Utopia Avenue, David Mitchell’s new book, ‘hooked’ into memories of things I learned to love long ago that have stayed with me all these years. I was just out of college in the years Mitchell sets his band, called Utopia Avenue, down in. If you want to invent a rock band there is not a better era than that musical era that contained so many great bands and solo artists. After all that was the age of Jimi Hendrix, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Joanie Mitchell and Graham Nash, the Grateful Dead, Cream, and that doesn’t even scratch the surface. I sat in summer-green parks and watched children chase bubbles and whiled the afternoons away listening to great music. I saw the Moody Blues in concert. I went to Woodstock. I cannot help enjoying Mitchell’s story.
He gives us great characters too. Dean Moss is the first band member we meet and he is having a very bad day. He is not playing in a band at the moment and a pick pocket rips off his rent money. He gets evicted by his cruel landlady. He left his last band, Battleship Potemkin, a poorly designed band that tried to rock out to some Communist ideology. He asks at the coffee shop where he now works if he can have an advance and he loses his job. All the while the juke box in the diner plays an ironic soundtrack. But then the day ends with an astounding piece of luck. Dean runs into Levon Frankland who has heard Dean play his bass guitar. Frankland wants to put a band together with the best musicians he has seen at the London clubs.
We meet Elf, a girl folk singer with a user boyfriend, and he isn’t using drugs, he is using Elf, who has talent and character. Griff plays a harmonica and he is also the drummer. Jason sings and plays guitar. Elf plays guitar, piano, any keyboard instrument; she writes great songs and is a singer with some recording chops already. Dean sings and writes songs and so does Jason so this band would have a deep bench. They are lucky that Levon is the manager who found them because he is honest, and the music scene was and is loaded with managers who are happy to rip-off their artists.
David Mitchell usually writes dense books that play with time and offer up symbolic doses of social commentary; books that are sometimes like a mind puzzle. This book worked a bit differently. It plays with time in the sense that Mitchell sees parallels between 2018 and 1968. If you were around in both of these times, which Mitchell was not, but I was, the time travel happens inside my mind, inspired by Mitchell’s story. The people he mentions as contemporaries of Utopia Avenue are the same people I listen to on my stereo today. Yes I still have a stereo, but it only plays CD’s. So the reverberations of this book in my own life are trippy enough, but that is an accidental effect since I don’t think the book was aimed at only old hippies. It’s difficult for me to perceive, though, how it affects a younger reader. I say take a chance. Go for it. If you’re alive, you know rock bands.
Mitchell also does that ‘horology’ thing he does. Jason’s last name is de Zoet. Jason hangs on to sanity by a thread, via a drug prescribed for him and a strange encounter on a beach. Is Knock-Knock real? Is knock-knock a joke. Is Jason schizophrenic? Jason is able to forget the battle in his head when he’s on stage but when he is not performing he keeps expecting the quarantined Knock-Knock to return at any moment. He has seen ‘Knock-Knock’ and he takes the form of an imperious oriental figure who wants Jason dead. If you have read The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet then you see the connection right away. If you didn’t read it, just go with the flow. All will be explained and it will be sufficiently freaky.
When the band gets famous enough, they are offered performances in America. Mitchell is able to fit in some observations about America through the eyes of Brits who have some delusions about the USA.
“I’ve never associated America with violence,” says Elf.
“Violence is on every page of our history.” Max mops up his gazpacho soup with a crust. “Brave settlers massacring Indians. Some days we’d cheat them with worthless treaties, but mostly it was massacres. Slavery. Work for me for nothing till the day you die, or I’ll kill you now. The Civil War. We industrialized violence. We mass produced it, years before Ford. Years before the trenches of Flanders. Gettysburg! Fifty thousand deaths in a single day. The Klan. Lynchings. The Frontier. Hiroshima. The Teamsters. War! We need war like the French need cheese.” Page 424
So not quite as abstract as some of Mitchell’s other books but packed with enough material for several readings. I don’t know why he chose a band as his vehicle but it worked for me. It’s an ‘Is it real, or is it Memorex’ moment. You may not be old enough for that reference either. He still sits firmly on my ‘great writer’ list.