David Mitchell, Utopia Avenue (Sceptre 2020)
Before the meeting: This is the first book by David Mitchell that I’ve read. Once again, the Book Group has taken me off my customary reading track.
The book takes its title from Utopia Avenue, a fictional English rock band in the late 1960s: a socially awkward guitar player from a wealthy Dutch family who wrestles with his personal demons (word chosen carefully), a working-class bass player with long hair and a troubled relationship (an understatement) with his father, a rough Yorkshire lad on the drums, a middle-class woman folk-singer who is a wonder on the keyboards, and their Canadian manager, a decent man who gets them together and believes in their talent. Three of the four band members are song-writers, and the book’s chapters are named for their songs. Its longer sections are named for the band’s three albums.
The novel charts the band’s progress from their coming together, to their disastrous first gig, to a painful but comparatively rapid rise in the charts, to success at home and in the USA and (not a spoiler) their eventual break-up. Plus a brief reunion fifty-one years later.
Even though the book is unmistakably fiction, it has a powerful documentary quality. It feels animated by a love for that moment in pop history (roughly the time when David Mitchell was being born, I just found out). There’s careful attention to period details – how to make a phone call and why you might hesitate to call internationally, how to negotiate sexual politics when the world is on the cusp of second-wave feminism, how to manage the politics of the US war in Vietnam when you’re a ‘non-political’ band, the meaning of long hair. We are often told what song is playing in the background, and although I was living in a monastery in the years in question, this evokes the flavour of the times wonderfully. Historical figures make cameo appearances: Brian Jones, David Bowie, Janis Joplin, Leonard Cohen – and Jimmy Saville with the faintest whiff of the revelations to come much later. Francis Bacon presides over a whole chapter. Words of wisdom are quoted from Mama Cass and Mick Jagger. The band members sit and discuss the newly-released Sergeant Pepper’s track by track. I felt I was in safe hands: I believe that Jagger actually said the things attributed to him, that Mama Cass gave such sex-and-marijuana parties (in fact I’m pretty sure I’ve seen one just like it in a movie), that Leonard Cohen spoke with this flirtatious formality, that radio and television shows were tacky in something close to this way. The research doesn’t push itself to the front of the picture, but it provides a solid, fine-grained background.
Possibly someone who knows more about music than I do will complain that the descriptions of the band’s concerts are inauthentic (as one of the Book Group has been scathing about Tim Winton’s descriptions of surfing), but I loved them. For example, in Side One of the third album, where the band begins to play Jasper’s song ‘Sound Mind’, I wouldn’t know a chop-slap from a scale of triads, but I do get the excitement of the moment:
Jasper strums; asks the tech-guy for more volume on his guitar; shuts his eyes … and slams into an amp-blowing, bent-string howl; and fires off a scale of triads, starting from high E, all the way down. Jasper rewards his first cheer of the night with a new riff that isn’t ‘Sound Mind’: nobody will ever know it’s a rip-off of Cream’s ‘Born Under a Bad Sign’. It gets the audience thunder-clapping in time. Griff, Dean and Elf join in on drums, bass and Hammond. Jasper steers the jam through three cycles before wrapping it up in a Wah-Wah’d B flat, the opening of ‘Sound mind’. Dean comes in with the bass riff; Elf comes in on the next bar; and Griff chop-slaps on the next. Jasper leans in for his psycho-whisper …(Page 461)
What I’m saying is that this is a terrific historical novel. But then … astonishingly integrated with the rest, is a fantasy narrative strand. There are characters who are hundreds of years old, something akin to demonic possession and something akin to exorcism. For me as a newcomer to David Mitchell, when this strand comes to the fore, it does so as a brilliant plot twist. Seasoned Mitchell readers wouldn’t be so joyfully blindsided. For them, hints abound. For example, the lead guitarist is Jasper De Zoet, a name that suggests that he may be a descendant of the title character of Mitchell’s 2010 novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet. (Again, not a spoiler: he is revealed to be just that.) It turns out that any number of minor characters have wandered into these pages from earlier Mitchell novels, just as others have wandered in from the real-life 1960s, and the weird stuff harks back to the imagined realities of earlier books. It speaks wonders for Mitchell’s writing that I didn’t have a sense that I was coming in late: everything makes sense in terms of the present-time story, and everything is explained coherently. Only towards the end, when there are hints that the odd behaviour of a young child is doing what in a TV show would be laying the grounds for next season, I went DuckDuckGoing and found the notion that all Mitchell’s novels are connected into an über-novel – which I think means that each of his novels adds something to an ongoing story that stretches over centuries.
