Ready Yourself To Say Yes: David Mitchell’s Utopia Avenue

The new book by Cloud Atlas author David Mitchell is a journey into the music of the 60s that somehow manages to avoid excessses of nostalgia or sentiment, finds Mathew Lyons

Photo credit: Paul Stuart

In ‘The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish’, one of the stories that make up Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell’s best-known work, the eponymous narrator is in a taxi when he hears a song on the radio “about how everything that dies some day comes back”. (The song isn’t named, but it’s Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Atlantic City’.) Popular music has always been deeply woven into Mitchell’s work, and it can express ideas – here eternal recurrence, a key Mitchell theme – with a candour and clarity novels can only aspire to.

But a whole novel about about the music scene in the 60s, that most picked-over, mythologised and clichéd of decades, would seem to be a major gamble for an author whose interests – for all his abundant gifts for story-telling, character and description – have generally tended away from mainstream subjects and towards the oblique and metaphysical. Is he really the writer to revivify that hoary old carcass?

The answer is yes. Mitchell has invented a band, the Utopia Avenue of the book’s title, and inserted them into the underground London and elsewhere of, roughly, 1967–9. His creations mingle with real-life musicians and other celebrities; names aren’t so much dropped as strewn across Utopia Avenue’s 550-odd pages. The band release two albums and start work on a third while the 60s dream crumbles around them.

Who are Utopia Avenue? Arguably, they are very much the sort of band you’d expect David Mitchell to invent for late-60s London, in that they comprise a character from the folk scene, a character from the blues scene, a character from the jazz scene, and a character from another David Mitchell novel. (Strictly speaking, this novel’s Jasper de Zoet is merely descended from the principal character in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, but the point still stands. Jasper is very much in thrall to Jacob’s past.)

The other three are Elf Holloway, Dean Moss, and Peter ‘Griff’ Griffin. Elf is a middle-class folk singer, keyboard player, and guitarist from South West London in the Sandy Denny mode. Dean, the bassist, and Griff, the drummer, are both working class, from Gravesend and Hull, blues and jazz, respectively. Jasper is semi-aristocratic, Anglo-Dutch and a pioneering psychedelic guitarist. We first meet him in a club playing a solo which “takes up the melody and, bewitchingly, inverts it”. In Utopia Avenue, everything reflects back on itself, even the guitar solos.

The fifth member of this quartet is its manager, a gay Canadian exile called Levon Frankland, a few years the others’ senior. More than their manager, he is their creator. The band make art into reality through their music; he makes art, and a family, by making them. Who’s to say the two things are much different? He is, in some respects, the author’s cipher in all of this. “If Levon hadn’t assembled us, we wouldn’t exist,” Jasper says at one point. His creation of the band isn’t so much a Faustian pact as a Faustian promise.

Elf, Dean and Jasper are all songwriters and the book is formally structured in three sections based on the band’s three albums, with each chapter a track from the given album, told from the songwriter’s point of view and revealing something of how each song evolved out of the emotional, creative, and circumstantial contingencies of each writer’s life. Griff and Levon get co-writes on a couple of tracks, so we get a little from their perspectives, but the songwriters are the primary characters here.

Written out like this, the formula sounds repetitive; it really isn’t. The poet George Szirtes wrote the other day, “the source of a poem is not like a shop that stays on the same street,” and the same is true for song. The relationships between art and reality, art and memory, art and time, are at the heart of the novel’s meanings and they play out across the composition of each album and song like a suite of variations on a series of musical themes.

The ultimate point, I think, is that reality isn’t mediated by art; it’s in some sense constructed by it. Art is how we understand reality. “If you don’t write it down, it didn’t happen,” Elf says. Dean falls out with a journalist. It’s a problem, Dean says. “Only in reality,” Levon replies. “Not in print, where it matters.” Halfway through the book, one character muses: “Have I strayed into a French novel where characters talk about art for page after page?” Readers can decide for themselves whether such comments are slyly self-referential or signs of authorial anxiety, but if you like aphorisms about art, this is very much the book for you. (I do, and this was.)

In fact, I can’t recall anyone who evokes as well as Mitchell does here the way creativity works, how new melodies and phrases snag in the mind, how they teasingly unfurl their wonders. Utopia Avenue is, among other things, a profoundly joyful book about artists finding their voices, finding their moment, learning how to be fully themselves. That the songwriters needed Levon and each other to enable that self-fulfilment is one of the many paradoxes of a book that delights in paradox almost as much as it does in structural symmetries, in reflection and recurrence.

