“Memories are unreliable . . . Art is memory made public,” a musician muses in David Mitchell’s new novel, “Utopia Avenue.”
Mitchell taps into an enduring public memory for the book: the late ’60s. It chronicles the rise of a fictional British band called Utopia Avenue, in the era of flower power and free love. The band’s members come from disparate areas of the Soho music scene: There’s Elf, a folkstress fresh from a “Sonny and Cher” type duo with an ex-boyfriend; Dean, a bassist struggling for cash; Griff, a jazz drummer; and Jasper, a Dutch guitar prodigy. A uniquely egalitarian band, they split the singing, songwriting, instrumental duties and royalties equally.
Utopia Avenue’s music is described as “a shot of R&B with a glug of psychedelica” and “a dash of folk.” Another character calls them a “cut of Pink Floyd … a dash of Cream, (and) a pinch of Dusty Springfield.” Personally, they sounded like David Bowie’s self-titled 1969 classic or The Velvet Underground’s 1970 “Loaded.” Mitchell gives the reader scant information about the music itself, just enough to propel one’s imagination and orient the music in its cultural context, preferring instead to focus on the inspirations behind the fictional songs through narrative.
The story follows the band’s formation and rise to stardom, and is broken into three parts, corresponding with Utopia Avenue’s three LPs. Each POV segment matches one of the band’s songs, and frequently reveals the inspirations behind the music. The plot, turning like a record, meanders and doubles back on itself as certain scenes crop up again in different chapters like leitmotifs varying from character to character. This never becomes tiresome, because Mitchell’s prose is, as ever, immaculate.
His characters and settings are as lush and finely crafted as Rembrandt paintings. The paragraphs flow seamlessly, simultaneously delicious with detail but addictively readable. The amount of detail is just right, enough to be immersive but not so much that one loses the empathetic tether with the finely drawn characters. Mitchell also takes enjoyable pitstops where cultural icons pop up for cameos, like heroes in a Marvel film. While the surprise is half the fun of it, a pre-fame David Bowie steals every scene he’s in.
The novel is no simple nostalgia-fest, though. It hones in on the ’60s with a modern lens, exploring gender, sexuality, mental illness, prejudice and poverty along with rock ’n’ roll. While there’s the usual beats of the late ’60s, the rock music, protests and drugs, Mitchell also highlights what fiction usually shies away from when covering the period. Figures in positions of power, such as industry bosses, record store owners or family patriarchs, exhibit anti-semitism, racism, sexism and homophobia, illustrating what made the era a difficult time to live in if one wasn’t a white male. It is refreshing to dig beneath the flowery veneer with characters who do not fit the era’s stereotypes. Elf and Utopia Avenue’s manager Leon benefit the most from this multifaceted treatment, and their experiences being homosexual in an intolerent era are the most poignant of the book. Elf also contends with being a woman in a male-dominated industry, and is frequently sexualized, patronized or flat out ignored, even by her own band members.
Additionally, Mitchell explores art’s relation to society in a fascinating, and prescient, manner.
“We, my friends, are the bottlesmashers,” a famous rocker says. “We release the genies . . . In the ears of the young the genies whisper what was unsayable. ‘Hey, kids- there’s nothing wrong with being gay.’ Or ‘What if war isn’t a patriotism test, but really fucking dumb?’ Or ‘Why do so few own so goddamn much?’. . . Those whispers are the blueprints of the future.”
“Utopia Avenue” is a comforting escape from troubled times and a reminder that progress is never far from the horizon, especially when art continues to break boundaries. Yet while Mitchell conjures concert halls across the globe, filled to the brim with roaring fans, underground gay bars in London where artists mingle over fancy cocktails and the scrubby, sun-bleached Laurel Canyon with flair, the plot buckles under an unnecessary cosmic weight.
Known as the “Mitchellverse,” David Mitchell’s oeuvre shares characters and a fantastical system of reincarnation, with dueling sects of immortal souls. While this benefits “Utopia” in some respects, like when a fan-favorite “Cloud Atlas” character reappears, it mostly reads as indulgent at best, and problematic at worst.
Mitchell makes lengthy digressions to heroes and villains from his last two novels “The Bone Clocks” and “Slade House.” While those books worked as cosmic epics, the fantasy, coming out of left field here, will confuse those unfamiliar with Mitchell’s earlier work. “Utopia” is a character-centered meander through psychedelic rock, not a centuries-spanning, sci-fi epic like his other books. When a lengthy sojourn is made to immortal souls dueling another immortal soul, it reads as tacked on. One just wants to get back to the rock band. Additionally, his previous books take great pains to respectfully portray a diverse cast of immortal characters. “Utopia,” however, lacks this context.
Thus when the fantastical souls appear, characters who are Japanese, Chinese, Mongolian, aboriginal Australian and Native American, they read as painful examples of Western exoticization. The main characters are all English Caucasians, and the only “magical” figures are people of color who serve no purpose but to wink at Mitchell’s other books. They appear, fulfill minor plot functions (that have little to do with the book’s throughline), then disappear.
While anyone who has read all of Mitchell’s books will enjoy these segments, “Utopia Avenue” must stand on its own. Without context, these characters appear as unnecessary sojurns into exoticism, which jarringly contrasts with Mitchell’s otherwise superbly written, layered exploration of ’67-’68. It is past time that exoticization was thrown to the dustbin of tired conventions, and authors, especially those with massive platforms, think critically about their portrayal of other cultures.
“Making art is already a political act,” a character in “Utopia Avenue” explains. “The artist rejects the dominant version of the world. The artist proposes a new version.” Let’s hope Mitchell’s next version is just a little better framed.