break your heart, as all great music can do. Pitch perfect.

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