Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell review – endless prog rock noodling

The acclaimed author of Cloud Atlas hits a bum note with this hackneyed story of a band in the late 1960s

I may never forgive David Mitchell for writing Cloud Atlas. It was a gloriously inventive mind-storm of a novel, leaping wildly through time and space, seemingly unconstrained by the narrative gravity that pins other books to the ground. I was in my early 20s when it came out and remember pressing it on everyone I knew. I devoured his other novels and waited eagerly for new work. I’ve carried on reading him dutifully since, but nothing has come close to the heights of Cloud Atlas, and each new novel is met with a mixture of hope and the sense that he’d pulled a fast one on me with the glory of his one-hit wonder.

So we come to his latest, the hefty Utopia Avenue, which is the story of the rise and fall of a rock band in the late 1960s. The novel is arranged into three separate “albums” – Paradise Is the Road to Paradise, The Stuff of Life and The Third Planet, with each “track” written from the perspective of a different member of the band (or, on one occasion, the band’s manager, Levon Franklin). Dean Moss, on bass, is a heart-throb from Gravesend who speaks in a grating cockney pastiche; Peter “Griff” Griffin, the drummer is “a northern diamond in the rough. Anarchic, sweary, likes a drink”; “Elf” (Elizabeth) Holloway, the singer, has recently separated from her musical and romantic partner, a laddish Australian, and is primly middle class; finally, there’s Jasper de Zoet (yes, a relative of Jacob de Zoet, the title character of Mitchell’s 2010 novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet – and living off a Dutch East Indian legacy). Jasper is on guitar, a quiet, troubled, intense young man.

Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett, ‘lost in a drug-induced trance’, has a cameo in Utopia Avenue
Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett, ‘lost in a drug-induced trance’, has a cameo in Utopia Avenue. Photograph: Andrew Whittuck/Redferns

The book opens in early January 1967 (we know this because DONALD CAMPBELL DEAD is plastered across the newspaper billboards) and ends in tragedy in 1968, but in just a little over the year, Mitchell does his best to squeeze in every hackneyed cultural reference going, as well as a host of coy nods to his own work. Aficionados will recognise that Levon appears in The Bone Clocks while Jasper is obsessed with a piece of music called The Cloud Atlas Sextet. It’s what people expect from Mitchell, these little postmodern self-referential flourishes, but here, more than ever before, they feel by-the-numbers, empty of meaning or grander purpose.

The same could be said for the cameos by stars of the period who turn up with unlikely regularity. We meet Bowie early on – he’s had a dream about the Berlin Wall, apparently; and then within a few pages there’s Marc Bolan – “I always tell girls: ‘If you want to understand me, read The Lord of the Rings right now.’ It’s that simple”; and Syd Barrett, who seems to be lost in a drug-induced trance. From Nina Simone – “She’s a coloured Juilliard-trained genius” – to one passage near the end of the book when Dean’s internal monologue name-drops twice in as many sentences (“Dean deploys a trick Mama Cass told him… Mick Jagger told Dean…”), it’s as if no celebrity of the time from Francis Bacon to Frank Zappa can avoid coming under the deadening sway of Mitchell’s pen. Each of them is clumsily summoned and dismissed, and all we get is Griff saying: “Chuffin’ heck, it’s Jimi Hendrix.”

The problem is, of course, that Mitchell expects us all to be as delighted as he clearly is by these cameos, rather than recognising them for what they are: attempts to breathe life into a story that is both predictable and stultifying. It is notoriously difficult to write well about music in a novel – Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity was fab and Salman Rushdie’s The Ground Beneath Her Feet dazzling in parts – but Utopia Avenue is almost unremittingly dreary. It’s interesting that the novel charts an era when musicians began to take themselves increasingly seriously, and when their songs grew longer and more portentous – average track-lengths passed the three-minute mark in 1967. Utopia Avenue is like an endless piece of prog-rock noodling – fine if you’re stoned in the late 60s, but painfully out of place in the here and now.

• Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell is published by Sceptre (£20). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15


Alex Preston

The GuardianTramp

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