Fiction

Deep Cuts

Utopia Avenue BY David Mitchell. New York: Random House. 592 pages. $30.
The cover of Utopia Avenue

For every novel David Mitchell writes, two are published: there is the novel read by Mitchell’s fans, and the novel read by first-timers. Each of his books stands alone, as a thoughtful, researched, realistic portrayal of a specific time or place. There is a coming-of-age novel about a video-game obsessed adolescent in present-day Japan (Number9Dream), a novel about a Dutch visitor to a port near Nagasaki at the very end of the eighteenth century (The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet), a novel that deals with a widespread environmental collapse and the horror it brings to ill people (The Bone Clocks). Running through them all is a complexly coherent system—the Mitchellverse—that blends crisp realism with dizzying forays into science fiction. At moments in these books, the fiction of realism collapses, cracks, and we glimpse the horrifying mechanisms that structure the realist universe’s seeming rhythms. These mechanisms usually take the same form across Mitchell’s novels: a mysterious, gruesome figure named Dr. Marinus appears, time and reality stretch and then break, we sense—and sometimes even enter—a gnostic world where good and evil fight in secret, while the realist world moves forward on another plane.

The first-time reader doesn’t know about the temporal pitfalls or the recurring characters. The first-timer finds the appearance of Mitchell’s immortal Dr. Marinus startling, but the longtime Mitchell reader breathes a sigh of relief: here we go, the weirdness has begun. Mitchell’s latest novel tells the story of the stratospheric rise of a fictional British rock band named Utopia Avenue in 1960s London. This band’s story is embedded in our own—Jim Morrison, John Lennon, Diana Ross & the Supremes, and Sandy Denny all make appearances—but underneath it all, Dr. Marinus and his ilk are lurking, surfacing briefly to prompt plot turns here and there. Like Mitchell’s other novels, Utopia Avenue uses the tension between realism and science fiction to work through a set of social and political questions: What can music do for its listeners? What did music do for youth culture in the 1960s? Is the work artists do political even if it’s popular?

The answers to the first two are more or less conventional: music can create homes, entire cultural places of belonging. Snapshots of the lives and habits of British folkies, early glam rockers, psychedelic burnouts, and freaked-out rhinestone cowboys pepper the novel. Mitchell’s details are crisp and specific: Melody Maker, Jimmy Savile, Foyles bookshop, Battersea Power Station, a “roller-towel rattling” in a toilet, “vinegar from the sticky bottle.” The world he narrates is familiar, evocative of films, music documentaries, and liner notes as well as real lives. The novel proceeds through a series of sharp, meticulously detailed vignettes, each presented to us through the grooves of a cut on a record. Like the whimsical directors of the British New Wave, Mitchell views the misery and angst of the working class through a posh-adjacent lens, borrowing highly arcane and self-contained forms—the gritty drifter, the hardscrabble northman—for stories of daily life. The novel’s project, from this perspective, is one of deep realism: it represents the kinds of lives we already know about—those of music stars and celebrities—in greater, richer, more intimate detail. The novel shows us the fears that motivate artists, the worries they carry with them into fame and riches.

The fear of being left behind and the fear of being found out: these are the central occupations of Mitchell’s characters. A well-heeled daughter of the British middle class, the band’s keyboardist and vocalist Elf Holloway, despite her rigorous, early musical training, is a dyed-in-the-wool folkie who spends much of the novel trying to tamp down her lesbianism, afraid that it will ruin her chances for success. Utopia Avenue, the band, is a product of the postwar boom; their first record appears in 1967. Their personal worries—of sexual exposure, of class shame, of insanity—are ones ameliorated by the British and American boomers’ tremendous, world-historical financial success.

Their lucky births, and not their talent or celebrity, lead them to security. They are the very last members of the Silent Generation, born just before the end of World War II, but their lives rode the crest of the boom that followed to comfort and financial power. The novel’s last pages, an epilogue in which Elf recounts Utopia Avenue’s resurgence in 2018, show the band’s remaining members to have settled comfortably despite the group’s demise. They belong to the generation who pulled the ladder up after them, comfortable in their obliviousness to misery. Elf’s wife, unimaginable in the 1960s world, serves the same purpose in the novel as Jasper’s Bluetooth and Mac: they are elements of a world that has radically changed, but not for everyone. In the novel’s closing pages, Elf and Jasper, in their seventies, sit around a kitchen table and listen to their young voices. Elf says: “‘Temporal vertigo’ doesn’t come close.”

For Mitchell’s repeat readers, Utopia Avenue offers a different kind of “temporal vertigo.” Bubbling under the surface of the glossy plot is the threat that its narrative universe will buckle, will melt one moment into another, and that we, as readers, won’t be able to tell the difference between what is real and what is imagined. Elf’s nascent awareness that she is a lesbian sits next to guitarist Jasper de Zoet’s fear that Knock Knock, the mystical interloper in his mind, will take over and occupy his body. Mitchell doesn’t evaluate the differences in these two fears: fear of social opprobrium lives alongside fear of existential annihilation.

