David Mitchell has built a career on writing virtuosic yet accessible novels characterised by strong storytelling, structural fireworks and light speculative elements that just about toe the line of acceptability to the literary establishment. His most famous novel, Cloud Atlas, features six nesting stories arranged in a Russian doll structure, ranging from the diary of a mid-nineteenth century American lawyer witnessing colonial atrocities in the Pacific to an orally narrated tale of the fall of civilisation in the far future; 2014’s The Bone Clocks similarly presents us with six linked stories covering a span of time from the 1980s to the apocalyptic 2040s, this time centring on a single human character with a connection to a fantastical society of immortals.
His latest novel, then, looks to be a bit of a departure. Utopia Avenue is a mostly realist account of the rise and fall of a fictional 1960s folk-rock band of the same name: it’s character- rather than plot-driven, and so how much you enjoy it will depend very much on how much you relish hanging out with Utopia Avenue’s members – gifted guitarist Jasper de Zoet, a public-school boy disowned by his wealthy family on account of his schizophrenia and autism; Dean Moss, a working-class vocalist from Gravesend with an alcoholic father; Elf Holloway, a folk singer struggling with her lesbianism and the way that the music industry treats women; Griff Griffin, the drummer, the glue that holds the band together; and manager Levon Frankland, a gay man in a profoundly homophobic time.
Elf, Dean and Jasper are all songwriters as well as musicians, and each of the novel’s chapters is named after one of Utopia Avenue’s songs, and narrated by the character who wrote that song. As a structural choice that might feel gimmicky, but in fact it ties into Mitchell’s recurring interest in how we use art to process life’s hardships and to withstand them. We see Utopia Avenue using music to deal with bereavement, mental illness and parenthood, transmuting their particular, personal struggles into art that resonates more generally – and in doing so giving other people the tools to deal with the difficulties they face in their own lives. Mitchell renders this particular power that art has – the power to make us feel that we are not alone – effectively and affectingly, with real heart and charm.
One of the reasons this works so well is that Mitchell’s characters are not just dealing with personal turmoil, but with social upheaval too. His choice to set the novel in 1967, at the tail end of the Summer of Love, places the work of Utopia Avenue against a backdrop of growing protest against the Vietnam War, as well as the burgeoning LGBT civil rights movement. There’s a general sense that the carefree early years of the 60s are over, to be replaced by something more complex and more troubled; more cynical, perhaps. There are here echoes of our own embattled present: decades of apparent democratic and liberal progress are becoming undone by increasingly authoritarian governments; environmental apocalypse looms large in our public consciousness just as nuclear apocalypse loomed in the 60s. Mitchell’s portrayal of popular art as a powerful fosterer of togetherness and solidarity thus takes on deeper resonance and weight: we, like Utopia Avenue’s fictional fans, feel ourselves that we are not alone in our unease and unrest; others, too, have lived through tumultuous times in history. It’s a deeply consolatory feeling; but not, I think, a conservative one. These characters go through tragedy, after all, and their road is not entirely smooth. But there is comradeship and joy along the way.
Utopia Avenue is mostly realist, I said above. But, however traditional it looks, it is still a David Mitchell novel. Remember the immortals I mentioned in my description of The Bone Clocks? Turns out that Jasper’s schizophrenia is actually caused by a malign immortal consciousness known only as “the Mongolian” trapped in his brain for complicated reasons linked to the events of Mitchell’s fifth novel The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. He is helped by another immortal, Marinus, who similarly crops up in many of Mitchell’s other novels, but the drugs Marinus uses to suppress the Mongolian are extremely injurious to Jasper’s health.
If this speculative storyline seems jarring alongside the more literary concerns I’ve been discussing, that’s because, frankly, it is. As fantasy goes it’s pretty schlocky stuff, and it’s very much less than clear what Mitchell’s trying to achieve with it beyond tying Utopia Avenue into his wider mythos – his so-called “ubernovel”. I suppose as an explanation for Jasper’s schizophrenia it could be working as a metaphor for the lack of understanding extended to mental health conditions in the 60s – Jasper might as well have someone else’s mind in his head for all that doctors know about his illness – but if that’s the case it’s very poorly handled: much of Mitchell’s speculative worldbuilding is conveyed baldly, by infodump, leaving little room for metaphoric resonance or ambiguity. The inevitable conclusion to Jasper’s story also has problematic implications for the value Mitchell places on those who are mentally ill: Marinus and his colleagues succeed in banishing the Mongolian, essentially curing Jasper of his disability. (It’s worth mentioning, though, that Jasper’s autism, which is figured throughout the novel as foundational to his musical genius and the psychedelic brilliance of his lyrics, remains uncured.)
Schlocky fantasy aside, though, I have to admit that I fell completely in love with Utopia Avenue. Dean, Elf, Jasper, Griff and Levon felt like family as I read, and their music that I have never heard came alive on the page. I loved their camaraderie in the face of tragedy, the ordinariness of their troubles in contrast with their increasingly stratospheric fame. I loved how the novel reshaped itself in my head once I had finished it. I loved how much I related to Jasper’s “emotional dyslexia” and Elf’s journey to self-acceptance. Utopia Avenue is deeply emotionally satisfying, a complete aesthetic experience; it makes art, purposeful and meaningful, out of the mundane tragedies and joys of the everyday. It’s my favourite novel for a very long time.