[Mild Spoiler Alert]
The only thing not perfect about David Mitchell’s latest novel, Utopia Avenue is the dustjacket. And, given how much I love this book, how much I’ve been staring at it, pondering it since finishing it last week, the dustjacket is beginning to grow on me.
Mitchell plucks every heart string, flings open the floodgates of the mind and transplants us to another time – all in a what would be, in less capable hands, a simple story about four young English musicians trying to make it big in the late 1960’s. Given the time period you might suspect that the mind-expanding nature of this book involves hallucinogens. Check out T.C. Boyle’s Outside Looking In (2019) for that angle on the 60’s. Utopia Avenue reaches the higher planes of consciousness all through the magic of Mitchell’s writing.
Beyond their exceptional musical talents, Dean, Jasper, Griff and Elf are all gifted with loyalty. They are loyal to each other, loyal to their music and, in every way that counts, loyal to their fans. We know the challenges they face will not stop them from making it big. They just have too much going for them. It’s their journey and the unveiling of their souls along the way that Mitchell makes so thrilling.
The band members don’t heroically face the stuff of life – sticky relationships, financial woes, birth and deaths. They fuck-up, crumble-and-fall and have to pick themselves up again and again. But, as they learn to cope, strengthened by each other, they teach us simple and, in Jasper’s case, surreal truths.
After Griff’s brother dies in a traffic accident, his bandmates and manager worry deeply about him and worry that the depth of his sorrow might mean they’ll need to find another drummer. In the seamless flow of Mitchell’s narrative, it happens to be a middle-aged gay man named Francis Bacon who offers the simple consoling insight they all need. “Grief is the bill of love, fallen due,” he says.
In 1967, the band’s early success elevates then to pop music circles where they run into Jimi Hendrix, do drugs with Brian Jones and party with Jim Morrison and Mamma Cass (not at the same party). That same year the Beatles release Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Sgt. Pepper marks the point in the Beatles’ ascent where they can play whatever they want. Sgt. Pepper/YouTube Critics and fans didn’t know what to think, wondering ‘what are they about anymore? – what’s their message?
A clip from the NY Times review of it, June 18, 1967:
Like an over-attended child “Sergeant Pepper” is spoiled. It reeks of horns and harps, harmonica quartets, assorted animal noises and a 91-piece orchestra. On at least one cut, the Beatles are not heard at all instrumentally. Sometimes this elaborate musical propwork succeeds in projecting mood. The “Sergeant Pepper” theme is brassy and vaudevillian. “She’s Leaving Home,” a melodramatic domestic saga, flows on a cloud of heavenly strings. And, in what is becoming a Beatle tradition, George Harrison unveils his latest excursion into curry and karma, to the saucy accompaniment of three tambouras, a dilruba, a tabla, a sitar, a table harp, three cellos and eight violins.
Noting the hubbub over St. Pepper, Elf — superb pianist, inspired songwriter and heavenly vocalist, the subtle feminine elixir that helps bind them all together — wonders out loud about ‘what’s our message?’
Griff argues that the Beatles, the Stones, the Who and the Kinks are not trying to change the world. Dean’s still just glad he can write songs and play music that he likes while finally being able to pay his bills. Jasper has no uncertainty.
“’The best pop songs are art,’ says Jasper. ‘Making art is already a political act. The artist rejects the dominant version of the world. The artist proposes a new version. A subversion. It’s there in the etymology. Tyrants are right to fear art.’”
Jasper is very special. People rate his lead guitar riffs with Hendrix, yet he seems as naïve as a Vulcan. “Why, he wondered, do Normals get so worked up about who’s having sex with whom? Surely people who want to sleep with each other will do so, until one or both no longer want it. Then it ends. Like the end of the mating season in the animal kingdom.”
Jasper in Mitchell’s vehicle into the surreal. Jasper has a dark passenger inside his head named ‘Knock Knock’, a dangerous entity he inherited from his great great grandfather. Wonderful characters emerge out of this part of the story: 17th Century Shinto Monks, an atemperol psychologist, horologists who study time and ancient aborigines whose wisdom provides the basis for something called Psychosoterica. Psychosoterica Defined by the ‘Mitchell Universe’
And David Mitchell is the only writer I know – other than perhaps N.K. Jemisin – who can make this all work. As you begin to cheer ‘Utopia Avenue’, rooting for their success, dialed in on the individual challenges that Dean, Jasper, Griff and Elf face, the story unfurls as sweetly as freshly laundered sheet hung out to dry in a billowing breeze.
From the opening notes, you’ll need little incentive to listen to the full 574-page LP that is Utopia Avenue. I’ll give you one anyway. With no spoiler alert needed, I can tell you that my favorite scene in this whole wonderful book is in the final chapter, entitled ‘The Narrow Road to the Far West.’ And it’s not just because the scene opens at 710 Ashbury Street – “the home of Jerry Garcia, Phil Lesh, Bob Weir and Ron ‘Pigpen’ McKernan – better known to the world as rock phenomenon the Grateful Dead.”
Footnote: Other mind-bending David Mitchell books: Cloud Atlas (2004), The Bone Clocks(2014), The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (2010).