Books

David Mitchell’s New Novel Offers a Slice of Paradise

Utopia Avenue shows the Cloud Atlas author is best when he stays grounded.

Utopia Avenue book cover in the clouds.
Photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo/Slate. Images by Random House and Nicholas Swanson on Unsplash.

For the past five decades, the story of late ’60s counterculture has been seen as a saga of rise and fall, hubristic idealism followed by bitter disillusionment. For every triumphant march against the Vietnam War, there was a Kent State. For every revelatory acid trip, there was a soul pulverized by speed and heroin. For every Woodstock, an Altamont. In other words: Every Eden has its serpent. So when Frank Zappa turns up toward the end of Utopia Avenue, David Mitchell’s new novel about a British rock band soaring to fame during the same period, his warning to one of the band’s members seems on point. “If you ever think, I’ve found Paradise,” Zappa says, “you are not in possession of the facts.”

Born the year after the action in Utopia Avenue ends, Mitchell does not appear to agree with Zappa on this—at least, not entirely. Granted, the story of pop stardom followed by drug problems, mercenary managers, intraband power struggles, and other woes is a little too familiar. But if Behind the Music has demonstrated anything, it’s that most of the time, reality is just one big cliché.

The band Utopia Avenue is titled after—a group that plays an eclectic blend of folk, R&B, psychedelia, and jazz—consists of bass player and singer Dean Moss, a cockney intoxicated by the act’s success; Elf Holloway, a former luminary of the folk scene; Jasper de Zoet, an incandescently brilliant half-Dutch lead guitarist; and Peter “Griff” Griffin, a salt-of-the-earth drummer from Yorkshire. Mitchell fans will note that Jasper has the same last name as the title character in the author’s 2010 novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, and this is far from the only element of the book linking it to the larger fictional Mitchellverse. Characters from other Mitchell novels—including 2004’s Cloud Atlas and 2014’s The Bone Clocks—drift through its pages and play a decisive role in Jasper’s fate.

The overarching plot of Utopia Avenue is one long climb. The band begins in London, as a musical blind date engineered by Levon Frankland (himself from The Bone Clocks), who is here a nattily dressed Canadian clearly modeled on Beatles manager Brian Epstein. It ends in San Francisco during the autumn of ’68 with a tragic but utterly random catastrophe. Each of the novel’s six parts represents one side of the band’s three LP records. Each chapter takes the title of a song and recounts the events that inspired that song. Elf, Dean, and Jasper write most of the tracks, so most of the chapters are told from the point of view of one of these three, but Griff and Levon provide the lyrics for one song apiece and get chapters accordingly. This makes for a highly schematic structure that doesn’t do the novel any favors. Songs often follow narratives, and albums sometimes do; in one scene, the members of Utopia Avenue listen to Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band for the first time, and Levon marvels, “Wow. It’s an inner travelogue.” Taken altogether, though, do the albums of any band form a shapely, novelistic storyline? Aren’t they more like a jumble of episodes assembled by chance and circumstance, a bit too much like life itself?

Elaborate, unconventional structures are Mitchell’s thing. Cloud Atlas, the most successful and satisfying of his books, splits multiple storylines set in different historical periods, past and present, and nests them within each other. Ghostwritten, his first novel, published in 1999, follows a La Ronde pattern in which a series of short stories told in various styles are linked by making a minor character in one story the main character in the next. These systems evade the three-act structure of protagonist-centered Western narrative in accord with a persistent theme of Mitchell’s: reincarnation, the transmigration of souls, and cycles of repetition—concepts of existence rooted in the Asian cultures in which much of Mitchell’s fiction is set.

Until Bone Clocks, Mitchell alluded to these ideas rather than stating them outright, and this gave his novels a pleasant redolence of mystery and the sublime. With Bone Clocks, however, he made the implicit explicit by providing a comic-book-universe-worthy mythology for all his fiction, involving immortal good guys called “Horologists” battling immortal bad guys who suck the souls out of babies. An irony of Mitchell’s work is that the more overtly he strives for fantasy, the less magical his fiction becomes. He can write about 1980s schoolboy adventures (2006’s autobiographical Black Swan Green) or an encounter with a foreign land and its culture (The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet) and make these experiences feel saturated with wonder, but as soon as his time-bending superheroes come along to wallop the mustache-twirling villains, the work feels thin and prosaic. For this reason, the whole of a Mitchell novel is often less than the sum of its parts.

