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Art is memory made public – ‘Utopia Avenue’

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Few writers are as fascinated by the intricacies of interconnectedness as David Mitchell. Fewer still have the literary skill to coherently translate those complexities to the page.

Yet the British author has built his entire oeuvre on doing just that. From his very first novel – 1999’s “Ghostwritten” – he has shown a propensity for creating layered stories featuring a multitude of perspectives from multiple points of view. And thanks to a wonderful narrative broadmindedness and wildly impressive attention to craft and detail, each of those meticulously-constructed books shares connections with all the other works in Mitchell’s canon, binding them all together in a sort of metanarrative – a David Mitchell Literary Universe (DMLU), if you will.

Mitchell’s ninth and newest book is “Utopia Avenue” (Random House, $30). It’s a story of the rise and fall of the titular band, an eclectic group of ahead-of-their-time musicians that fate (and an enterprising manager) brings together in London in the late 1960s. Through this idiosyncratic crew, Mitchell explores the peculiarities of fame and success during one of the weirdest, wildest times in the history of popular music.

It’s a sweeping psychedelic story, an alternate pop history that features a slew of famous and familiar names crossing the paths of our heroes in the course of their ascent. It’s a brightly colored and brutal fable that is equal parts celebration and warning regarding the raw power inherent to music. The pull of creative forces can sometimes be beyond our control, leaving the creator no choice but to hang on tight and hope for the best – a best that is far from guaranteed.

London’s music scene in the 1960s is one of the most creatively fallow on the planet. Band after band seeks to follow in the footsteps of iconic groups like the Beatles or the Rolling Stones; all are in pursuit of that elusive combination of creative and commercial success. Most of these bands form organically, through gradually evolving relationships between the players.

Levon Frankland has a different idea. The Canadian expat – a relatively small-time music manager – has an idea. Instead of waiting for the next great band to form on its own, why not put it together himself?

He recruits Dean Moss, a bassist and songwriter from Gravesend, first. He takes Dean to see a band in order to watch two of its members – the strange and brilliant Dutch guitarist Jasper de Zoet and the foul-mouthed jazz drummer Peter “Griff” Griffin. Frankland proposes that the three try to play together and see what happens. Not long after, he introduces Elf Holloway – keyboard player and formerly one-half of a moderately successful folk duo – into the mix.

And thus Utopia Avenue is born.

The wild collection of influences – Dean’s working-class blues, Elf’s folk-pop sensibility and Jasper’s generational virtuosity – makes the band unlike anything else on the scene. And with all three writing songs for the group, the genre blend remains front and center. Their ascent is somehow both halting and rapid, with plenty of bumps as they climb. And consider the time and place, well … there are a lot of notable names who appear along the way.

But even as the band’s star begins to rise, there are forces both internal and external that stand in opposition. Some are merely obstacles to musical stardom, but others present far more impactful and potentially dangerous problems. It’s up to this band of misfits, these square pegs that have finally found their place, to embrace the good and protect one another from the bad.

“Utopia Avenue” offers the elaborate connections we’ve come to expect from David Mitchell. While the book doesn’t necessarily offer the physical scope of some of his other work, in terms of metaphysical scope, it’s spot-on. And the intertextual conversation with his other work is present as well, with numerous nods and allusions to multiple books in the DMLU.

The perspective shifts consistently, with each chapter centering on a band member – we get the individual journeys of Dean, Elf and Jasper even as the overall arc of the band plays out (sorry Griff – Mitchell opts to focus on the three songwriters; as often happens, the drummer is the forgotten man), with enough overlap that we sometimes get multiple looks at the same event.

Mitchell’s affinity for genre trappings isn’t as prominent here as we’ve seen in many of his other works; for the most part, “Utopia Avenue” is relatively straightforward; things do get weird in a mystical/magical sort of way, but only briefly. Otherwise, we simply follow the rise of the band as they move from sparsely attended shows at clubs and pubs up to a world of chart success and trans-Atlantic tours.

It’s an engaging portrait of that particular period, a stylized snapshot of the scene. The hyperrealized cameos from real-life music figures are a delight; densely intellectual and wordy statements of creative wisdom tumbling out of, well … name a prominent figure from the music world of the time. They’re probably around, at least for a minute or two. David Bowie and Brian Jones and Syd Barrett and Janis Joplin and John Lennon and Leonard Cohen and on and on and on – they’re all here, dispensing tightly-packed nuggets of insight. Through this idealization, we see the Utopia Avenue crew perhaps perceiving their heroes as somehow more than they are.

(I’ll be frank – I would REALLY love to know what the music of Utopia Avenue sounds like. Mitchell does good work in describing it stylistically, but as Frank Zappa once told us, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture” – a quote that Mitchell has Zappa himself offer up in the book. We get lyrics and an idea of how people react to the songs, but not the songs in full. It’s an interesting wrinkle to the overall experience of the book.)

“Utopia Avenue” evokes the spirit of the ‘60s while leaning into its own vision of the time and place. It’s a deconstruction of the pursuit of fame – the thrill of the chase and the chaos that comes with success. It’s about the double-edged sword of creation, the gifts and curses inherent to harnessing the power of art. It’s about the voices surrounding us and within us … and choosing which ones warrant our attention. And in the end, it’s about the music.

Long live rock and roll.

Last modified on Tuesday, 21 July 2020 12:23

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