God bless the mail carrier who soldiered on, risking the coronavirus and the anguish of sirens and death that overtook my Upper West Side neighborhood this spring, to bring this doorstop of a novel to my apartment building—along with an absentee-ballot vote-by-mail form. I mean truly, God bless her. And while we’re at it, long live the United States Postal Service!
The book was just what the doctor ordered. I’d spent much of March self-isolating through a gnarly bout with the virus, and re-entered the world wobbly and weak, heartsick and fried, with the attention span of a gnat. Then, behold: Utopia Avenue, the ninth novel by David Mitchell, author previously of Cloud Atlas and twice short-listed for the Booker Prize. All 592 pages weighed appealingly heavy in my hands, a promise to take my mind off shapeless, scary days, even though the first chapter is titled “Abandon Hope.”
Rock ’n’ Roll Revolution
Right off we meet sexy blues bassist Dean Moss, who, in quick succession, is conned out of his rent money, hits bottom, and meets-cute his future manager, Levon Franklin.
I had more than hope: I knew I was in for a rollicking, full-throated, rambunctious ride back into the late-1960s music scene, in Britain and here across the pond, full of sex and drugs and rock ’n’ roll, anti-war demonstrations and parties and orgies and revolts. The pages reeked of messy life and were quite the tonic.
In no time, Levon expediently packages Dean with three other down-on-their-luck musicians: the folkie Elf Hollaway, a talented singer and songwriter, who has just been dumped by her boyfriend; rough-and-tumble jazz percussionist Griff Griffin, dubbed a “drummer of many parts” by The Village Voice (“Sounds as if my arms and legs unscrew,” Griff says dryly); and my Beatle, Jasper de Zoet (Mitchell fans, do you recognize the last name?), the tortured, poetic, and inscrutable lead guitarist whose dizzyingly evocative crack-up broke my heart open and made my head spin. The years are 1967–68—another era where the world exploded, the book’s protest marches and riots loudly echoing outside my own doorway.
The newly formed band, Utopia Avenue, starts playing Soho dives “hot dank and dark as armpits.” They drive the Beast—“a twenty-five-year-old ex-hearse with holes in the floor yer can see the road through”—on long trips to gigs at student unions and other cut-rate venues. Sure, this fabulous four take plenty of lumps, independently and collectively, but as musicians their sum is greater than their parts. Together, they are magic.
The book’s protest marches and riots loudly echoed outside my own doorway.
Though mostly broke, the band rises quickly. Sometimes they are in awe of the folks they meet—London is hopping with so many artists and writers the group can’t help but stumble over them—and soon some of the fancier crowd are just as taken with Utopia Avenue, even envious. If a novel could name-drop, this one would be a world-class social climber.
Mostly, it’s fun to go along with the ride: Jasper meets a jealous, kvetching David Bowie—“What if my only talent is telling people I’ve got talent?”—and they share their fears about mental illness. “I worry it is ticking away in me, too. Like a timebomb,” Bowie says. Jasper, a schizophrenic, thinks, “I know it’s ticking in me.” Desperate for relief, he also compares notes on psychosis with Brian Jones at the same wild party where Jones, Jimi Hendrix, and Keith Moon’s deaths are foretold by a spoiled little boy in a cowboy hat and with a toy gun. “Bang bang, You’re dead, Bang bang you too.” A trip to New York and the Chelsea Hotel yields elevator rides with Leonard Cohen and a heart-to-heart between Elf and her hero (and mine), Janis Joplin, on sexism in the music industry. The narrative unspools as if we’re living in the band members’ own fantasies, the time period itself so fecund with artistic inter-pollination and partying that all the rubbing of exotic elbows actually makes some sense.
Throughout, Mitchell’s prose is zesty and alive. His voice enters your veins like soda water. It invigorates and buoys, then cools down to abject calm. “Sunday evening pools in London’s gardens, seeps through cracks and darkens streets.” “Above her is a skylight of soiled sky.” No small part of the pleasure of reading Utopia Avenue comes from the apparent delight Mitchell took in writing it. A lover of inventive form, he names each chapter after a song and centers each on a single character; there are six “sides,” and they are arranged in the order they were fictively pressed into albums, three in total, released by the titular band.
Clearly a music devotee, Mitchell wrote all the band’s lyrics—a risk for a novelist. He describes the qualities of their music rapturously, as if he’s trying to capture sounds he hears in his head and pin them down with words. Easier said than done, but Mitchell’s not in it for an easy ride, and for those of us who love this kind of thing, it’s great to watch him try. This is a beautiful, intimate novel with all “the feels,” as the kids say these days, a not unfamiliar story about a not unfamiliar era, but told with so much heart and soul I didn’t want it to end.
Helen Schulman is the author of several novels, including This Beautiful Life and, most recently, Come with Me