Utopia Avenue is no different, but fortunately Mitchell firmly corrals the novel’s supernatural elements into Jasper’s storyline, leaving the rest of the book to paint a sumptuous portrait of life in Swingin’ ’60s London. Although he has been diagnosed with schizophrenia, Jasper comes across more as neuroatypical. “Irony, sarcasm, or sincere?” he wonders when Dean teases him about “wild Bohemian swinging Dutch freaks.” Unsure how to reply, he offers “an all-purpose shrug.” It turns out, though, that Jasper is infected with a malevolent spirit left over from The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, and only the Horologists can save him from a fate similar to Get Out’s Sunken Place, albeit with a lot less metaphorical power. Fortunately, this part of the novel is over fast.

Each of the members of Utopia Avenue faces his or her own challenges and setbacks, some of which take the form of classic rock ’n’ roll travails. Elf has to put up with a lot of creepers and condescending male music biz types. She also gets stuck on an exploitative boyfriend who meddles in the band’s affairs because she doesn’t want to admit to herself that what she really wants is a girlfriend. Levon, who is also gay, mourns the homophobic family he was forced to renounce. Griff crashes his car. Dean is a dog who cheats on his girlfriends and has an affair with the wife of a movie producer planning to hire the band to do the soundtrack for one of his films, scotching the deal. When Utopia Avenue arrives in California to cap off a triumphant American tour, Dean accepts a business card from a representative of the carnivorous supermanager Allen Klein, a sinister figure who dangles the possibility of a lucrative solo career under Dean’s easily tempted nose.

Yet all of these personal challenges and more get tied up as tidily as three-minute pop songs. Dean snorts coke before a gig and performs badly, then vows never to get high before going onstage again. Elf ditches her bad boyfriend and falls in love with a character from Cloud Atlas. Jasper has a malevolent 18th century Japanese abbot exorcised from his psyche, the way you do. Levon goes to a gay bar and meets Francis Bacon. Griff quickly recovers from the depression following his accident to return to his key role of uttering lines like “Chuffin’ heck, it’s Jimi Hendrix!” and “Janis fookin’ Joplin?”

It’s a dirty job, but someone’s got to do it, because the celebrities in Utopia Avenue come thick and fast. The gang seemingly can’t walk into a room without encountering movie stars (Peter Sellers, Michael Caine), rock gods (Keith Moon, Brian Jones, Steve Marriott), counterculture icons (Allen Ginsberg), and even, on one occasion, Princess Margaret. Elf steps into an elevator in New York and meets Leonard Cohen. The band’s next-door neighbor during their stay in Laurel Canyon is Joni Mitchell. Not once but thrice Jasper bumps into a (pre-famous) David Bowie on a doorstep. Perhaps life in London at that time really did resemble Its a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, the exemplar of a goofy ’60s subgenre of movie comedy featuring scads of cameos by famous faces. Or perhaps Mitchell hopes to educate younger readers about a historical and cultural milieu he obviously adores. At times, though, he seems starstruck by his own novel.

Throughout it all, Utopia Avenue remains solid. The band is every fan’s fantasy about how their favorite group works: scrupulously fair, truly collaborative (Dean thinks of it as a “song-refining machine”), bound by deep mutual respect, and never genuinely threatened by runaway creative egos or sexual rivalries. Since Utopia Avenue—rather than any individual member—is the protagonist of the novel, this makes for a strangely friction-free plot. The band has a disappointing first gig, but it’s all uphill from there, up and up and up, until—poof! Utopia Avenue dematerializes in a rosy cloud, without suffering the corrosion that tarnished so many counterculture dreams. One of the themes of the novel’s final pages, as Dean drops acids with Jerry Garcia himself, is the counterculture’s fall from the paradise of a few months between 1966 and 1967, the interlude before, as Mitchell’s Garcia puts it, “anti-commercialism got commercialized” and Haight-Ashbury filled up with head shops and tour buses. The only way to escape such a fall is to vanish before gravity reasserts itself.

Despite its flaws, Utopia Avenue is, page by page, a sheer pleasure to read. Mitchell’s prose is suppler and richer than ever, and his ability to conjure a historical milieu he never actually experienced does not falter. In one scene, a man in love beads leads Elf down a hallway “past a mural of an elephant, a jade Buddha in a nook and an Om prayer flag hanging in the stairwell. The Freak Out! album by the Mothers of Invention boomed through a marshy pong of dope, lentils and incense.” Making your way through this novel feels like riding a high-end convertible down Hollywood Boulevard on the prettiest day of the year while luminaries wave to you from the sidewalks and nothing truly bad ever happens. Of course, eventually all the flower children will become boomers, the designated bad guys of our time, but that’s no concern of Utopia Avenue. As with enjoying any great party, the art lies in knowing when to leave.