But if the songwriters all get their own distinct narrative arcs, their own journeys, their own spiritual rebirths, what about the drummer? Drummers are famously the butt of a lot of jokes. Mitchell finds a home for a few of them in Utopia Avenue. But the structure of the book reminded me of another one: What do you call someone who’s always hanging out with musicians? Answer: A drummer. Mitchell seems aware of this: outside the Grateful Dead’s house in Haight-Ashbury, a tour bus stops and the guide rattles off the members of the band. “No mention of the fookin’ drummer,” Griff notes. He exists apart: while he has his traumas and crises, mostly Griff just is. I think this relates to Mitchell’s longstanding interest in time: the drummer is the band’s time-keeper, and time is what roots us in the world, what we measure our births and deaths, our exits and entrances, against.

Mitchell’s obsession with time runs through Utopia Avenue like a heartbeat. The past comes knocking, quite literally, for Jasper de Zoet. Phones ring. Cameras scroll. The legacies of World War Two litter the backstories. An unseen boy kicking a ball against a wall might be the future making its presence felt. If the novel is largely written in the present tense, it’s a present luminous with both past and future. It brought to mind nothing so much as St Augustine’s axiom that there are three kinds of time: a present of things past, a present of things present, a present of things to come.

This conflation of time is evident in the novel’s legion of cultural references too. Fairy tale and myth both signal, quietly but persistently, for our attention. Art and literature nudge us more insistently. Shakespeare abounds. The songs of the moment are everywhere. But here and there, lyrics and titles to songs yet to be written hang in the air too. This is also the point about the real-world artists who frequent pretty much every page. When we meet them, it is impossible not to meet them with their future selves in tow. This is, I think, explicitly Mitchell’s intention: the future, their futures, are there in the room with them. Early in the book, a young David Bowie recounts a dream about Berlin, the KGB, and heroin to Jasper. What does it mean, Bowie asks. “Don’t do heroin in Berlin,” Jasper replies. Jimmy Savile pops up a couple of times; a tabloid story praises his volunteer work at Leeds General Infirmary. The future is always present in the past.

Sometimes Mitchell gets a little too cute with this. Someone who is probably Mick Jagger pulls Dean aside at the anti-Vietnam War protest in Grosvenor Square and tells him it’s no place for a street-fighting man. A man in the lift at the Chelsea Hotel who smells of tea and oranges turns out to be… Well, I think you can guess who. On the other hand, a description of police brutality on the streets of Chicago feels shockingly prescient, until you remember that it is, in fact, shockingly timeless.

If it’s surprising, perhaps, that all the celebrity star-wattage on display in the novel doesn’t serve to dim its core fictions, that is testament both to Mitchell’s literary skill and to the deep complexity of his fictional world. In an interview for this year’s virtual Hay Festival, Mitchell said that he tries to make all his books sufficiently different to each other that, were his name not on the cover, you wouldn’t know they were by the same writer. It seems a quixotic, not to say paradoxical, ambition for a writer whose works refer so extensively to one another. (The interconnectedess of Mitchell’s novels has always reminded me of Michael Moorcock’s multiverse, and it was nice to see a little nod to Moorcock’s Mother London here.)

If anything, the connections in his work seem to be getting deeper and richer with each outing. Readers familiar with his previous books will recognise numerous characters and situations here, recurring in ways that mutually reinforce and extend the meanings of both Utopia Avenue and the other works in which they appear. In their own way, they are like celebrity cameos themselves. Most notably, perhaps, Luisa Rey is here from Cloud Atlas, substantially enlarging her backstory. Crispin Hershey from The Bone Clocks is here as a child. Dr Marinus is here from The Thousand Autumns and elsewhere. Mitchell repeats a whole paragraph from number9dream as Jasper watches that novel’s film PanOpticon. Dean’s Gravesend intersects with that of Holly Sykes from The Bone Clocks. Holly’s boyfriend Vinnie Costello, here six years old, zips past off-stage in a motorcycle sidecar on his way to meet her in the 1984 of that novel, just as a Triumph Spitfire threads its way through these pages to arrive in the hands of one of the band here. In Mitchell’s world, the past is always just the present waiting to arrive.

It’s no coincidence that Mitchell has chosen the underground scene of the mid-late 60s as his setting. The book is deeply concerned with the underground and the underworld as a metaphor for the subconscious, for the place from which both the creative impulse and the possibility of change emerge. “You’re not your own private ‘I’,” Jerry Garcia tells Dean late in the book. “Your brain only taps into consciousness. You aren’t a broadcaster. You’re a transceiver.” There are hints of the myths of Persephone, of Orpheus and Eurydice. Jasper sees a girlfriend off at the airport. “She looks back one last time, they way you’re warned against by myths and fairy tales.” Don’t look back, the book about the 1960s says. In such paradoxes are the novel’s truths to be found.

