Utopia Avenue
By David Mitchell
Random House, US
ISBN: 978-0812997439
592pp.

David Mitchell, author of nine novels, has been shortlisted for the Booker prize twice (for 2001’s Number9Dream and 2004’s Cloud Atlas). He has won many other awards, been lauded across the world and is known to write complex, nested narratives that delve into metaphysics and connect across books in what fans often refer to as the ‘Mitchellverse’. He’s not above having some fun though, as is blindingly obvious in his latest novel, Utopia Avenue, a musical romp through late 1960s rock and roll.

Utopia Avenue — the titular band, not the book — is formed when shockingly decent (but he’s Canadian, so it’s believable) music promoter and manager Levon decides to put together a band with help from the ‘Dark Arts’. Of course, readers familiar with Mitchell’s earlier works will wonder if he means that literally, since strange powers beyond our world often creep into the Mitchellverse. But we never know if Levon means it literally or not, though it is clear that the stars align in mysterious ways one night, allowing him to put together a band like no other — and very quickly.

Bass guitarist Dean Moss is mugged, fired from his job at a cafe and evicted by his landlady, all within the span of a few hours. Drummer Peter ‘Griff” Griffin and guitarist Jasper de Zoet’s band falls apart hours later. Folksy singer-songwriter and pianist Elf is ruthlessly dumped by the man who is both her musical and romantic partner. Levon somehow puts these four people together, knowing that their musical sensibilities and individual personalities will click into place right away and — Dark Arts or not — they really do just work perfectly together.

The book is divided into sections named for the band’s LPs, and further into chapters named for the songs written by the band. Each chapter is told from the perspective of the person who wrote that particular song, filling us in on the band’s life, and also revealing the highly personal backstory leading to the song’s creation.

A Booker-shortlist alumnus pens a fun, engaging novel about a fictional band that you can enjoy like a pop song — easy on the ear, catchy, clever and well crafted

There are many, many references and connections to Mitchell’s other books — so many that even avid readers of Mitchell’s novels may not make all the connections. Nested narratives, connected worlds, parallel storylines are all common in Mitchell’s work and in Utopia Avenue we meet characters we have met before.

It is clear from the very onset that Jasper de Zoet is obviously a relative of the lead character from 2010’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. All of Mitchell’s novels seem to live in the same fictional world — separated by time and space, but in the same world, with many crossover characters who walk in and out of various novels, as if the books are rooms in one massive, shared mixed-aesthetic house that traverses divisions of all kinds.

While it isn’t necessary to have read his previous works to understand Utopia Avenue, it would help in recognising Easter eggs and would definitely make a few things a little less random, or seemingly inexplicable.

In a way, the entire novel is a music documentary, exploring the personal lives of the members of this fictional band via the music they present to the world. Griff and Levon don’t write much for the band, so we don’t hear from them much — as is often said to be standard for drummers and managers in rock — but the rest of the band have a fairly even split between the narrative perspectives. The drummer (as per usual, Mitchell jokingly reminds us) gets the least narrative time of all, but Elf, Dean and Jasper’s lives are fully explored, from childhood and tragic family trauma, to loves lost and gained, to life-changing experiences that result in some of the band’s most popular songs.

“Mix a shot of R&B with a glug of psychedelia, add a dash of folk and shake well,” says one critic of Utopia Avenue, the band. It sounds like an unlikely, possibly messy sound, but then so much of late ’60s rock was an unlikely, possibly messy sound that ended up legendary and seminal to pop culture and to the evolution of popular music. And so many of those legends walk through the pages of this book.

There are so many run-ins with people now well known in music history, so many cameos and walk-on roles by famous artists from that area, that you can tell Mitchell had a blast with this idea of creating random conversations with Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jerry Garcia, Marc Bolan, David Bowie, basing them on fragments of things these people were known to have said, on actual music history and fact.

Of course, the famous characters are caricatures of themselves — how could they not be? No modern writer could voice quite so many rock stars from that era pitch perfectly, and so they do come across as versions of themselves, and that is exactly what they are. Utopia Avenue is such an immensely readable book, with a narrative that ticks along so merrily, that there really isn’t time to sit and dissect which of the voices seem authentic and which don’t. You’ve got to go with Mitchell’s flow, and enjoy it as much as he clearly does.

And anyway, who doesn’t want to have a conversation with Janis Joplin about the loneliness of being a woman performer in a male-dominated genre? Who doesn’t want to talk with Jimi Hendrix about guitars and wah-wah pedals? Who doesn’t want to know firsthand what Jerry Garcia was like on an acid trip? Or talk about poetry with Leonard Cohen?

Ultimately, Utopia Avenue is Mitchell announcing himself as a late ’60s-early ’70s psychedelic rock fanboy and, for anyone who loves that era of music, reading this book is just so much fun. Readers do have to be willing to ignore the few grating, overly cute incidents that come up, where perhaps music aficionados will feel the writer has been a little too explanatory, or ubiquitous, and just enjoy those elements as you would a pop song — so very easy on the ear, catchy, clever and well crafted.

The reviewer is a book critic, editor of The Djinn Falls in Love & Other Stories and hosts the interview podcast Midnight in Karachi at Tor.com

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, December 6th, 2020

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