Review: Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell

Utopia AvenueUtopia Avenue by David Mitchell (2020)
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

David Mitchell wrote the singular Cloud Atlas, a novel so ambitious and creative it deserves first mention even in a review of any other David Mitchell novel. Although I’ve now only read two of his books, I feel okay saying if you read only one, it should be Cloud Atlas. It’s not for everyone, though, so maybe his latest is as good a starting point.

Utopia Avenue is a different creature entirely, and it reminds me not one iota of Cloud Atlas, yet some things are consistent. Mitchell’s fondness for the English language’s music and flow:

On the table is a pot of tea Jasper doesn’t recall making, the core of an apple he doesn’t recall eating, and a page of staves, notes, and lyrics he knows he wrote.

His clever descriptions of people, places, and moments:

It’s a classy Victorian pub with brass fittings, upholstered chair backs, and NO SPITTING signs.

His combining the physical with the cosmic, sometimes without explanation and always without apology:

If a song plants an idea or a feeling in a mind, it has already changed the world.

And always an understated, wry humor:

The cellar of the 2i’s Coffee Bar at 59 Old Compton Street is as hot, dank, and dark as armpits.

It’s set in the second half of 1967 and the first half of 1968, mostly in London, the days following the Summer of Love. Levon Frankland, a band manager, invites four local musicians he admires to form a band. It’s almost Monkees-like, one character observes, but these are players with serious chops, selected not for their looks but their talent and disparate playing styles.

Elf is the folksy singer-songwriter-keyboardist. Jasper is the long-haired psychedelic guitar god. Dean is the bluesy rock bassist. Griff is the jazzy drummer. Each has something to say apart from the others, but the band clicks because each has something to say to the others and with the others.

Utopia Avenue is most enjoyable when the writer captures the musicians’ responses to one another, as they’re performing and as they’re creating. The energy generated and absorbed by each player, and the musical conversation they have with one another, spoken in riffs, fills, and solos, makes the reader want to pick up whatever instrument he or she once studied and get the band back together. Mitchell’s capturing this feeling of creativity in motion is my favorite aspect of this novel.

It’s a great story with compelling characters. When you change your mind about who’s your favorite character from chapter to chapter, a writer has come up with some good ones. Real-world figures play supporting roles: Hendrix, Joplin, and Bowie make appearances, among many others, but where their presence could easily be nostalgia-pandering gimmickry, it is instead the color and flavor of life for this nearly-famous band with talent recognized by successful musicians first, and not yet by the consuming public.

For readers averse to certain cosmologies, the story will bog down a bit near the two-thirds mark. I admit I found myself skipping lines, then forcing myself back to read more attentively. I was happy I slogged through this bit because the payoff is worth it, although I wonder if it would have been a stronger story without it.

Still a highly recommended read, and I may be turning into a David Mitchell fan.

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