Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Utopia Avenue [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by David Mitchell.
This review is for my recent and extremely tardy read of a LibraryThing Early Reviewer copy of Utopia Avenue. My explanation–though it’s not an excuse–is that when the book first arrived, it was filched from my TBR pile by my Other Reader. It was the first David Mitchell she had read, and she liked it well enough to read six other novels by him right away. (I think she still hasn’t read Cloud Atlas, although we saw the film together.)
Utopia Avenue is very much of a piece with Mitchell’s universe of psychosotery and atemporals; it may even make connections of plot and character among earlier novels that had previously seemed to be detached from each other. I found it distinctive from my other Mitchell exposure (Cloud Atlas, The Bone Clocks, and Slade House) in having a smaller number of viewpoint characters and keeping them all contemporaneous, with the action (outside of ten pages of epilogue) contained within a very limited timeframe of 1967-8.
The story centers in loose rotation on keyboardist/vocalist Elf Holloway, bassist/vocalist Dean Moss, and lead guitarist Jasper de Zoet, the three songwriter members of the English psychedelic rock-folk fusion band Utopia Avenue. Drummer Peter Griffin (oops! a search engine could have saved Mitchell from accidentally evoking a character from a long-running US cartoon!) got a writing credit on one track, and a corresponding viewpoint chapter–as did producer Levon Frankland. The entire book is structured around the band’s three albums, and each chapter is named for a song, focuses on the member who wrote the song, and generally includes the moment of the song’s inspiration. It is an impressive, tightly-built container. (I’ve seen the novel-as-album, chapters-as-tracks conceit done before, notably in Newton’s Wake by Ken MacLeod, but not with this level of rigor.)
Within the container, there is a lot of rich character development and a healthy mix of tragedy and triumph. The sfnal psychosoteric business is pretty much invisible until halfway through the book, and becomes the dominant concern at about the 3/4 mark, which is a pattern I have seen in other work by Mitchell. I didn’t find so much of the authorial and publishing reflexivity he has dropped into other books. Instead, the story is full of delightful and borderline-gratuitous cameos from music and counterculture celebrities of its era. The chapters are long, but they read quickly. There are plenty of sex and drugs, and they are treated with realistic ambivalence, rather than celebratory glee or cautionary horror.
The sort of brother-sister dynamic between Elf and Dean is quite sweet. After the first third of the book, the band of initial strangers–“curated” by the benevolent Levon–have become fast friends. By the novel’s end, they feel like old friends of the reader.