By the Book - Literary Life Lessons

By the Book #31 – Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell

David Mitchell has written a new novel! It's about the 1960s and its music - my favourite!

Ah, the Sixties. The swinging sixties, the stylish sixties, the super sixties. I don’t know why, but somehow this decade speaks to me more than any other, and I’ve watched so many series set in it and listened to so many songs from the era, that sometimes it feels like I was alive at that time. Whenever I hear the intro of a song, I shout out its title, sing along to it, and, on certain occasions, attempt to dance to it – regardless of where I am. David Mitchell’s latest novel, Utopia Avenue, is about a London band in 1967, and it combines my two passions, reading and music. Want to know what it’s about? Read on!

Utopia Avenue is about the eponymous fictional rockband formed in 1967 in London, which consists of keyboard player and singer Elf Holloway, bass player Dean Moss, guitar virtuoso Jasper de Zoet, and drummer Peter Griffin, who were brought together by their manager Levon Frankland. At first, they struggle to become famous, but later on, as they slowly climb the charts, they realise that they struggle even more with who they are, and who they want to be.

When it comes to David Mitchell’s novels, nothing is what it seems. He is most famous for his genre-defying Cloud Atlas, which consists of six storylines spanning several centuries but which are still linked together. Actually, all of Mitchell’s novels are somehow related to each other, and Utopia Avenue is no exception. While this novel can be read as a fairly conventional novel, there are several levels on which it can be enjoyed.

Firstly, Utopia Avenue is a continuation of the David Mitchell Universe. Even if you haven’t read any of his novels before, it becomes clear that the author refers to his own work in Utopia Avenue; there are countless hints towards this intertextuality. For instance, Jasper listens to a record called Cloud Atlas Suite, an extremely rare piece that hardly anyone knows. Furthermore, many of Mitchell’s other novels’ characters also make an appearance in the 1967 London of Utopia Avenue.

However, David Mitchell’s ability to incorporate his entire oeuvre into each of his novels is best illustrated by the character of Jasper de Zoet, the Dutch-English guitarist of Utopia Avenue. He is a descendent of the protagonist of Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, and Jasper struggles with the same issues as his great-great-great-great grandfather. He is possessed by the spirit of an evil monk, and slowly starts losing his mind. At the end of Utopia Avenue, he is cured by characters that feature in another Mitchell novel, The Bone Clocks. It sounds confusing, doesn’t it? But trust me, having read any of Mitchell’s novels is not a prerequisite for the enjoyment of his latest one.

Utopia Avenue can also be seen as an ode to music. The story is structured like a band’s discography. It consists of several parts, with four or five chapters each. Each part is an album, and these chapters are songs written by the band, and these chapters are told from the perspective of the band member who wrote the song. Each chapter shows the inspiration for one of their songs, and it’s a very clever way to describe the character development as well as the story of the entire band. In a way, Utopia Avenue reads like a documentary of your favourite bands, and you get an insight into the band, its members, and its music.

It becomes clear straight from the start that David Mitchell, like me, is a big fan of the late sixties. 1967 is often seen as the best year in music, and many of the artists who contributed to this are featured in Utopia Avenue. David Bowie, some Rolling Stones, John Lennon, Steve Winwood, Leonard Cohen – they all have their cameos and share their words of wisdom with the band members. It might sound a bit forced, but it makes perfect sense. That’s because the band name was chosen so perfectly, and because David Mitchell knows exactly what he is doing as a writer.

Utopia Avenue is an oxymoron, a figure of speech that places two conflicting ideas behind each other. A utopia is a perfect place that simply cannot be, while avenues are real and everywhere. The title of the band (and the novel) kept reminding me that the adventures of the four band members are fictional, even though they are set in a real era. All the famous people they encounter are mere reflections of the legends they have become – and as a result, they, too, have become fictionalised in this novel. It might seem real, but what’s described in this novel is only Mitchell’s utopia.

Finally, Utopia Avenue is not about David Mitchell, nor is it about 1967 London. It is about growing up. It is about how, when we’re young, we all have our dreams of becoming rich and famous, but we still have to face reality. Each member of the band has their own struggles to deal with: Dean’s father is an alcoholic, and as a result he is quite susceptible to the alcohol and the drugs that are widely available wherever he goes; Elf has to come to terms with her sexuality; Griff has to overcome grief and decide what’s most important in his life; and Jasper is reluctant to tell anyone about the voices he keeps hearing inside his mind. All characters are relatable and realistic, even though they live in a fictionalised, perfect time.

I think that, ultimately Utopia Avenue is about how music can lift us up, and turn four seemingly normal young persons into something more than themselves. This novel is a celebration of both music and of literature. It can be read as one chapter of the Mitchell Experience, it gives us a great insight into what being a musician in that defining era must have been like, and it shows how painful growing up can be. It is each of those seperately, and it is all of the above simultaneously.

Reading Utopia Avenue is like listening to these brilliant songs from the 1960s: some prefer to know the lyrics, others solely listen to the music, and then there’s also those who want to know the background to each band member, each line, and each riff. (I must admit I’m one of those freaks who wants to do all of the above at the same time, as well as dancing to it and sharing trivia with anyone who’ll listen.). Regardless of which layer you want to focus on, the songs always work.

What did you think of Utopia Avenue? Which band from the 1960s would you like to meet? Do let me know in the comments! Also, don’t forget to follow me for more book musings!

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