Mitchell’s realism flirts with flat, generic form. In Utopia Avenue, when figures like David Bowie, Marc Bolan, and Gene Clark careen through the novel the effect is that of a brittle, unearned cameo. It’s one thing to be informed that Elf Holloway is closely connected to Sandy Denny; it’s another for the novel to show us Sandy Denny herself, “[slapping] a Marshall stack.” But Mitchell seems to know this feels forced, and that he responsible. He squeezes figures from our own world into his universe to show us he can, to show us they fit—more or less—and to make us worry, just a little, that he has somehow opened the doors of perception, that aliens live among us, that there is a gnostic world just out of reach, just along a hallway or down a stairwell. It’s that gnostic drive that propels Mitchell’s work, and that vertiginous sensation—of the pathway beneath your feet crumbling as you step forward—is what gives his readers such gleeful satisfaction.

Mitchell patterns his books with springs, offshoots, fillips from other novel moments, other novel worlds. This works at the level of plot—drastic shifts are connected to characters that appear across books—but the effect can also be minute, the flimsiest version of a reference. It isn’t just Gene Clark who has a cameo here, it’s also Mitchell’s own creations, Dr. Marinus, Luisa Rey, and Felix Finch. The band Utopia Avenue’s guitarist Jasper de Zoet is a son of the same de Zoet family whose ancestor first meets the mysterious Dr. Marinus in 1799. In this novel, Jasper is the figure whose madness opens the doors to the collapse of time and space that is central to Mitchell’s larger project.

Utopia Avenue gives us insight into the process of writing songs—sometimes all at once, sometimes piecemeal over days and weeks—and into the way performance alters and extends songwriting into repeated encounters with difference: “The long solo in ‘Purple Flames’ grows even longer as Jasper finds a secret passage deep inside.” As he plays the band’s first hit, Jasper, the novel’s conduit to Mitchell’s larger conceptual project, taps into this vision: “Music frees the soul from the cage of the body. Music transforms the Many to a One.” The scene of Jasper’s musical fugue gives way a few pages later to a horrifying vision of a mystical tormenter while Jasper lies sleeping next to a lover: “Knock Knock’s gaze meets Jasper’s. A mechanism is triggered. The two swap places. Jasper is now a prisoner in the deepest under-cellar of Knock Knock’s mind, with no hope of rescue or escape. He cannot even die his way out. The eye at the spyhole—Knock Knock’s eye—vanishes. Jasper is left alone for eternity.” The vision breaks, and Jasper wakes, but Mitchell leaves open the possibility that this is no vision, no madness. That Knock Knock’s power—to steal Jasper’s life and mind—is real.

The driving motive in Mitchell’s body of work is a fear of being rooted out and destroyed, either physically or mentally: by people in power, by people who hate you for what you are, by yourself for not being what you expected to be. Whether this is because you’re from a poorer family, are a lesbian, or are locked in a mystical battle between good and evil on another plane of existence hardly matters.

The science fiction that disturbs Mitchell’s realist surfaces is often a way to get at the world-historical damage the second half of the twentieth century has wrecked on our collective future. In Utopia Avenue, what feels like a conventional novelistic plotline—a rise from obscurity to fame alloyed to a similar rise in financial power and comfort—is revealed as an anomaly. What feels like the novel—or the world—as usual has been bought by trading away the future for the present. Encapsulated in Mitchell’s work is the bleak surety that the ways of living available to lots of English and, in this novel, American people, after the Second World War were a historical blip, that postwar stability and economic growth were bought with inequality and misery. Running through an oeuvre that deals in characters who are truly remarkable is the sense that the vast majority of human lives are both difficult and dreary. The cast of Utopia Avenue worry over the normal stuff of life: their ability to pay the landlady, the casual brutality of their upbringings, whether their clothes are right, if their children are theirs. But the novel’s slips into fantastic realms are worrying reminders that Mitchell’s realism isn’t quite safe.

Throughout Mitchell’s novels, there is the nagging sensation that someone outside of the reader’s body might suddenly be able to peer inside and assess their worst thoughts and dullest movements. Might some of us—like Jasper, whose visions of Knock Knock grow more terrifying as they grow more explicitly real—be able to use our minds to move in worlds beyond our ken? Might a horrific villain hide, unbeknownst to us, festering in our DNA for centuries? Mitchell’s novels float the possibility that the world of the mind is the same as the world beyond the body, and I’m not sure if this is something to fear or to hope for.

Claire Jarvis is the author of Exquisite Masochism (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016). She is working on a book about British women’s fiction and literary education.