David Mitchell's eighth novel, Utopia Avenue, is another ingenious meta-fiction construction, a technically sound and imaginative synthesis of music and literature. The saga depicts a portrait of frailty, adversity, and harmony in what is a uniquely textured classic rock tale
Set during the counter-culture period of the late Sixties, the novel is Mitchell’s foray into weaving
together a journey of sound and text that follows the titular Utopia Avenue, an ensemble defined by
their folksy-bluesy-psychedelic style.
From their humble beginnings in scuzzy venues in small English towns and Soho clubs, to their rocket to stardom and celebrity status in the promised land of the United States, the novel details the history, relationships and struggles of the band members before their tragic disbanding during the Summer of Love.
The band is comprised of folk singer Elf Holloway, who has to cope with insecurity, sexism and discovering her own sexuality; blues bassist Dean Moss, haunted by his abusive and difficult relationship with his father, and struggle for fame and money; Guitar god Jasper de Zoet, an eccentric half-Dutch prodigy, who, it is implied, is suffering from schizophrenia and on the autistic spectrum, which the book refers to as 'emotional dyslexia.’
Then there is jazz drummer Griff Griffin, the rough and spirited Yorkshire native whose character is less transparent and elaborate (which is ironic considering the book jests that he is simply the drummer stuck at the back). Additionally, there is the band's kind-hearted yet tactful Canadian manager, Levon Frankland.
Those just named then are the lead characters in an immense cast of characters drawn from the UK, Italy and Manhattan. Real-life musicians and artists, who were famous in 1967–68, make cameo appearances, but the overabundance of these turnstile characters tends to overshadow the era and distract from the main characters. However, some cameo appearances, such as the one from the artist Francis Bacon do play an integral role in character development.
Likewise, characters from Mitchell’s uberverse appear throughout the course of the narrative. Levon himself is a character in Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks. Jasper’s personal struggles are traced out to connect to his ancestor, Jacob de Zoet from Mitchell's novel The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. It should be said that Jasper’s character conflict feels too neatly resolved and cheapens his character arc with a supernatural and esoteric twist.
Structurally, the novel is laid out as a series of three long-playing vinyl records and with an A and B side to each. Each chapter, or track, is devoted to a character and effortlessly lures us into their mind, explores
their thoughts and grapples with obstacles in their lives. Those encapsulations of head space pay off gratifyingly in subsequent chapters, influencing tracks in the band’s discography such as Elf’s break-up with former boyfriend Bruce on the song Prove it and the crisis Dean faces during their time in Italy in Roll Away The Stone.
Dean’s chapters are tragi-comic. Barely scraping by and getting by on what luck come his way, he exudes hopelessness, incompetency, and indecisiveness as he attempts to overcome his father’s disparagement. Elf’s chapters tackles her personal drama and her strides to succeed in a man’s world. Repression and self-doubt are only a few of the forces weighing on her as she yearns for escape, or as she claims: "the Queen of Freedoms is this: to be free of labels."
While there are missed opportunities for the Griff and Levon characters, this is redressed by the complexity
and mania of Jasper de Zoet’s character arc, which is wayward, tortured, melancholic, kaleidoscopic.
Compared to the so-called ‘Normals’, Jasper describes his spectrum of emotion as "mild changes of
Because of peculiarities he forces himself into the confines of normalcy ("condemned to act like a Normal") at which he stumbles, questions and laments. Even though the origins of his mental troubles are "not neurological, [but] fantastical" his chapters remain the most absorbing and authentic.
The novel is remarkably comprehensible and the prose can be frictionless and pleasurable as the story
unravels and develops leisurely from page to page. Other times, the narrative tone can be a bit too self-important and overbearing and the author's voice on occasion leaks into the characters’ psyche creating a feeling of dissonance.
One can tell that Mitchell is captivated by the pragmatism and romance of music itself, which is evident in his prose and superb attention to detail. The era is painstakingly recreated, and the fluency of musical terminology is accessible and well-integrated although those unfamiliar with such terms may find difficulty in apprehending the aural recreations.
Indeed one cannot help sense that some magic and wonderment is lost in translation. At times sequences read like dry accounts rather than a tactile evocation of emotion and sound. Nonetheless Mitchell’s degree of research and cross-referencing is incredibly impressive and will surely garner appreciation from those fascinated by the culture, the history and especially the music.
While there are readers that may argue that its ending is abrupt, the immediacy and unexpected nature
- though it is wonderfully foreshadowed - of its ending evokes a sense of naturalism. It doesn’t drag out with melodramatic conflict but instead opts for the unexpected tragedy which befalls many groups, and ends it on a high note.
Paradise is the Road to Paradise, the title of their first album, is an apt way of characterising the novel. As the name suggests, the true paradise is not the destination but the journey to it. Utopia Avenue is not about the astounding rise and disastrous fall of a band, it’s about a group of people that come together for the music.
Rising above the crowds, expressing yourself and saying your piece because you love it. "Songs, like dandelion seeds, billowing across time and space…If a song plants an idea or a feeling in a mind, it has already changed the world" says Jasper during a press interview. The novel’s fervent spirit and harmonious resonance plants its dandelion seeds in the minds of its readers. Utopia Avenue may be gone but they will not be forgotten.