UTOPIA AVENUE by David Mitchell

In the spring of 2010 I joined a queue of Ian McEwan fans in Hatchards bookshop on Piccadilly, my mission to obtain a personally signed copy of the author’s latest novel Solar. I was and am a huge fan of McEwan whom I regard as the UK’s finest contemporary novelist. I’ve read all his books and noted that some contain allusions to the world of rock music: a bloke who runs an independent record shop, a son who plays blues guitar, a fan of Cream.
         These rock references were by no means crucial to the stories in which they appeared and, truth to tell, I thought they didn’t quite ring true, that they were slightly clumsy elements of otherwise exemplary books. So it was that when it came to my turn to get my book signed I decided to offer the great man my business card and tell him that if ever he needed any help with his research into an aspect of rock music I’d be happy to oblige. Fans wanting books signed by famous authors at events like this are generally sycophantic in the extreme and, after a selfie, hustled along quickly as there are many more behind them in the queue, and McEwan was clearly unprepared for an impudent upstart suggesting ways in which his work might be improved. Still, he took my card, on the back of which I’d written the name and URL of this blog. It seemed to me that he understood what I was saying but the conversation was very brief. I am still waiting to hear from him.
         All of this came back to me this week as I read David Mitchell’s latest novel Utopia Avenue which will sit on my bookshelf beside a growing collection of rock fiction, the most recent Marc Bolan Dies In Car Crash (by Ira Robbins)[1] which followed Daisy Jones & The Six (Taylor Jenkins)[2], Wonderkid (Wesley Stace)[3] and The Last Mad Surge of Youth (Mark Hodkinson)[4], all reviewed here. There’s a few more on that shelf that aren’t reviewed here, largely because I read them long after publication, among them Too Weird For Ziggy by Sylvie Simmons, a collection of interlinked noirish R&R short stories that's definitely worth considerably more than the £3.28 Amazon currently demand.
         But I digress. From a literary standpoint David Mitchell is far more distinguished than any of these authors, a writer whose books are regularly reviewed by fellow writers in upmarket broadsheets. His best known work, Cloud Atlas, is a dazzling pyramid of a novel in which six interconnected, dreamlike stories are nested together, each beginning in the first half of the book and resolving conversely in its second half, so the first story reaches its denouement on the final page. With Utopia Avenue, Mitchell, twice nominated for the Booker and the recipient of literary awards galore, is the most eminent author yet to turn his hand to rock, telling the story of the rise and fall of the imaginary group after whom the book is titled. I was hoping for great things.
         Utopia Avenue are a quartet, a bit trippy, a bit Traffic meets The Incredible String Band meets early Pink Floyd, as befitting the time period which is 1967/8. Elf, their singer and keyboard player, is the romantically disillusioned middle girl of a middle-class family whose bank manager patriarch strongly disapproves of his daughter’s career choice. For Elf read Sandy Denny. Dean the bass player is a talented, runaway, blues-loving satyr whose angry alcoholic dad threw his first electric guitar on a bonfire, along with his much-prized signed photograph of Little Richard. Not quite so easy to place him but I’ll settle for Brian Jones. Griff the drummer is a big, untidy, beer-swilling bear of a man from Yorkshire, fond of jazz and swearing, not necessarily in that order. For Griff read John Bonham. Jasper, the guitarist is the most mysterious, a quirky, taciturn musical genius of moneyed semi-Dutch parentage who hears strange sounds and has ancestral mental issues that influence the story in ways that echo Mitchell’s predisposition towards reincarnation, as seen in Cloud Atlas. For Jasper, read Syd Barrett with a sprinkling of Jimi. Elf, Dean and Jasper write the songs, individually.
         Utopia Avenue are assembled from the remnants of other groups by a gay Canadian who means well and has a whiff of Brian Epstein about him, and they all endure the usual indignities on the ladder to acclaim. They mooch around Soho with empty pockets, hang out in the Giaconda on Denmark Street and, to an absurd extent, encounter real-life rock musicians with alarming regularity in their work, rest and play. At a party at a mansion belonging to a film director they meet Bowie, Moon, Barrett, Hendrix and Lennon, coincidentally all departed and no prizes for guessing what state of mind they are all in. Unnecessarily, bassist Dean muses over whether he impregnated a groupie at ‘the party of a pal of Roger Daltrey in Notting Hill’. In New York, our foursome encounter Cohen, Joplin and Browne in the Chelsea Hotel. With dreary inevitability, in LA they find themselves at Mama Cass’ house hanging out with CS&N, Joni and Zappa, so it’s palpably predictable that in San Francisco they’re invited to 710 Ashbury where Dean trips with Garcia while Kantner cries off because he’s got a gig and manager Bill Graham is a hard taskmaster. The only one missing from the story is Dylan.
         Most of these cameos feature assumed dialogue that is on the cheesy side, though, with one or two exceptions – Elf is friends with Eno? Deep Purple toured the US with Cream? – I can’t fault the historical accuracy of Mitchell’s rock references. However, he overdoes it to such an extent that I had a sneaking suspicion he wrote Utopia Avenue to audition for a job on Rolling Stone. Either way, none of these many encounters move the plot along or impact meaningfully on the dramatis personae.
         Back in the primary narrative, the members of the group suffer more than their fair share of calamities, among them bereavement, drug woes and incarceration, and weather the storms until a fateful, unexpected twist at the end. But their upwardly mobile procession all happens much too quickly for me, in too short a time span, far more so than it would in reality, and the hackneyed rock clich├ęs and trite generational divides – old men disrespecting boys with long hair by suggesting they are girls – tend to grate. Oddly, the book is divided into three separate ‘albums’ with chapters as ‘tracks’, each one written from the standpoint of a member of the group, a ploy that to my mind reflects a desperate, but wholly unnecessary, need to appear authentic. Similarly, the pages are full of the group’s imaginary lyrics, mostly enigmatic reflections on their experiences, and technical musical data regarding chord changes and composition. This doesn’t edge the plot forward either.
         More importantly, the quality of the prose lacks the elegance and authority I would expect from an author of Mitchell’s stature, and this brings me back to where I started, to Ian McEwan. If he was so minded, I believe the author of Atonement, Saturday, Chesil Beach et al would have written something far more insightful and convincing, a rock’n’roll rite-of-passage story with more emotion and resonance that was not necessarily longer in page terms – Utopia Avenue clocks in at a weighty 560+ – but in time span which, of course, would have given it far greater depth.
         With the exception of Elf here and there, only rarely did I feel any real sympathy with the characters. Still, it wasn’t boring – if it was I wouldn’t have finished it in four days – and after all that happens to the fictitious foursome you can’t help but cheer them on as their brief career accelerates. That said, I was hoping for something a lot more profound from Mitchell than this. In short, I was hoping for The Definitive Rock Novel at last – but Utopia Avenue isn’t it.


Keith Carley said...

"These rock references were by means crucial to the stories..."
Chris, did you by accident leave out a "no" in that phrase?
"... were by no means crucial..."?
In any case, thank you as usual for your columns.

Chris Charlesworth said...

I did, so thanks for pointing that out. Now corrected.