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Utopia Avenue, David Mitchell

July 31, 2020

IMG_4114When I started reading David Mitchell’s new novel Utopia Avenue, I didn’t experience it as a David Mitchell novel. It was more like reading Caitlin Moran’s How To Be Famous or any of the—I’m going to say thousands–of novels about the rock scene in London in the sixties. Okay it was daring, it was wild, they were baby boomers in the era of free love, etc. This goes on for 571 pages.

The main characters are Dean, Elf, Griff, and Jasper, the members of the rock band Utopia Avenue. We see their rise to fame and hear all about their music. As they get more successful, the fictional stars meet real ones like John Lennon, Allen Ginsberg, Syd Barrett, Francis Bacon, Leonard Cohen, David Bowie, Janis Joplin, and Jerry Garcia.

The most interesting character is Jasper because his last name is de Zoet (fans of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet prick up their ears). At one point Jasper listens to The Cloud Atlas Sextet by Robert Frobisher. There’s a lot of set-up for one chapter late in the novel in which Jasper meets Marinus from The Bone Clocks, who helps him with an evil abbot who’s been hiding in the brains of the men in his family for generations (bonus: in this section, on p. 483, Jasper uses the word “necromancer”).

For the most part, though, this is an ordinary novel; it just has one David Mitchell chapter thrown in to confuse the kind of reader who enjoys realistic fiction about rock bands. As Daniel Mendelsohn says in his New York Times review, “all this is familiar from a vast literature of rock (Don DeLillo’s “Great Jones Street,” Roddy Doyle’s “The Commitments,” Jonathan Lethem’s “You Don’t Love Me Yet,” to name just a few) and an even vaster filmography (the Beatles films, “The Rose,” “Purple Rain,” etc.). When all is said and done — and nearly 600 pages adds up to a lot of saying and doing — Utopia Avenue is astonishingly clichéd.”

One of the clichés is the explanation of where the band gets its name: “’Utopia’ means ‘no place.’ An avenue is a place. So is music. When we’re playing well, I’m here, but elsewhere, too. That’s the paradox. Utopia is unattainable. Avenues are everywhere.”

Another is the image of the up-and-coming guitarist son playing his guitar at the bedside of his dying mother:
“Sorry I woke yer.”
“There’s no nicer way to be woken.”
“Do yer want to hear another one?”
“Play it again, Sam.”
….The son focused on the fretboard, and missed the exact moment his mother slipped away…”

Characters say lines with words like “numinous” or confess “I like adverbs” to explain why they sound like literary authors. Elf answers the question of how she is after visiting her sister, whose baby has suffered “cot death,” by articulating concisely that “grief is a boxer, my sister’s a punchbag, and all we can do is watch.” Even visiting rock stars get author-like lines, as when Francis Bacon (rock star with an author-adjacent name) says “Once I knew a stable-boy….He used to say, ‘Grief is the bill of love, fallen due.’” When the band members are asked to describe “New York, Elf says “it’s like an orchestra tuning up…except it’s the main show. A cacophony symphony.”

If you like reading about the rock scene in the sixties, you might like Utopia Avenue. But if you’re a fan of David Mitchell, maybe you should wait for his next one.

 

7 Comments leave one →
  1. July 31, 2020 3:21 pm

    I’ve rarely seen such a thorough put down done with poker face. Great final line too.

    • July 31, 2020 3:22 pm

      “done with such a poker face”. Gah.

      • July 31, 2020 3:52 pm

        Thank you!
        I think the poker face attitude came from having read all 571 pages of this novel and wondering why most of the way through. There are a couple of pages of fun after Marinus helps Jasper; we get to see what the evil abbot is up to in a child’s body. But it’s not nearly enough.

  2. August 1, 2020 9:35 pm

    >>Okay it was daring, it was wild, they were baby boomers in the era of free love, etc. This goes on for 571 pages.

    I choked on my margarita when I read this. I have tried two David Mitchell books in the past and haven’t gotten on with them at all, so I will give this one a miss. I know his writing is beautiful but it engenders nothing in me.

    • August 2, 2020 8:02 am

      I like this as a possible description of review writing–yeah, that review was so sarcastic it made me choke on my margarita!

  3. August 2, 2020 11:58 am

    Well that’s a disappointment. Oh well. I suppose everyone is allowed to write a mediocre novel now and then but it messes with a reader’s expectations!

    • August 2, 2020 1:12 pm

      It’s a little like Jennifer Weiner’s Mrs. Everything–not her usual style, about the sixties, and not nearly as good as her usual.

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