Review: Utopia Avenue
A 576-page novel about a fictional British rock band trying to make its way to international stardom in the late 1960s? That really doesn’t sound like my cup of tea—but this one was written by one of my favorite authors, David Mitchell (Cloud Atlas, The Bone Clocks), so it was an instant purchase for me.
Utopia Avenue tells the story of the eponymous band from the perspective of its members—Dean Moss, Elf Holloway, Jasper de Zoet, Peter “Griff” Griffin—and their manager, Levon Frankland. Each chapter is named for one of the band’s songs and focuses on one of the main characters. (To promote the book, Penguin created a PDF with complete lyrics written by Mitchell for several of the songs, attributed to Utopia Avenue’s songwriters. Actually singing them might prove challenging!)
The book does not overplay the rags-to-riches angle of a band struggling towards success. Instead, it focuses especially on Dean, Elf, and Jasper, whose different class backgrounds and personal struggles (with sexual identity, with mental health, with discrimination, with estranged family, with grief) elevate the book beyond its colorful setting.
Astute Mitchell readers will recognize Jasper’s last name from The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, which is about the adventures of Jasper’s great-great-great grandfather. Jasper’s story intersects with the supernatural elements of the Mitchellverse, but this is only one thread among many, and Utopia Avenue stands entirely on its own.
Nonetheless, it’s par for the course for Mitchell to include plenty of references to prior works, and he does so with gusto, including a significant role for Luisa Rey, the Spyglass writer from Cloud Atlas (unforgettably portrayed by Halle Berry in the 2012 movie).
What’s more unusual is that Utopia Avenue is chock-full of real-world cameos, from David Bowie to John Lennon, from Jimi Hendrix to Leonard Cohen. Mitchell tries to make these encounters brief and memorable, but some readers will find the portrayal of these (in some cases recently) deceased celebrities jarring and cartoonish.
Mitchell might agree. He loves playing with the contrast between the serious and the farcical, the exaggerated and the real. Compare Cloud Atlas: Is Luisa Rey the character of a mystery novel inside the novel, or a fictionalized Karen Silkwood? The world of Utopia Avenue is the same one in which writer Dermot Hoggins throws book critic Felix Finch off a twelfth floor balcony.
I enjoyed the celebrity cameos without taking them too seriously. I love that some readers have compiled playlists on Spotify and on YouTube of the many works referenced in Utopia Avenue. Clearly, these readers felt transported by the book—not to the historical 1960s, but to an imagined place and time. In Mitchell’s own words, he evokes lacunae, just like when Dean Moss discovers a hidden church while wandering Rome:
In memory and in dream, he’d revisit this lacuna in time and in space. The place was a part of him now. Every lifetime, every spin of the wheel, holds a few such lacunae. A jetty by an estuary, a single bed under a skylight, a bandstand in a twilit park, a hidden church in a hidden square. The candles at the altar did not burn out. (p. 330)
Utopia Avenue is bright and stylish; it plays with plenty of tropes and stereotypes (sometimes to its detriment), but does not neglect the inner lives of its characters. If you’re new to Mitchell and the subject-matter does not appeal to you, you may want to sample his other works first—The Bone Clocks is fantastical and accessible; Cloud Atlas is masterful and deeply moving; Ghostwritten and number9dream are showy and experimental; Slade House is short and creepy; Thousand Autumns is an adventure in a different time; Black Swan Green is evocative and wondrous, a personal favorite.