Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell
Published by Random House
Publication date: July 14, 2020
Genres: Fiction, Historical, Literary, Pop culture
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‘Utopia’ means ‘no place.’ An avenue is a place. So is music. When we’re playing well, I’m here, but elsewhere, too. That’s the paradox. Utopia is unattainable. Avenues are everywhere.
Derek, Elf, Jasper, and Griff each has a dream: make it big in the music industry playing music they love. So far, it hasn’t panned out for any of them. But when manager Levon Frankland discovers them each in different venues and at different stages of their careers, he sees the magic of what they could be and Utopia Avenue is born. In much the same way, author David Mitchell takes four disparate characters, melds them with one of the most vibrant times and places in music history, adds his own inimitable storytelling skills, and produces his new novel, Utopia Avenue.
It’s London in the late 1960s where you can hardly walk down the sidewalk without tripping over someone looking to make music. Frankland turns pianist and folk singer Elf, bass blues guitarist Derek, lead guitarist Jasper, and drummer Griff into a cohesive musical group. The risk is biggest for Elf, as she’s already an established musician and has no interest in being the female sideshow in a macho rock band. But when they meet, the chemistry between she, Derek, and Jasper is such they agree they’ll share song writing responsibilities and credit. The agreement sticks and the amalgam of their style makes for a sound that’s hard to classify and harder to ignore. Playing in pubs and being paid in ale turns into the release of a single, and then a record deal and playing concert venues. All of which flames out after only two albums and before the decade ends.
If you’re a book lover then you’re probably already getting a ‘sounds familiar’ vibe. The surface of Utopia Avenue sounds an awful lot like Daisy Jones & the Six. Charismatic band, lone, strong female singer, quick demise. If that’s why you want to read this novel, don’t. Daisy Jones is fictional dessert. It’s yummy, fast, and almost universally enjoyed. I loved it, but Utopia Avenue is Thanksgiving dinner—a meaty, hours long meal, with a wide variety of elements (when done right), that keeps you at the table long after you should stop. That also sums up David Mitchell’s writing, something else I adore. This novel goes into the theory of music, chords, notes, harmony, song writing and that’s just the musical aspects. There are also all the very real people the band encounter, from David Bowie on the stairs to parties with Janis Joplin and riding the elevator with Leonard Cohen to discussing technique with Jimi Hendrix.
Beyond the music there are the lives of the band members. With the exception of Griff. He plays the drums, does drugs, and shags a lot of women and that’s about all we know of him. Why do the drummers always get short shrift with fame—whether in real life or fiction?
Derek, Elf, and Jasper each have a back story that could be its own novel and Mitchell gives them room to grow. Where it gets a bit dicey is with Jasper, whose last name is de Zoet, which if you’ve ever read Mitchell, know is the last name of one the key characters in another of his novels. As if that weren’t enough Jasper has a long history of misdiagnosed mental illness. When it’s active it takes the form of aural hallucinations. This, plus being somewhere on the spectrum, makes for a character who is both fascinating, but unstable. Like a lot of lead guitarists, whether he means to or not, Jasper hogs the stage in Utopia Avenue. And like any live performance sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.
Whether you want to read Utopia Avenue or not comes down to your criteria. Are you a ride-or-die David Mitchell fan? If yes, then this has everything you love about the writer—prose that sings, fully realized worlds to travel through, sly humor, and characters who appear from other novels. Do you love music and chunkster books (almost 600 pages) you can sink into and lose track of the world? Then read it. Otherwise, it could be frustrating. I answered yes to both questions, but while I was absorbed, I did skim a fair amount of details that felt extraneous. Skimmed, but did not let go of the page. Instead, this literary psychotropic trip held me as the band Utopia Avenue streaked its way across the stars on its way to a fiery collision with fate.
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