Review: Fame, fortune and falls from grace in the 1960s music scene

The British novelist David Mitchell has taken people in extraordinary directions throughout his career. Individually, each of his critically acclaimed and popular books—including the best known, Cloud Atlas—plays games with storylines, characters and relationships that stretch and bend and snap and reassemble across history, geography, even different dimensions. They comprise a sprawling narrative singularity marked by teasing, dark recurrences and transformations, through characters who appear in different books in defiance of conventional time, place and being.

Mitchell’s fiction affirms that defining statement in Don DeLillo’s Underworld, that “everything is connected,” by both emphasizing the consolation this can afford—no matter how alienated you may feel in your immediate circumstances, you are not alone—and confirming the suspicion this otherwise encourages: that unseen forces exert decisive and likely malevolent control over our seemingly freely pursued lives.

Mitchell’s latest, Utopia Avenue, is at first glance a maximally detailed historical novel. Its particular areas of interest and treatment—recent North Atlantic history and culture, celebrity and politics, 1960s historical figures and a briefly famous rock band—are related to music-making. That said, there is another, darker story here that (depending on how you feel about Mitchell’s overall body of work) either threatens or promises to be the primary source of the book’s considerable, if diffusive, energies and ambitions.

The novel begins with a young man, Dean, rushing down a busy street. He slips and falls on black ice: “Bloody London. A bewhiskered stockbroker type in a bowler hat smirks at the long-haired lout’s misfortune, and is gone.” Dean heads off again, only to be pickpocketed on his way to pay the rent to his merciless landlady before begging in vain for a pay advance from his boss, a miserly Italian restaurant owner. He is soon bruised, jobless and homeless. He wields his bass guitar as a final attempt to make it as a musician in late 1960s London. Amping up the already-high Dickensian mode, Dean flips his last coin to decide what to do next; the coin disappears down a gutter, and a mysterious stranger appears. Levon is a music producer who likes Dean’s music and invites him along to a nightclub to hear a virtuoso guitarist play psychedelic covers of Mississippi blues standards. “He’s bloody amazing,” Dean says. “Who is he?” “His name’s Jasper de Zoet.”

This all takes place in the first 15 rollicking pages of a 600-page story, and Mitchell is signaling, by way of the guitarist’s name,that what we’re about to read is linked somehow to his previous writings, including his historical novel about a Dutchman’s experiences in 18th-century Japan, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. But Mitchell defers the unfolding of an intra-novel, inter-dimensional, trans-temporal war for human souls to the novel’s closing sequence. In the meantime, he blends two more standard kinds of novels: historical fiction and a rock band book. Levon, the quietly ambitious, gay Canadian impresario, brings together bassist Dean and guitarist Jasper with a female singer and keyboardist named Elf and a remote drummer called Griff to create the band. Mitchell provides all of his characters with an affecting back story that informs the aspirations and longings that figure in their musical collaboration, eventually called Utopia Avenue.

David Mitchell’s books comprise a sprawling narrative singularity marked by teasing, dark recurrences and transformations.

The main story focuses on the band’s trajectory from mediocre early work to underground success to broader British attention and, eventually, fame and fortune in the United States. Bandmates sleep with other people’s spouses and deal with groupie pregnancies; Griff is behind the wheel in a car accident that kills his brother; and he steps away from the band at a crucial moment in its ascent; more established managers tempt the band to drop Levon; music journalists flirt and fence with Dean and his mates for inside stories on the promise of good coverage; one of Elf’s boyfriends, not a musician, offers uninvited creative advice to the other members; another, her ex from a defunct folk duo, returns to her life with perfect dirtbag timing, just as Utopia Avenue is beginning to enjoy success, and casually volunteers to begin sitting in on sessions.

Later, the band has a bad mix-up with corrupt Italian police following a performance in Rome. Dean is imprisoned on false drug charges, and the British media play up his predicament.

Historical figures appear alongside the members of Utopia Avenue constantly. David Bowie, Nina Simone, Allen Ginsberg, Syd Barrett, the Butterfield Blues band, Diana Ross, Engelbert Humperdinck, Keith Moon, Grace Slick, Michael Caine, George Best, Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, Jimi Hendrix, Frank Zappa and John Lennon all pass through, the effect of which is to encourage page-turning celebrity-sighting, not to substantively advance the novel’s story and ideas.

Building on its rising profile, which is helped by Dean’s Roman confinement and by songs that begin to chart, Utopia Avenue is invited to play in the United States. The band flies to New York and sets up at the Chelsea Hotel; members attend sodden parties where Leonard Cohen and Janis Joplin think aloud the lyrics of now-famous songs.

Here a driving rationale emerges for why Mitchell chose this historical-cultural moment for his new novel: He uses the altered-state conditions of the late 1960s music scene to set off and also conceal his characters’ intensifying struggles with otherworldly forces and presences, particularly in the case of the talented guitarist Jasper, who has heard a particular voice and knocking in his head since childhood.

To the extent that they notice, the people in Jasper’s circle think he is acting a little weird, but then most people partying at the Chelsea Hotel circa 1969 are acting a little weird. They only become worried when Jasper suddenly disappears for hours and reappears just before a make-or-break U.S. show, where he plays alternatively like “the Dutch Jimi Hendrix” and like a semi-sentient zombie, thereby threatening the band’s prospects.

Thereafter, Mitchell pursues an alternatively dramatic and mellow denouement. He braids together the personal and public rise, fall and renewal of a lovable group of ordinary British musicians, reaching to the present day, with an increasingly convoluted story of powerful time-travelling beings who fight each other, in and through the bodies of people from all over the world and all time, including both Jasper and his 18th-century ancestor, Jacob (and from many other places in David Mitchell’s oeuvre). By the end, both storylines affirm the irreducible and vivifying goods of the human soul.