I’m left with at least one mystery. When Dean, the bass player, goes to an anti-Vietnam demonstration in London, he is attracted to a woman named Lara. She says something about the demonstrators being in a great revolutionary tradition, and this uncharacteristically stilted conversation follows (remember, this is in the middle of a demo where people are being attacked by police with batons):
‘What’s yer surname, Lara?’ asked Dean.
‘Why do you ask?’
‘One day yer going to be famous.’
Lara lit a Marlboro. ‘Lara Veroner Gubitosi.’
‘Wow. That’s … long.’
‘Most names on Earth are longer than “Dean Moss”.’
‘S’pose so. Are yer Italian, then?’
‘I’m from many places.’
Something is being hinted at here, and I don’t know what it is. As far as I can find out, Lara Veroner Gubitosi isn’t a historical personage. Nor, as far as I know, is she a character from another David Mitchell novel. I tried for an anagram, and came up with ‘revolutionaries brag’ or ‘love is but a roaring’. Neither feels conclusive. Maybe it too is a hint of things to come in future novels.
So I’m taking two questions to the Group. How do the musicians among us feel about the descriptions of music? and, Why is that minor character called Lara Veroner Gubitosi?
After the meeting: There was some WhatsApp discussion of what music should be playing at this dinner. It was a long list, and it looked like a real possibility that book talk would be secondary to fogeys reminiscing about the 60s, even though a couple of the chaps weren’t born then.
The playlist was there and a source of much pleasure. Likewise the reminiscing. One of us could boast that back in the mid 60s he was a founding member of one of the London clubs that feature in the book. Another was close friends with Joe Strummer. Yet another knew someone who auditioned to replace Pete Best when was turfed as drummer for the Beatles – and believed that Ringo was absolutely the right person for the job. Closer to the experience of the rest of us was the chap who said he still has the little tin he kept his dope in, and when he lifts the lid – every couple of years – he can still smell the 70s.
We did talk about the book, a lot. One or two found it too long. one said that the structure of our meeting – all in a single, focused conversation for some time, then splintering into two or three disparate chats, then back together again, repeat – was similar to the book’s structure. There was a difference of interpretation about Jacob’s story: some read it as a graphic and moving account of schizophrenia, whereas I’m convinced that while that’s clearly there as a metaphorical resonance, the weird events he experiences are real in the world of the book. When I mentioned as evidence that the same immortal creatures appear in other David Mitchell books, someone said that that was all very well, but just sticking to the book in front of us, the schizophrenic reading held up. The one person who had read other David Mitchell novels abstained from the debate, and of course the emotional force of the story was the same whichever way you read it.
It’s a book that conversation can thrive on. Judgements divided about the cameo appearances of real people, heavily leaning toward the view that they worked well. On my question about the descriptions of music, those who knew more about music than I do (which wouldn’t take much) enjoyed the descriptions at least as much as I did. On my question about Lara Veroner Gubitosi, the consensus seemed to be that I have too much time on my hands, though at least one person conceded that David Mitchell may well be playing little games with us. We talked about the book’s portrayal of the difference between British and US pop culture, of the situation of women in rock at that time, of the realism in the account of Dean being hit with a possibly opportunistic paternity claim.
In non-book conversation, we were generally dismayed at Scott Morrison’s statement that it was when his wife suggested that he imagine their daughters being sexually abused that he realised he needed to empathise with a young woman currently in the news; we barely mentioned the former US President; there was some back and forth, mainly back, about Elizabeth Farrelly’s new book, Killing Sydney; Covid got surprisingly little wavelength; there was some amusing reporting on how some women (met at parties? on dating apps? I don’t know) are fascinated at the concept of an all male Book Group, who not only meet, but once they’ve met actually talk about the book. We had what we have come to call a Gentlemen’s Picnic – that is, we brought food. There was too much, and it was excellent.