Five years after his last novel, British author DAVID MITCHELL has returned with Utopia Avenue, a rollicking novel about the power of music. As MAX LEWIS writes, it’s a novel that seems almost impossible.
Someone, somewhere, once said, ‘Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.’ How do you put to words something that can stir up such emotions in us, or make us move our bodies so unconsciously? How can you describe the moment when a song speaks to you and you alone, when the goosebumps appear on your flesh and your heart feels like it’s being squeezed, gently, by the perfect combination of sounds?
‘Thinking back over the last few, each has a premise that is something of a straitjacket that requires some kind of escape act. That’s just attractive to me.’
In what on the surface is Mitchell’s most down-to-earth premise yet, Utopia Avenue follows the rise and fall of the titular British band, described as ‘the greatest you’ve never heard’. Between 1967 and 1968 the band – consisting of folk songstress Elf Holloway, guitar wunderkind Jasper DeZoet, bass prodigy Dean Moss and hybrid drummer Griff Griffin – go from performing in dingy Soho clubs to sold-out shows in America, while struggling with the Faustian pact that comes with fame and fortune. Of course, no such band exists – rather, Utopia Avenue is a personification of everything that came about with the late ’60s psychedelia movement.
‘Psychedelia in music was the ultimate rule disassembler. I think it was also a model for the times. Ideas were planted then that have grown into ideological shifts that, over time, shaped the architecture of the world we live in now. Why would I not set a book like this in those years?’
To punctuate this, the book is filled with cameos from famous artists of the time, including David Bowie, Brian Jones and Syd Barrett. They flit in and out, acting as mise en scène for the book’s living, breathing rendition of late ’60s London. Mitchell also drew upon such musicians to create the members of Utopia Avenue.
‘I’d pick a figure, take what I wanted from them, and sort of let that hover. With Elf it’s Sandy Denny [of Fairport Convention], with Jasper it’s Syd Barrett [of Pink Floyd], with Dean it’s Ray Davies [of The Kinks], and Griff is Ginger Baker [of Cream]. Levon, their manager, is drawn heavily from Joe Boyd, something of a renaissance man who produced for the likes of Pink Floyd and Nick Drake.’
The most striking aspect of Utopia Avenue is how well Mitchell captures the power of music over both the creator and consumer. The book is laid out like a vinyl record, with sections (sides) consisting of songs (chapters), from the perspective of a bandmember who wrote each song.
In one chapter, ‘Purple Flames’, Dean lyrically recalls the time his alcoholic father torched his guitar and albums in a bonfire. Another chapter, ‘Prove It’, has Elf performing a new cut to an enraptured audience, in between the scenes of heartbreak that inspired it.
Part of the charm is Mitchell’s use of music terminology – enough to make things seem real, but not too much to turn off the reader. This balance, he tells me, is down to ‘IWATHS.’
‘It has to do with putting a number of things, three to five, that only someone with that knowledge could understand. It needed a word, so I called it an IWATH – a sort of acronym for I Was There. When reading or speaking to musicians, I would hunt for these IWATHS for these things that only they understood.’
The other fascinating part of Utopia Avenue is how it ties into Mitchell’s body of work. Fans may notice one of the band members – Jasper DeZoet – shares a surname with the protagonist of Mitchell’s 2010 book, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob DeZoet. Mitchell’s 1999 debut Ghostwritten is also heavily represented, with ‘The Mongolian’ from that book playing a mystical role for one character.
‘It’s fun,’ Mitchell laughs. ‘But it also allows me to be a minimalist and maximalist at the same time. I can write a novel that stands on its own terms, but it also allows me to add one big Duplo block to my “Uber Novel”, within which every novel is another chapter.’
While David and I chat about the ’60s in the middle of a pandemic and historic protests, the cyclical nature of history isn’t lost on us. The albatross of the late ’60s was nuclear annihilation and a fight for human rights that some call the degradation of society. The albatross of 2020 is a global pandemic and a fight for human rights that some people call a riot.
‘I was sort of writing the book thinking it’s not going to be very relevant, it’s a borderline historic novel. Suddenly it’s not again!
‘There are times when the pendulum swings one way, where it feels that ideas can’t really change the world.
‘Thank God the pendulum swings the other way.’