Book Review: Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell

Utopia Avenue – David Mitchell (Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2020)

For the most part, I quite enjoyed this latest book from David Mitchell. It is an exploration of youth, of dreams, of music. It’s set during that unique musical period of the late 1960s, in London. It’s a time exploding with creativity and Utopia Avenue captures that beautifully. We follow the birth and years of a band called Utopia Avenue. They are Griff, Dean, Jasper, and Elf. Brought together by musical manager Levon Frankland, each are talented musicians but together they are something more. Dean, Jasper, and Elf are each songwriters, each with a unique style. Mitchell does a great job of making their musical and band development feel real and their relationships with each other feel genuine. Chapters alternate perspective between the characters, primarily between the three songwriters with a chapter each from Griff and Levon. It’s a style that works and makes the reader feel equally invested in all of the main characters.

There is a definite nostalgia to this book and would appeal to readers who were young in the sixties, who listened to The Beatles, and Pink Floyd, and Janis Joplin when they were brand new. As someone born in the 1980s, I don’t feel that same nostalgia and I tend to roll my eyes a little when books really press into the idea that this Boomer era was something more amazing than others. Don’t get me wrong, I like the music and Mitchell chose wisely in that the artists he names throughout the book are widely known and he can safely assume his readers are familiar with their music. I just would love to read a novel about the musical scene in 2007. (Wikipedia also tells me that Mitchell himself was born in 1969 so this isn’t the music of his youth either.)

There is also the question of how many real people Mitchell uses throughout Utopia Avenue. Brian Jones, David Bowie, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen and many more show up as characters here. It adds to the authenticity and I’m definitely glad he didn’t make up fake bands that were clearly The Beatles or The Grateful Dead, but it always feels kind of weird and it took me out of the story a few times, wondering how various musicians or their families might feel over their portrayals in fiction. (Also, he lists Joni Mitchell as one of several LA artists when we Canadians know she’s one of us!)

All of this is more a matter of personal preference and, in some cases, will only endear other readers more to Utopia Avenue. Mitchell really does bring the scene alive and does an excellent job of showing how musicians build off each other. How a musical scene like what was happening in London in the late 1960s can create more music.

For me, the major flaw of the movie comes in the second half. Throughout the novel, we have followed each of the main characters. The lead guitarist of the band is Jasper de Zoet, half English, half Dutch. In Jasper’s sections we learn more about his history, particularly his mental struggles. Jasper has difficulty understanding other people’s emotions and knowing how to respond appropriately. He’s thoughtful and caring and might be described to be somewhere on the autism spectrum. He also experiences something best described as auditory hallucinations. We learn how these hallucinations increased when he was a student, how he ended up hospitalized and how he eventually returned to a more standard life. Parts of this are unusual but make sense within the story and for Jasper as a character. So far, it’s an interesting and unique exploration into schizophrenia and how someone might justify their own mental illness to themselves. As Utopia Avenue becomes more successful, however, Jasper’s mental health declines until it comes to a head in a very dramatic fashion. Here, for just a chapter, the book shifts gears entirely. New characters are introduced, we are given a hurried explanation of a complicated and mythical occult power, and Jasper’s problems are all solved in a way entirely separated from the world as we know it, not to mention the world as it has been established in this book. Readers of Mitchell’s previous work will recognize elements from Cloud Atlas, The Bone Clocks, and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (maybe others but those are the ones I’ve read).

I’m fine with Utopia Avenue being linked with those other books, I have no trouble with magic realism in my reading. In fact, I personally love it. But this element of the story is so at odds with the rest of the book. Looking back, there are a few clues (Jasper’s last name being the obvious one) but at no point did I think, “I wonder if this book about musicians in the 1960s, full of real life people, actually take place in an alternate universe where millennia old priests wield cosmic powers?” And then, almost worse, the book returns to its normal, familiar plot lines. We never hear any more about this. It feels entirely shoehorned in and adds absolutely nothing to the story or to Jasper’s character. I think the storyline of him dealing with his history and his mental illness is a fantastic one and pairs nicely with a lot of musicians’ stories, particularly in the somewhat drug-addled ’60s. It did not need this out-of-nowhere mystical addition.

So, be warned. Utopia Avenue has a lot going for it and was, overall, very enjoyable. For certain readers, it will be a delightful, nostalgic read that will have you putting your records on. For some readers, my previous paragraph will have convinced you never to pick this book up. For me, I’m somewhere in between. The book had enough I liked that the book was generally worthwhile but could have been better with one big edit.

10 thoughts on “Book Review: Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell”

    1. It’s really the one chapter where it’s blatant. If you’re willing to overlook that then it’s a fun book about music.

  1. I would also love to read a book about music in 2007-take me back!!!! This sort of sounds a bit like Glenn Dixon’s upcoming book all about the same time period and a band that is beatles-esque. I’m assuming this mini trend is based on the huge popularity of that Daisy Jones and the Six book from a few years ago…

    1. Afterward, I wondered if I chose 2007 for my own personal nostalgic reasons so I’m glad to have you validate my opinion! That was a great musical year!

      Looking at a blurb for Dixon’s book, this does sound similar. Utopia Avenue definitely had some High Fidelity vibes too. And I haven’t read Daisy Jones but I bet that could fit in too. I think music taps into peoples’ nostalgia easily so it can work as a simple way for an author to get readers on board. Plus, the era Mitchell is writing about it is full of bands and songs we all know, even if we weren’t listening to music back then. 2007 may not be as universally familiar! (Like, I know who The Band is but I bet my dad doesn’t know who Arcade Fire is!)

  2. I can’t say I’m often tempted to read about the music scene of any era (although you’re right, something focused on 2007 would be pretty fun to see), but unnecessary magical realism is where I definitely draw the line. I too tend to love magical realism when it is used well, but if it doesn’t seem to serve a purpose or fit the book at all, I’ll have to pass. I’ve actually never read David Mitchell yet and I want to, but I’ll be sure not to start with this one. Great review!

    1. You are the second person to agree that a musical novel set in 2007 is a good idea! This needs to happen!

      The magic realism here really screamed of Mitchell trying to shoehorn in a connection to his other books. I have liked some of his other books – Cloud Atlas and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet are both good examples of his more magical style.

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