Books

David Mitchell
Utopia Avenue

Towards the end of Utopia Avenue, the latest novel by English author David Mitchell, we find Jerry Garcia sitting on a couch at his home in San Francisco, holding forth on the power of great music to make things happen in the world. It’s late 1968 and the Summer of Love has given way to a winter of discontent, cynicism and paranoia. But Garcia is optimistic because he believes something important has been set free by the music of the past few years.

“We, my friends, are the bottle-smashers,” he says. “We release the genies. We run riot, get shot, get infiltrated, get bought off. We die, go bust, sell out to the man. Sure as eggs is eggs. But the genies we let loose stay loose. In the ears of the young the genies whisper what was unsayable.”

Mitchell’s book describes the brief career of a fictional English psychedelic folk-rock band named Utopia Avenue. And it’s a fond but nonetheless meticulously realised simulation of the transatlantic music scene of the mid-to-late 1960s. It captures the textures and rhythms of everyday life in a band – the meetings and rehearsals and long hours spent in vans and hotels – and is packed with carefully observed period detail.

One of Mitchell’s more engaging tricks is to take anecdotes about real rock stars and reimagine them with the Utopians as awestruck auditors. So, for instance, the band members cross paths with “bottle-smashers” such as John Lennon, Syd Barrett, Brian Jones, Mama Cass and Gene Clark. They’re all dead now, of course, but, Mitchell implies, their influence in the world continues.

Mitchell holds nothing back when describing the new sound created by his imagined minstrels. He gives us their influences, offers technical observations on their playing styles and on-stage chemistry, tells us about their gear and about how they use it live. He even invents song structures, chord progressions and – heaven help us – lyrics for all their hits.

And who are his Utopians? Well, they’re a plausible bunch if nothing else. There’s Elf Holloway, a middle-class folk singer and keyboardist. There’s blues bass guitarist Dean Moss, who talks with an Estuary sneer. There’s virtuoso Dutch guitarist Jasper de Zoet. And, rounding out the quartet, there’s no-nonsense jazz drummer Peter “Griff” Griffin.

The group’s main point of difference is not its blending of styles – which was de rigueur for the time – but the fact it has a female singer-songwriter who also plays an instrument. Although there were a few big-time mixed-sex folk groups in the late ’60s, such as the Fairport Convention, there were few rock or pop groups that featured both men and women playing instruments together. And almost none with any commercial success in Britain.

Indeed, it was John Lennon who, in 1963, told members of The Liverbirds, one of the world’s first all-female rock groups, that “girls” couldn’t play guitar. And he said it despite knowing perfectly well it wasn’t true. He said it while backstage at the Cavern Club in Liverpool, where five years earlier he’d heard with his own ears Sister Rosetta Tharpe, an acknowledged influence on the Beatles, ripping it up on her gold-topped single-coil Les Paul.

In any case, Elf plays Hammond organ and not guitar. She’s like Christine McVie and Stevie Nicks rolled into one. Mitchell doesn’t dwell on the sexism of the era but it is a persistent theme. Elf has to fight to be taken seriously in the recording studio and the music press initially describes her as a questionable novelty, as if she were only a prop for the real musicians to perform around.

There are, of course, a great many calamities that must be faced by the Utopians on their long road to the top. There are love problems, paternity suits, plagiarism scandals, car crashes, blackmail plots and no end of family drama. There’s even an international incident involving dodgy cops and planted drugs. And there are glimpses of rock’n’roll debauchery, although this quartet are relatively sober by the standards of the day.

As with the celebrity encounters, however, these travails are naggingly familiar. They’re modelled on – but not quite the same as – things that happened to real celebrities of the time. This is both a strength and a weakness of Utopia Avenue. On the one hand, it makes for a believable if rather unadventurous fiction; on the other, you sometimes wonder if it wouldn’t be more fun to read one of the memoirs Mitchell credits in the acknowledgements.

In fact, the most thrilling scenes in the book have nothing to do with Top of the Pops or record contracts or The Scotch of St James. Guitarist Jasper de Zoet, it turns out, is the victim of a supernatural haunting. While the others have alcoholic fathers and ungrateful boyfriends, this emotionally dyslexic but gentle virtuoso is plagued by the ghost of an ancient priest who wants to destroy his mind.

It’s only a minor subplot but the haunting of de Zoet is the most compelling element of this doorstopper of a book. And the scene in which the priest announces this dastardly intention is more viscerally moving than any of the long descriptions of the band’s approach to songwriting.

And yet de Zoet’s complex family history has already been described in Mitchell’s 2010 historical novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. It’s one of a number of callbacks in Utopia Avenue to earlier Mitchell novels. Even Bat Segundo, the radio host from Mitchell’s 1999 debut, Ghostwritten, makes an appearance on pirate London radio. This self-referentiality is cute, in its way, but once again it does sometimes feel as if this book is trapped by the stories of yesterday.

Utopia Avenue is speculative fiction for anyone curious to know what might have happened if, say, Sandy Denny, Roger Waters, Eric Clapton and Mitch Mitchell formed a band while still in their early 20s. And yet Mitchell’s fascination with the less glamorous aspects of playing in a band can be a bit wearisome, even though his prose is unfailingly bright.

Andrew Fuhrmann

Hodder & Stoughton, 608pp, $32.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 8, 2020 as "David Mitchell, Utopia Avenue".

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Reviewer: Andrew Fuhrmann