UTOPIA AVENUE by DAVID MITCHELL

 |   |  2 min read

UTOPIA AVENUE by DAVID MITCHELL
Around the midpoint of this 560 page doorstop by the acclaimed writer David Mitchell, anyone who has a loose working knowledge of how Sixties pop and rock bands like the Beatles, Stones, Who and others formed will be wondering what the point of this book is.

Mitchell here writes of a fictional British band Utopia Avenue, pulled together by a manager who is astute, gay (as were Beatles' manager Brian Epstein and Who manager Kit Lambert) and Jewish (Epstein again).

The band is made up of very different characters: blues bassist Dean Moss; singer Elf Holloway who has had some prior success on the folk circuit with her former boyfriend; jazz drummer Griff Griffin and the intense, troubled and gifted guitarist Jasper de Zoet who is from a wealthy Dutch family.

Pick a real artist for each of those cyphers.

These four are woven together as a group – Mitchell delights in writing song titles for them – and they walk through the world of the London's Sixties encountering all the heroes from those days, each performing to type: a stoned Lennon, Bowie on the stairs (he's going up and they are coming down), an addled Brian Jones, Little Richard in a flamboyant stage act . . .

So it goes, a lot of dead rock stars – and Bert Jansch, John Martyn and others from Elf's folk world – get brief cameos.

And here's another clue for you all: in a sly aside Mitchell includes the fictional musician Robert Frobisher from his previous novel Cloud Atlas.

Events of the period are peppered about too – the Grosvenor Square demonstration and march to the US Embassy also has a walk on role, de Zoet stays in the Chelsea Hotel in New York and meets its owner Stanley Bard, a dapper Leonard Cohen is there in the lift and at the party . . .

This shuffling of a fictional narrative with a few real characters (and the album by Frobisher which influences the sensitive de Zoet) and plenty of pop culture references goes a very long way.

But for far too long in no particular direction.

By the time the band is successful they are in San Francisco (where of course they hole up with the Grateful Dead) and in LA they go to the Troubadour and party at Mama Cass' house where Joni Mitchell plays, the Plaster Casters appear as does Frank Zappa . . .

And so it goes, and goes.

The five protagonists – manager Lawrence included – have interesting lives outside the band and Mitchell draws them as fully-formed characters (de Zoet's troubled story keeps circling in and out) but to what purpose?

The end is entirely predictable for those who read the Reissue reviews in rock magazines.

This is a big read and an astute friend pointed out that Mitchell, who recreates this period with an eye for detail – although the accumulation of characters and places is wearying – was born in 1969.

He missed the Sixties and early Seventies so here recreates it for himself. And the dead rock stars are not around to contradict him.

An odd and oddly pointless book, other than as a diversion back to a time when giants stalked the earth.

I wonder if there's going to be an album?


UTOPIA AVENUE by DAVID MITCHELL. Sceptre Books NZ$38

Share It

Your Comments

GlimmerTwin - Sep 7, 2020

Suitably warned but had already started it and decided to plough on. What a struggle and ultimate disappointment. Needed a decent editor and trim by 200 pages.Basically there are no likeable characters. I found myself skim reading and reading another book at the same time . Mildly interesting to spot the “ real” musician - look there’s Gene Clark in Amsterdam in 1968 for example ...be warned (again)...

Ross - Sep 16, 2020

There won't be an album but you can bet your bottom end there's going to be another book. Despite his legion of faithful critics Mitchell is continuing to plough an esoteric path of mysticism and psychomachia painted on a real-world canvas. Utopia Avenue may not be his best work but those of us captivated by The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet and The Bone Clocks will be looking for more of that reality bent by the chimeric in the future. Who needs drugs when you've got Mitchell to bend the mind. As Zappa says in Utopia Avenue, "We're abstainers. The world is majestic enough."

post a comment

More from this section   Writing articles index

NOWHERE NEAR by ALICE MILLER

NOWHERE NEAR by ALICE MILLER

The first time I went back to Britain as an adult (or at least a late-teen) I wrote in the journal I was carrying that “England is full of dead people”. Graveyards in villages, St... > Read more

JOHNNY CASH AT FOLSOM PRISON;THE MAKING OF A MASTERPIECE by MICHEAL STREISSGUTH

JOHNNY CASH AT FOLSOM PRISON;THE MAKING OF A MASTERPIECE by MICHEAL STREISSGUTH

A hip comedy club, New York, late 1980s. The stand-up delivers a one-liner which has the smart set baying: "Does anyone know why Johnny Cash still wears black?"  At the time... > Read more

Elsewhere at Elsewhere

PULP REISSUED (2012): Portrait of the Jarvis as a young knobhead

PULP REISSUED (2012): Portrait of the Jarvis as a young knobhead

When the Sheffield band Pulp gate-crashed the relentlessly jingoistic and self-aggrandising Britpop party in '95 with their single Common People, they were hardly a new band. The Different... > Read more

AUSTRALIAN ABORIGINAL ART (2011): The state of the art

AUSTRALIAN ABORIGINAL ART (2011): The state of the art

If only the moment could have been frozen in the lens. It resonated with meanings. The heavily bearded Aboriginal man -- unsteady on his feet and the cuffs of his worn jeans caked red with dust... > Read more