A rigorous rendering of a much-mythologised era proves strangely addictiveby Chris Moss / July 14, 2020 / Leave a comment
Famous people flit butterfly-like through the pages of David Mitchell’s latest novel, set in London during 1967’s so-called Summer of Love, from John Martyn to Petula Clark to rising star David Bowie. They go to parties, get high, occasionally play music. But the story is about pop stardom only insofar as it’s an adjunct to happiness and freedom. Certainly, Elf, Jasper, Dean and Griff, the young musicians who make up the band Utopia Avenue, relish their brush with fame: hit records, shows in NYC and San Francisco, an expanding fanbase, sex with beautiful strangers.
Utopia Avenue is a comfort read, a fictional equivalent of a “rock ‘n’ roll years” documentary. Music fans will enjoy checking facts. Mitchell fans will delight in re-encountering characters from past books. Everyone will find the first three quarters great fun with its well-crafted characters, period detail (bus-window travelogues reminding us how un-Swinging most of London actually looked) and a rags-to-riches plot.
In his set pieces on live gigs and recording sessions, the author just manages to swerve around the clichés of rock criticism. But stereotypes are admitted, from Griff’s gruff northernness to the slimy DJs and record store owners that hang around the music industry. You wonder if Mitchell, given the experimental form of previous works, is being playful—building up Sixties pop tropes for a final act of subversion.
What dooms Utopia Avenue (the band) in the end, though, is a very ordinary event. So ordinary, in fact, it’s a bit disappointing. The superstar cameos are red herrings; this band is merely unlucky.
It takes huge skill to pen a tale in which not one but four individuals are on a hiding to nothing. Mitchell possesses the virtuosity to pull it off. While this novel is no literary earthquake, its combination of deft storytelling, artful music journalism and rigorous rendering of a much-mythologised era proves strangely addictive.
Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell (Sceptre, £20)