David Mitchell occupies one of a few hallowed spots on my virtual shelf of: buy sight unseen. Even if he were to take on the most tried and true plot ever contrived, I believe his wordsmithing would overcome any inherent triviality, producing an engaging novel in the process; reading a Mitchell story is like being scrubbed in the waters of dynamic diction and gregarious character. The man’s writing defines ‘verve’. Utopia Avenue (2020) was bought review unread. It’s time to see if his spot on the shelf is still deserved.
Utopia Avenue is yet another departure for David Mitchell. Each of his prior novels scattered across the dartboard of setting and theme, Utopia Avenue finds itself in the counter-culture revolution of 1960s England. What we’ve come to call classic rock starting to take center stage, the book tells of a fictional band—a drummer, bassist, guitarist, and organist—who come together under the numinous auspices of Canadian manager Leon—to make it big. This arc of story, from poverty to success and beyond is everything a reader would expect from such a story. But it is likewise more.
Utopia Avenue feels like one of those novels that a novelist always wanted to write but didn’t, until now. The years between Mitchell’s prior novel and this must have been when the time felt right. Bringing to bear real-life knowledge of rock music from the mid-20th century upon a fictional band finding the joys and sorrows of life through that era seems to have been a personally enjoyable thing for Mitchell. Not hitting the reader over the head with an encyclopedic knowledge of Pink Floyd, revival Beatles, The Rolling Stones, or Led Zeppelin, the music is certainly mentioned, but most often part of the flow. With shout outs “Look there’s Hendrix!”, only occasionally does the novel feel gratuitous. Yet still, front and center, under spotlights are the lives of the four band members.
It’s here that it feels like Mitchell is really testing himself, pushing to write wholly 3D, realistic characters. Where prior novels are bursting with effervescent people, for as colorful as they are, and as lively their dialogue and interaction may be, few underwent any sort of transformation or evolution in a manner that did not belie the relatively—relatively—genre nature of their stories. They were distinct on the page, yet failed to be human in realistic, transformative fashion. In Utopia Avenue Mitchell appears to tackle this.
And it is a success to some degree. Mitchell’s vibrant style is still in the reader’s face almost throughout, and through it shine moments of pain and glory the reader can relate to as more subtly real, something more representative of those around us—of musicians whose biographies we might be interested in. But there is still some fence-sitting going on: to be or not to be mimetic? Answer: it’s fair to say this is one of Mitchell’s most subtle novels. The bombasticism of Cloud Atlas or The Bone Clocks has been tempered by a stronger focus on character development and representation, and the novel feels quieter, more personal for it. That being said, there are still external forces reaching in to surprise and twist their stories as much as their own personal decisions.
In the end, Mitchell proves he is still one of the strongest authors writing today, though it does not achieve the heights of some of his previous novels. The ollie-into-kick-flip prose that bowls you over with its wit and charm remains, even if the focus is more human. So too is the layering, or perhaps more specifically, the rotation of character perspective, to keep things continually fresh and engaging. The delving into the counter-culture of England circa the mid-20th century, and all of the breaking of norms that it brought in tow, is realized for the reader in a manner that nicely contextualizes the culture wars of the beginning of the 21st century. If you haven’t read Mitchell before, this may not be the best starting place, but for fans of the author it’s unlikely to wholly disappoint. For me, Mitchell retains his slot among writers who can be bought sight unseen, but for this type of novel about a band coming to fame in the counter-culture with a delicate touch of the fantastic I would first read Elizabeth Hand’s Wylding Hall.