The music is heady, but the nostalgia's cloying...
Music tends to form the inner lining of David Mitchell's novels, running the length of his stories. In Cloud Atlas, his magnum opus, the structure of the novel is mirrored in a sextet composed by a character that imagines six instruments joining one after the other, fusing, only to fade and retreat in reverse order, akin to the six narratives that make up the novel. In Number9dream - the title refers to an obscure John Lennon song - the story is often guided by guitarists and pianists. But in the case of Utopia Avenue, his latest novel, music is stitched into the very fabric of the story. And inevitably so, for the novel is set smack-bang in late 60s' London, when it resounded with classic rock 'n' roll tracks.
The title refers to the band formed by the book's protagonists. Elf Holloway (lead singer), Dean Moss (bassist), Jasper de Zoet (rhythm guitar), and Griff (drummer), head the chapters as the novel charts the meteoric rise and fall of their rock group. As a band, Utopia Avenue seems a chimera of different music ensembles of the 60s - it carries the underground status of The Kinks, the diversity of super groups like Cream, and the psychedelic aura of early Pink Floyd. Elf, a talented woman with a foothold in the folk music industry, brings a touch of Joni Mitchell to the band, whereas Dean, a clichéd cockney man, becomes the stock rowdy guy.
Jasper, a silent and sullen Dutch prodigy, lends an abstract, existential sensibility to the band as the songwriter-in-chief. Griff, a childishly energetic drummer and a character of little nuance, has only a few chapters to himself - possibly a subtle joke on the status of drummers in bands.
Each chapter, named after songs written by different band members, is told from the point of view of that songwriter. Thus, hopping from song to song, we parse the lives of the band mates. Elf's struggle to escape her family as an independent musician is back grounded by the women's liberation movement of the 60s, while Jasper's is a careful portrait of mental health disorders, an issue mostly neglected in his time.
Although Mitchell is known for narrative playfulness and post-modern pyrotechnics, his tale of these four wayward musicians runs fairly straight. We find some stories lagging slightly behind others, some overtaking their counterparts, and this minor discord reflects the chemistry among the musicians themselves, whose tastes and talents often conflict with each other but are sustained enough to keep the group together.
One might describe Mitchell's aesthetic as a mishmash - Wong Kar-Wai's neon-lit worlds, a Dickensian cast, the slick pacing and transitions of an Edgar Wright film, and the cool aloofness of Murakami's prose. Ever since Cloud Atlas, where he ingeniously juggled six different styles by mimicking certain classic genres, he has been seen as a kind of multiple-personality writer, representing an authorial absence rather than his own style - a veritable Tarantino in prose form.
Avid fans will take pleasure in finding typical Mitchell signatures in Utopia Avenue: sentences bristle with kinetic energy, thoughts are told in italicised phrases. From café chatter to Soho nightlife, the daily is exoticised through fine detailing. Even mundane moments are elevated through the minute descriptions. Things keep happening, and Mitchell's insistence on capturing their sequence makes him a devoted preacher of the present continuous tense.
Perhaps the most rewarding quality of the novel is its portrayal of how music itself lived - music as it used to be, and as it probably can never be again. It is heard and enjoyed on vinyl and from jukeboxes, not Spotify playlists. It is amplified by album covers and record labels, not re-tweets. Amateur and major live artists move tantalisingly close to each other (celebrities like David Bowie and Bob Dylan appear in cameos). The music is unabashedly public; it sloshes and blares in seedy nightclubs, around the band members and ultimately in their own voices.
But Mitchell lays it on too thick, sending Utopia Avenue into a nostalgic overdrive.
Are the clichés and sentimentality just occasional lapses that most readers will overlook? As a dedicated fan, I do hope so. The novel is the most forgiving form of literature, after all, where passage after tedious passage can be pardoned, and redemption often lays a compelling climax or a plot twist away. When the covers close, most will forgive Mitchell, and begin expecting again. But thank you for the music, David Mitchell.
The reviewer is Writing Tutor, Centre for Writing and Communication, Ashoka University