Book review: Utopia Avenue, by David Mitchell

This feelgood story about the Sixties music scene riffs on familiar territory, but it draws its power from the author’s mythological oeuvre, writes Stuart Kelly

David Mitchell PIC: Stuart Wilson / Getty
David Mitchell PIC: Stuart Wilson / Getty

In a way, I could write this entire review unpicking the title of David Mitchell’s new novel. Utopia is the ideal state, and it does not exist. An “avenue”, originally, meant “the act of approaching or arrival” in military terms; in its English iteration it has connotations of suburbia. This novel would be a different proposition were it called “Dystopian Boulevard” or “Idyll Mews”. But in the context of the work, it is the name of a band.

One thing I find exceptional about Mitchell’s work is that you cannot predict the next book from the backlist. I certainly didn’t expect a hybrid of the band saga (think of Roddy Doyle’s The Commitments or John Byrne’s Tutti Frutti) spliced with a stirring of political consciousness story and supernatural entities. Mitchell winks at the critic mid-way through, when Utopia Avenue are being interviewed by a pretentious Dutch music broadcaster. “Yet, in fact, on this album we hear acid rock, folk with acid effects, R&B, folk interludes, passages of jazz,” he says after referring to it as their LP as “schizophrenic”. “Eclectic” one member retorts. Another says calling an LP schizophrenic is like calling a helicopter manic depressive.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

Utopia Avenue comprises Dean Moss, bassist, angry and Gravesend born’n’bred; Peter “Griff” Griffin on drums, a Yorkshireman who puts up wi’ nowt; Elf Holloway, who sings and composes and plays keyboard with a petit-bourgeois background; and the enigmatic Jasper de Zoet on guitar, whose dexterity is compared to Hendrix and Clapton. Perceptive readers will pick up immediately on the last name, given Mitchell has previously written The Thousand Autumns Of Jacob de Zoet. When I interviewed him about Slade House he said, with a twinkle, that all his novels, both retrospectively and in the future, exist in a shared universe. Those who enjoyed the fantastical elements of The Bone Clocks will be pleased that the mythology is still in place. All the characters here have their demons, but de Zoet’s is quite particular – he has an internal presence he calls “Knock Knock”. The scenes of him struggling with “Knock Knock” are terrifying, and the supernatural nature of this is offset by a world awash with Benzedrine, Guinness, marijuana and vodka. There is also a little gift in a record called The Cloud Atlas Sextet.

The book follows a classic arc, but it riffs on it. The band is cobbled together, they become better and better known after ghastly gigs in polytechnic bars, they get their breakthrough, they break America and everything goes wrong. There are incidents involving customs finding cash and drugs, sexual awakenings, terrible injuries and plagiarism. It is also a novel gleefully sprinkled with cameos. Utopia Avenue will run across John Lennon, Francis Bacon, Leonard Cohen, Jerry Garcia, Humphrey Lyttelton and many more (one character loves that he inhaled some molecules of Diana Ross as she was passing). There is something gloriously daring about this. We concentrate on Elf, Dean, Griff and Jasper, and the celebrities are fleeting. There is also – as there was bound to be – an encounter with Jimmy Savile on Top Of The Pops. Even (especially?) in the past they knew something was wrong.

All this is good, unclean fun, but the virtues of Utopia Avenue are rather different. As with Black Swan Green, Mitchell is pitch-perfect on the past, and on the overlooked places. Yes, the band will go to the States, but the ground-bass is their own childhoods. The period detail is done without any belabouring: those of us of a certain generation do remember the pips ringing on a phone box when the change runs out; or pubs closing between two and six on a Sunday. More importantly, Mitchell manages to write about goodness, without mawkishness. This is not an easy task, and to link it to redemption is even more challenging, but it works. In the “Mitchellverse” there are immortals of sorts, but the question here is “Who wants to live forever?” Is fame a surrogate version of undying? Or is being well-remembered more significant?

On almost every page Mitchell tweaks English to his own ends. Elf, “unguardedly”, says that if “psycho-acoustics” is a word, then it rhymes with “Pooh-sticks”. Or “Jasper recovers some of his composure but not his colour.”.“Instead of a three-minute firework display he offered a minute of squibs that went nowhere.” Parts seem almost Dickensian, especially in the names of the surrounding cast: Izzy Penhaligon, Aphra Booth, Heinz Formaggio, Randy Thorn. The book plays with imagined reviews and newspaper reports, with shuttling typography, with handwritten clues. It is structured as the albums of Utopia Avenue, with the protagonist varying over each track – so Paradise Is The Road To Paradise runs through Moss, Holloway, De Zoet, Moss, Holloway: Griff conspicuously never gets a track.

In a way, the words I might use to describe this are words that a critic would shun. It is kind. It is funny without being demeaning. It is open-hearted. It is, all told, a bit of a tear-jerker, as music should be.

Utopia Avenue, by David Mitchell, Sceptre, £20

A message from the Editor

Thank you for reading this story on our website. While I have your attention, I also have an important request to make of you.

With the coronavirus lockdown having a major impact on many of our advertisers - and consequently the revenue we receive - we are more reliant than ever on you taking out a digital subscription.

Subscribe to and enjoy unlimited access to Scottish news and information online and on our app. With a digital subscription, you can read more than 5 articles, see fewer ads, enjoy faster load times, and get access to exclusive newsletters and content. Visit now to sign up.

Joy Yates

Editorial Director