David Mitchell’s Utopia Avenue is the story of the creation, the rise and the inevitable fall of the fictional and titular British rock band between 1967 and 1968. Utopia Avenue is formed of four disparate looking musicians – Dean Moss on bass guitar, Peter Griffin on drums, Elf Holloway on vocals and keyboards, and Jasper de Zoet on lead guitar. Dean, Elf and Jasper all write songs for the band and share vocal duties.
Moss is a cockney with an eye for the ladies who is always short of cash, Griff the drummer is a Northern lad who likes a beer, Elf by comparison is very much middle class with a sponging Australian boyfriend in tow, and Jasper is living off his rich father and ostensibly has mental health issues. If Jasper’s surname rings a bell then it’s because he is an ancestor of Jacob de Zoet from Mitchell’s novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. These unlikely band mates are put together by rookie manager Levon Franklin who is convinced they are a recipe for success.
Levon is a younger version of the character from The Bone Clocks and is not the only repeat character we will encounter as the story progresses. Jasper’s mental health issues are more fantastical than first thought – with his childhood nemesis ‘Knock Knock’ trying to take control of his mind and body, and requiring the intervention of a secret society of time-hopping immortals, the Horologists, who should be familiar to fans of Mitchell’s canon which I have seen described as a ‘metanovel’. All his books are connected to each other in some way in the same kind of way that the MCU movies are all interconnected and contain numerous Easter eggs (e.g. Jasper gets inspiration for one of his songs from The Cloud Atlas Sextet featured in the book of the same name). While this is a cute aspect of this book, it works just as well as a standalone novel capturing the spirit of the late 60s where attitudes were transitioning into a more serious cultural mindset for the 1970s.
As well as tying in his own work Mitchell is not afraid to include some real life characters from the era, and if this were a movie would be some fun cameos, however unlikely it is that the rock band would run into so many of them in such a short space of time. So we meet Bowie quite fittingly on the stairs, (see the lyrics for ‘The Man Who Sold the World’), Syd Barret from the Rolling Stones who is generally off his face on drugs, the artist Francis Bacon decrying all the other pretenders, John Lennon crawling around under a table looking for his lost marbles, the now reviled Jimmy Savile presenting Top of the Pops, Leonard Cohen trying to get off with Elf, and Marc Bolan talking about creating a Lord of the Rings inspired concept album. It helps to sell the idea that Utopia Avenue was for a brief spell as big on the scene as these legends, but Mitchell is treading a fine line between realism and cartoon among all the dope smoke, alcohol and poetry.
Both Elf and Levon are exploring alternate sexualities that were still frowned upon in those times, and indeed the main character arc for Elf is to find happiness and hold on to it with another woman instead of being used and abused by the men in her life. Jacob’s arc is to overcome his inner demons – pretty much literally. Moss perhaps has the most complex of stories – having a girl claiming he is the father of her child from a drunken one night stand, being blackmailed by a drug dealer for sleeping with a movie director’s wife, and having a complex relationship with his bullying alcoholic father. Griff by comparison seems to be just there to make up the numbers and while he has to cope with the grief of losing his brother it is nothing compared to the time spent on Elf’s grief at the death of her baby nephew, which is a truly tragic part of the story.
The book is arranged into three acts representing the band’s albums (Paradise Is the Road to Paradise, The Stuff of Life and The Third Planet) with each chapter, or track on ‘Side 1’ or ‘Side 2’ to continue the LP premise, written from the perspective of a different character. Mitchell traces Utopia Avenue’s rise from playing shitty gigs at working men’s clubs and university students’ unions to a U.S. tour and a party at the famous Chelsea Hotel in New York. The song writers get their inspiration from the various trials and tribulations that a struggle for fame and fortune brings upon them, and the songs they write are cohesively connected to the structure of the chapters.
Of course the book would work better as a film in terms of the medium’s ability to have a soundtrack and although Mitchell gives you some lyrics to mull over it’s not the same as something like the film Velvet Goldmine where you experience the music too. When Jasper “slams into an amp-blowing, bent-string howl and fires off a scale of triads, sliding from high E” I commend Mitchell for his efforts in conveying the guitar hero performance, in fact it conjured up that mind-blowing solo from Prince during the ensemble performance of the Beatles’ ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’, but the book ultimately, inevitably, lacks that extra aural dimension.
While tracking the fortunes and misfortunes of the band and its members, the book also acts as a commentary on the changing times at the transition between the decades in which the world was experiencing so much social and political upheaval. What is a fun rags to riches tale with some fantastical elements also documents, albeit in a limited way and from a restricted viewpoint, the change in attitudes toward counter-cultures, homosexuality, anti-war sentiment and drug use. It’s not Mitchell’s best work, but it’s still miles better than a lot of the stuff I have been reading of late, and indeed I was left wanting more, to the point where I treated myself to an early birthday present and bought a full set of all his previous novels, which I realise I really should’ve kept hold of after I read them. Some books are worth keeping hold of, and I do intend to re-read them all.