Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like
David Mitchell has been one of my favorite literary writers for a long time now. I’ve read three of his books, starting with Cloud Atlas and ending with this one, Utopia Avenue. The one in between was 2010’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. He’s published two or three others since then, all, I understand, delving deeper and deeper into his own imaginative ideas about the nature and potential of human existence. And those ideas can get way out.
Which incidentally is one of the proposed names for the band that is the main character of this novel. The Way Out. When one of the members realizes it sounds like a London Underground exit sign, or a euphemism for suicide, they go with Utopia Avenue instead.
I had to return the library book, so I don’t have it to refer to now. But the story is relatively simple: It describes the life of a British band in 1967 and ’68, from inception to involuntary breakup. And in doing that it dives into the London (and American) music scene of that era with a true music lover’s zest. You get the feeling that Mitchell has been dying to write this one for a long time.
Sadly, it’s a grand failure. Hate to say it.
I found the four band members, Dean, Griff, Jasper, and Elf (a folk-singing lassie), oddly two-dimensional even though there’s loads of backstory and internal monologue. Mitchell gives them each an identifying trait or two so they don’t just seem like names on the page, but some of these identifiers are grating, like Dean’s cockney accent that’s rendered with his use of “yer” for “you.” Each character has a crisis moment, from time spent in an Italian jail to a deadly car crash, but each crisis is a temporary setback and you never feel like much is at stake. I predicted the final crisis dozens of pages in advance, and sure enough Mitchell delivered the cliche turning point right on time.
It’s as if he decided early on that the real hook of the novel would be the music scene and the daily life of musicians rather than the characters. And to show us the music scene of that fabled time in all its glory, he overloads the book with cameo appearances by everyone from David Bowie to Jerry Garcia, with walk-ons by Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon, Marc Bolan, Brian Jones, Janis Joplin, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Mama Cass, Rod Stewart, and a host of others. And they all speak with forced wit and wisdom, a twinkle in the eye. Their drug use seems responsible and life-affirming, and they pass on bits of musical savvy to the Utopians like the messages in fortune cookies.
In fact, Mitchell peppers the book with musical fine points, which is meant to show us how songwriters get from idea to finished product. “This scale’s called Mixolydian,” Jerry Garcia teaches Dean. “It has a flattened seventh.” Sometimes that works well, when we see one of the three songwriters of Utopia Avenue developing a new song. The creative process. We see that it’s almost a 24/7 thing with artists–writers as well as musicians. And the thing evolves until it reaches its own ideal.
Incidentally, the lyrics of Utopia Avenue’s songs, quoted a lot in the book, don’t strike me as very good, especially when you consider that Dylan and The Beatles were in full flower at the time. You’d think Mitchell would have tried his hand at the sort of thing that was considered the best back then.
The book also skews into the paranormal at one point, focused on the mental struggles of Jasper de Zoet (recognize that name?), the lead guitarist. He’s probably schizophrenic, but the author ties his troubles to earlier Mitchell novels, including Thousand Autumns, to help strengthen what people call the “Mitchellverse,” as if all of his books occur in one seamless reality. Other characters from his other books appear here too, including one from Cloud Atlas.
Ultimately Utopia Avenue reads like elaborate fan fiction, but here the superheroes are pop stars. Life on the road, the thrill of live performance, perfectionism in the studio–it all feels way too familiar.
One thing I did enjoy was the virtual tour of London as one band member or another went around town, especially in Soho, which I trod through quite a bit way back when. Walking down Charing Cross Road to Foyle’s bookstore … Memories!
The shame of it is, Mitchell is a superb writer with a surreal imagination. He could have done something unique and gratifying with this kind of material, but in the end he went with revisiting, yet again, the rose-colored vision of what that place and time must have been like.
And if John Lennon appears in one more novel, I swear I’m going to bust a blood vessel.