‘Sure. But reality creeps in wherever you live, however pretty the flowers are, however blue the sky, however great the parties. The only people who actually live in dreams are people in comas.’
Utopia Avenue are the strangest British band you’ve never heard of. Emerging from London’s psychedelic scene in 1967 and fronted by folksinger Elf Holloway, guitar demigod Jasper de Zoet and blues bassist Dean Moss, Utopia Avenue released only two LPs during its brief and blazing journey from the clubs of Soho and draughty ballrooms to Top of the Pops and the cusp of chart success, to glory in Amsterdam, prison in Rome and a fateful American fortnight in the autumn of 1968.
David Mitchell’s new novel tells the unexpurgated story of Utopia Avenue; of riots in the streets and revolutions in the head; of drugs, thugs, madness, love, sex, death, art; of the families we choose and the ones we don’t; of fame’s Faustian pact and stardom’s wobbly ladder. Can we change the world in turbulent times, or does the world change us? Utopia means ‘nowhere’ but could a shinier world be within grasp, if only we had a map?
Utopia Avenue is very readable. It’s the first time in a while that I’ve completed a 500+ page book in under a week. That might sound slow to you, but it’s a very good reading pace for me😉. I have always enjoyed reading Mitchell’s prose. He seems able to write effortlessly in multiple characters’ voices; a skill he demonstrated in his first published novel Ghostwritten back in 1999. As with that book, Mitchell had me invested in his main characters right from the start.
In Utopia Avenue, there are fewer main characters than in earlier novels such as Cloud Atlas, Ghostwritten, and The Bone Clocks. The rock band Utopia Avenue is made up of four members plus their manager, Levon. Chapters focus on different members of the band, depending on who wrote the song used as the chapter title. So, the songwriters Dean (bass guitar), Elf (piano/organ) and Jasper (lead guitar) get the majority of the chapters. Griff, the drummer, is treated like a drummer and remains–mostly–in the background.
As I mentioned before, all the characters are written well, but I enjoyed reading both Dean and Jaspers’ chapters the most. Bassist Dean has had a challenging past coping with a dismissive and occasionally abusive father. Is he cursed to repeat the same mistakes as his dad or can he shake off the shackles of his upbringing? Lead guitarist Jasper has lived through a complicated childhood which lacked familial affection as well as a mother figure. Mitchell writes him as an intriguing character who struggles to emotionally connect with the people in his life. Jasper has an uncomfortable habit of saying exactly what he’s thinking, which leads to some memorable moments in the tale. He also comes out with some moments of spoken wisdom, or is it madness?..
Jasper drinks his punch and lays out his theory. ‘A brain constructs a model of reality. If that model isn’t too different from most people’s model, you’re labelled “Sane”. If the model is different, you’re labelled a genius, a misfit, a visionary or a nutcase. In extreme cases, you’re labelled a schizophrenic and locked up.’
On searching for a good quote from Jasper, I got pulled back into re-reading parts of the book. Before I knew it, half an hour had passed and I was deep into the story again. I really cannot stress how readable this book is! Even if you aren’t especially interested in the music scene of the 1960s, I am pretty sure you will get pulled into this story after reading a few pages.
Utopia Avenue reads like the story of a band for the most part. It even features fictional cameos by some of the BIG names in music from the 1960s. I appreciate a lot of the music from this time period, so that probably added to my enjoyment of the story. In his depiction of the rise of the band, Mitchell writes convincingly about how a song is formed, how it comes together, how it might sound, without getting lost in descriptive details. The scenes featuring some of the band’s live performances were very exciting to read and made me miss the days of seeing live bands play in my hometown in the past.
One more thing I want to mention is the way a supernatural plot thread is carefully worked into the narrative. I don’t want to give too much away, but for anyone who has read Mitchell’s earlier books The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet and The Bone Clocks, you will recognize a couple of characters from those stories. These characters feature in the supernatural side of the story, a fascinating exploration into the possible cause of a character’s neurological disorder. This is something I want to write more about, but I won’t because it could spoil your enjoyment of the story.
If you haven’t read any of Mitchell’s previous novels, this will in no way affect your enjoyment of Utopia Avenue. It can be read as a standalone story. But it may lead you to seek out these earlier books, which can only be a good thing because they are wonderful stories, in my opinion.
Utopia Avenue comes highly recommended. Thanks for reading!