Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell review – a musical journey

This portrait of a 60s band on the rise conveys the spirit of the age with gleeful energy

David Mitchell’s eighth novel, Utopia Avenue, arrives both as a distinct and distinctive book, and as a further chapter in the ongoing “metanovel” that constitutes his work to date. At first, it appears closer in theme and style to the semi-autobiographical Black Swan Green than to the giddying, multivalent Cloud Atlas or The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet: it is placed firmly and with pleasing particularity in the 1960s, and is in effect a coming-of-age novel. What comes of age is Utopia Avenue, “the most curious British band you’ve never heard of”. The band comprises the middle-class folk singer Elf Holloway, who calls to mind Sandy Denny, and who is cautiously examining her sexuality; Jasper de Zoet, whose genius on lead guitar is compromised by aural hallucinations; Dean Moss, bassist, not yet wrenched out of his traumatising family past; and the drummer Griff, who is of the four the most opaque, though we are assured he is a Yorkshireman.

They are brought together and in due course managed by Levon Frankland, previously seen as a much older man in The Bone Clocks, whose fur hat and blue glasses Dean worriedly parses as those of “a queer beatnik”. An immense cast – drawn from homes in Kent, clubs in the West End and parties in New York – attends the band, as Mitchell traces Utopia Avenue’s uneven trajectory from the Gravesend Working Men’s Club and the bar at Brighton Polytechnic via Italy to Manhattan, which seems from the air to float “on glassy dark, a raft laden with skyscrapers”. The band acquire success, ardent fans and a degree of pleasant notoriety, but not – of course – happiness; and Mitchell is expert at excavating the seams of loss, ambition and mere chance that lie under the edifice of fame. Each member experiences the irresolvable tensions between the demands and rewards of art and ambition, and the opposing forces of duty, failure and sorrow. Death arrives suddenly; love is offered, withdrawn and squandered. The impulse to make music is inexplicable, irresistible and constant.

The reader is impelled from the first by a kind of rushing, gleeful energy: “Dean hurries past the Phoenix Theatre, dodges a blind man in dark glasses, steps on to Charing Cross Road …” It is London, 1967. Here is Foyles, here is the Pillars of Hercules pub, here are pigeons on Greek Street; the phone boxes are “littered with Sellotaped-on pieces of paper with girls’ names and phone numbers”. It is both familiar and impossibly distant, the capital as signifier of the era in which the band is formed – modernity butting up against a grim, confined sensibility. There is LSD in the clubs and sex to be had in bedsits and studio flats, but Elf’s father reminds her that “at the bank, we don’t employ married women”, and Dean’s landlady, having turfed him out on to the street, props in the window a sign that reads “BLACKS & IRISH NEED NOT APPLY”.

Set against all this, the band’s reaching after an authentic musical identity represents a generation moving away from postwar manners and mores like a train departing a station, and Mitchell superbly conveys the energy and spirit of the age. I have long considered myself hopelessly ignorant of 20th-century popular culture, but responded to the sight of familiar names and faces with the delighted recognition of having spotted them across a crowded bar: Leonard Cohen, kindly enough, but reluctant to be drawn; Syd Barrett, attentively licking a Rizla; Jimmy Savile, damned by hindsight and broadly despised. Of these cameos, the arrival of an elegant odd-eyed gentleman in a trenchcoat coming down a flight of stairs is particularly delightful, and I often wondered what others had passed me by.

Donna bae and Jim Sturgess in Cloud Atlas (2012).
Donna Bae and Jim Sturgess in Cloud Atlas (2012). Photograph: Snap Stills/Rex Features

Mitchell is evidently enthralled by both the romance and the practicality of music. The novel is presented as a series of albums – on vinyl, of course – composed of songs, each of which is devoted to a character, so that we are drawn for a time to Elf and her perfidious ex-boyfriend; and then on to Dean, and his large working-class family (Mitchell elects to convey Dean’s class by rendering his estuary accent in type – “What about my gear? Stealing that too, are yer?” – which grates a little). Whole songs and scraps of lyrics by band members are reproduced on the page, and are simultaneously trite and sincere, like all the best pop songs; the frustrating, elusive magic of wresting melody out of four strings and a pick-up is vividly evoked, as Jasper “slams into an amp-blowing, bent-string howl and fires off a scale of triads, sliding from high E, all the way down”.

The novel’s prose is for the most part consciously easeful and frictionless: it is a supremely readable novel, if the quality of readability is taken to be one which is difficult to achieve and a relief to encounter. It is enlivened by an attentive eye for the particulars, as when “rudderless cloud-wrecks float by, unmoored”, or when, at a dinner party, “served in a pea-green porcelain boat, the mussel shells are blue-black on the outside and flint-grey inside … candles are beeswax, linen is starched, cutlery is heavy”. At times, the frictionless quality of the prose extends to the story itself, so that it is possible to read for several pages at a time without quite feeling that events and characters have landed on the consciousness.

The book is most alive and most compelling when Mitchell slips the surly bonds of the realist premise and lands in his own extraordinary imagined worlds. This is particularly the case in his handling of Jasper de Zoet (evidently descended from Jacob of the thousand autumns), who passes the novel fending off a kind of madness which arrived during a game of cricket when he was 16 years old, in the form of a disembodied “knock, knock”. There is a tenderly depicted and entirely persuasive friendship between young Jasper and his schoolfriend Heinz Formaggio, who attempts to unravel the meaning of the knock; and later, when Jasper attends (or appears to attend) a bizarre “psychosurgical” clinic, the reader is in the realm of The Bone Clocks – of the Horologists and the Oil of Souls. Here Jasper is attached by Dr Marinus to a “mnemo-parallax”, revisits his memories in reverse, and is coaxed towards sanity; I suspect it is for the reader to determine whether the novel has turned absolutely to the fantastical, or whether Jasper entered a deep psychosis and emerged more or less healed.

This is not a novel that traces the vertiginous rise and calamitous fall of superstars; it is subtler, and cannot be read as a cautionary tale warning young readers against the perils of fame and fortune. Mitchell does not castigate or punish Utopia Avenue for their yearning after lights and adulation: he is kinder and more wise. He proposes instead that nothing could be more natural, or in fact more commendable, than acting on the old and common longing to be heard above the crowd, even – perhaps particularly – at the cost of security and sanity. After all, says Jasper de Zoet, “applause is the purest drug”.

• Sarah Perry’s Melmoth is published by Serpent’s Tail. Utopia Avenue is published by Hodder (RRP £14.99).


Sarah Perry

The GuardianTramp

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