The year: 1967. The place: London’s Soho. The soundtrack: the Rolling Stones, Donovan, the Kinks, Muddy Waters, Steve Cropper, Cream, and the Small Faces — in the first chapter alone. The character we meet first: “Angry Young Bassist” Dean Moss, who in two dozen pages is pickpocketed, evicted, and fired; he’s also anointed by Levon Frankland, the band manager who will make him — along with “Stratocaster demigod” Jasper de Zoet, “folk-scene doyenne” Elf Holloway, and foul-mouthed “jazz drummer” Peter “Griff” Griffin — a star. The book: David Mitchell’s latest novel, “Utopia Avenue,” the history of the band Utopia Avenue. (“That’s the paradox. Utopia is unattainable. Avenues are everywhere.”)
Levon’s musical matchmaking is followed by a disastrous first gig in the provinces, the gig where everything comes together, a first single that flops, the single that climbs the charts, an uneventful first album, a rapturously received second, a European tour, the attention-grabbing arrest of a band member, and finally America, including a stay at the Chelsea Hotel, a triumphant stand at the Troubadour, and a surprise ending straight out of a first-year creative writing seminar. This rock ’n’ roll story may sound familiar (a host of oral histories, memoirs, and documentaries come to mind, not to mention last year’s delightful “Daisy Jones & the Six”). But Mitchell’s narrative finesse, impeccable research, and detail-loving prose bring the band — “a mix of Dean’s R&B, Jasper’s strange virtuosity, [Elf’s] folk roots, Griff’s jazz” — and its equally archetypal characters — upper-class Jasper, middle-class Elf, working-class Dean and Griff — to mostly entertaining life.
The band’s three albums serve as the book’s organizing structure, their songs as chapter titles. Each chapter is narrated from the perspective of the titular song’s writer and includes the events that inspire the song. We learn about Dean’s abusive father in “Purple Flames,” Elf’s betrayal by her controlling-boyfriend-cum-former-folk-singing-partner in “Prove It,” and Jasper’s teenage breakdown and stint in a Dutch mental hospital in “The Prize,” “Night Watchman,” and “Who Shall I Say Is Calling?” (As neglected as a real-life drummer, Griff contributes little beyond brilliant drum riffs and Yorkshire-accented curses.)
It’s the era of album covers, pirate radio, and listening booths in record stores, and Mitchell revels in capturing it all: music and society, high and low, fictional and real, adjectives and nouns. Playing a drum solo, “Griff showed off an Art Blakey press-roll; a skipping run of ostinato; an Elvin Jones rolling triplet pulse; some swing era cymbal-playing.” Flush with money for the first time in his life, Dean delights in driving his “spanking new cherry-red Triumph Spitfire Mark III” around London.
Cameos and references proliferate: a London party with John Lennon, Keith Moon, and Brian Jones here; American soirees hosted by Janis Joplin and Mama Cass there. Elf awakens at the Chelsea Hotel to “A Chelsea morning, with sun through yellow curtains and a rainbow on the wall.” David Bowie meets Jasper on a staircase not once but twice, marking the symbolism himself: “I was on my way up then. Now I’m going down. Is that a metaphor?”
If rock fans will thrill to the musical references, Mitchell groupies will salivate at allusions to previous novels, beginning with Jasper’s surname (“The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet”) and a recording of “The Cloud Atlas Sextet.” Familiar characters appear, some briefly, like a young Crispin Hershey (“The Bone Clocks”), others in more significant roles, like Luisa Rey (“Cloud Atlas”). Still, the novel remains on straightforward ground until Jasper has his second breakdown and the knocking sounds that appeared to be schizophrenia erupt into a time-traveling battle for his body and soul between the Horologist Marinus (“The Thousand Autumns,” “The Bone Clocks”) and Abbot Enomoto (“The Thousand Autumns”). While Jasper’s question “Am I insane or is this real?” leaves open the possibility of reading these scenes as hallucinations, they nevertheless add to the intertextual fictional world Mitchell has built over the last two decades, which will reward some readers and leave others cold.
A novel set in the late ’60s can’t ignore politics. Student uprisings and Vietnam War protests form the backdrop to Utopia Avenue’s ascent, and its characters embrace the radical potential of art. When a reporter asks, “Should music try to trigger change?”, Dean answers, “The best music’s … a kind o’ rethinking. It doesn’t follow orders.” Elf believes “If a song acknowledges the lives of the lowly, the poor, the shafted, immigrants and women, then … it’s political.” Jasper proclaims that “songs … [influence] the minds of the people who change the world.”
Yet the novel itself is strangely reactionary. Conversations between men objectify and disparage women, while women rarely converse with each other, aside from Elf and her sisters. Elf explicitly suffers from the music world’s sexism but is depicted as the band’s compassionate peacemaker. Black women appear only as scenery, often to highlight Elf, who offers a “tired-looking Caribbean woman” a seat on the bus and sees a baby throw up on its “Caribbean-looking” mother. Most startling are Dean’s references to an “Oriental lady” (Yoko Ono!) and even a “Red Indian.”
This can all be read as the verisimilitude of the committed historical novelist, for it would be anachronistic at best to write 1960s rock ‘n’ roll London as an egalitarian paradise. Yet Mitchell has demonstrated boundless literary imagination in the worlds he creates. Surely, he could have been more imaginative in reckoning with past mores as he created Utopia Avenue.
By David Mitchell
Random House, 592 pp., $30
Rebecca Steinitz is the author of “Time, Space, and Gender in the Nineteenth-Century British Diary.”