But the principal paradox of the novel is right there in the band’s name: utopia is at once a destination and a journey. Or, to put it another way, the journey is the destination. In lesser hands this might be cliché. Hell, it might be a cliché here too if it didn’t feel elevated into something like profundity by Mitchell’s gifts as a writer. What at first appears to be an affectionate pastiche of late-60s hippy philosophy becomes over time a moving affirmation of it.

The same might be true of the book’s fondness for the Shakespearean metaphor of life as a performance. “For a brief spell, we share a stage,” the painter Francis Bacon tells Levon. “Others are coming to kick us off. But while you’re here, write yourself a good part. Act it well.” Life is what we make it, then. The self isn’t written in indelible ink: it’s a changeable, protean thing. There are infinite iterations of it ahead of us, a billion ifs, as someone here notes. We must choose which ones to say yes to. Does this sound like platitude? Mitchell is ahead of you. “Wisdom is platitudes gussied up,” Bacon adds. You might equally say platitudes are wisdom without grace, but whatever Mitchell’s faults as a writer, lack of grace is not one of them.

Mitchell’s prose is characteristically elegant throughout, lucid and allusive. Here is Jasper in a record shop, “enjoying the updraught of air on his face with every sleeve flicked”. Here is Jasper, again, listening to a piece of classical music: “An oboe has lost its way. Upon hearing a violin in the thorns, the oboe picks a path towards it, metamorphosing into what it seeks.” (It’s the ‘Cloud Atlas Suite’, of course. ) Music is notoriously hard to write about, but it shouldn’t be a surprise that Mitchell does it so well. He’s so good himself at register and tone. Descriptions of the music Utopia Avenue make are rare though. The band’s sound is implied the way character is, through suggestions and synecdoche. Paradoxically, that makes one all the more eager to hear it.

If critics have struggled with Mitchell’s work it’s been because of its science fiction elements, with The Bone Clocks exciting particular discomfort. To be fair, it did lead to outbreaks of exposition, science fiction’s original sin. Here, Mitchell’s metaphysics essentially take place inside Jasper’s head, where readers unfamiliar with his fictional universe can regard the cosmic battle between Horologists and Carnivores more comfortably as metaphor. Although why the fiction of realism might be contradicted by the larger metaphorical fictions of Mitchell’s mythos has never been apparent to me; his ease in both modes reminds me of the late Russell Hoban. As Elf says, “Reality is nuanced, paradoxical, shifting. It’s difficult. It’s many things at once.” Fictional reality more so.

I said earlier that Utopia Avenue’s narrative takes place against the crumbling of the 60s dream. One of the novel’s curious features is that, while revolution is in the air, and there is fighting in the streets, and heroin and cocaine begin to make inroads, all of these things happen around the band, rather than to the band. Likewise, many of the dramatic staples of real-life band histories are absent from this one: intra-band rivalries, musical differences, fights over royalties, ego trips and so on. Utopia Avenue, the band, are Edenic, in that respect. For all the awful things that happen to them – and they do – the band retain a kind of innocence, an almost naive belief in themselves and each other, in their art. No-one is tainted by cynicism and defeat. Again, I think this is part of what Mitchell is doing by featuring so many dead musicians. The novel scrolls back time to when the dream is still alive, so the dream still lives, just as Janis and Jimi and others are risen from the dead, still young and breathing, looking ahead to future selves we know would never arrive. We can see their futures. They can’t. Another artful paradox, more bittersweet and poignant this time.

Utopia Avenue may be Mitchell’s most nakedly heartfelt novel yet. The grave may be a constant presence thematically, but the book radiates a life-affirming warmth. There is a lovely, compelling magic to its sleights of hand, its coincidences and contrivances. The way Mitchell’s fictions have tended to range so widely across time and space has perhaps mitigated against the exploration of deeper emotion. Utopia Avenue, by contrast, gives a new, human depth to the repetitions that have been such a feature of his work precisely because it stays so grounded in the moment. Everything dies, that’s a fact; grief’s drumbeat anchors us in time. It is how we live that matters. If the book embodies the hope of the 60s the way great performers embody their songs, it does so in a way that is neither nostalgic nor sentimental. If hope beckoned once, it beckons always. Art and life are likewise unbiddable; all you can do is ready yourself to say yes. Then everything that dies really might come back.

Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell is published by Hodder & Stoughton

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