In David Mitchell’s splendid ‘Utopia Avenue,’ a ‘60s rock band finds its groove

Ron Charles

THE WASHINGTON POST – David Mitchell’s groovy new rock novel belts out the lives of a fictional band in such vivid tones that you may imagine you once heard the group play in the late ‘60s. Set in London when “new labels are springing up like mushrooms,” Utopia Avenue is a story of creative synthesis, one of those astonishing moments when a few disparate individuals suddenly fall into harmony and change the sound of an era. Mitchell – cult writer, critical darling, popular novelist – knows much about the unpredictable currents of fame, and he brings that empathy and his own extraordinarily dynamic style to this tale of four musicians.

One of the many delights of Utopia Avenue is seeing the cosmic dust of genius swirling in chaos before the stars are formed. On a dark day in 1967 when the novel opens, Dean Moss, a bass player, gets evicted from his apartment and fired from his cafe job. Across town, a folk musician nicknamed Elf has been dumped by her lover and singing partner. But these misfortunes play into the plans of a young manager determined to curate a new band from scratch. He’s already identified a talented drummer and a guitar player to steal from another group to create “that magic chemistry.”

Mitchell’s magic chemistry is certain; this band’s not so much. Their first, tentative name, The Way Out, reminds people of a suicide textbook. After they switch to Utopia Avenue, they still struggle to define exactly what they are. Eclectic? Magpie-minded? Anti-Monkees? Their first album “sounds as if three separate bands recorded it.” Eventually, they develop a reputation as “a male acid-flecked R&B band with a novelty girl.” Can such an unlikely quartet find an audience and some space on the dial before running out of patience and cash?

Mitchell captures the tension between artistes and their labels trying to divine the next turn of teen tastes. He re-creates the music shows in all their cringing giddiness. And the pages of Utopia Avenue are a veritable Who’s Who of the era – including the Who. Miraculously regenerated legends stroll through every chapter. Crazy cameos by young David Bowie, Janis Joplin, Leonard Cohen, John Lennon and so many others make this novel a night at the fantasy party you will never be invited to.

Along the edges, we can hear the messy mechanics of pop culture at the height of the ‘60s with its social unrest, psychedelic experimentation and international carnage. But the novel stays focussed on the lives of these four band members – stereotypes of the genre redeemed from cliche by Mitchell’s insight and sympathy. As the story of the group plunges forward, the narration constantly slips off onto the private paths of their individual lives. Elf’s experience speaks to the struggles of so many talented women trying to make a name for themselves outside the narrow dimensions of a sex symbol. Dean is the handsome frontman driven by his outsize appetites for drugs and women. And Griff is the hard-drinking, working-class drummer who has no tolerance for the affectations of fame.

Jasper, though, is a guitarist you won’t find in any MTV biopic. He’s a troubled genius with a mysterious past and a history of misdiagnosed mental illness. Mitchell, who has written about his son’s autism, avoids that term in this novel, but Jasper seems to be on the spectrum. “He knows what grief, rage, jealousy, hatred, joy, and the normal spectrum of feelings are,” Mitchell writes, “but he experiences them only as mild changes of temperature. If Normals learn this about him, they mistrust him, so Jasper is condemned to act like a Normal and to fail. When he fails, Normals think he’s shifty, or mocking them.”

But this young man’s issues are not neurological, they’re fantastical. This is not so much a spoiler alert as a homework assignment: Fans of Mitchell’s remarkable canon will perk up when they hear the musician’s full name is Jasper de Zoet. Ten years ago, Mitchell published a lush historical romance set in feudal Japan called “The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.” Having read and loved that earlier book, I was especially intrigued to find its rich vein of fantasy running through this rock novel. But – blasphemy – readers starting with Utopia Avenue are bound to feel baffled or irritated by a number of highly elliptical allusions.

That reaction would be a shame because nothing should distract from the pleasure of Utopia Avenue. Nobody conveys so well the lived immediacy of fiction, the sense of inhabiting a conversation as it unspools through the complex intersection of spoken words, silent thoughts and inchoate feelings. And when Mitchell puts these four performers onstage, he re-creates the terror and thrill of performing together as the audience slides from scepticism to curiosity to pure adoration. If you can’t hear the music reverberating off these pages, you’re not listening.

As a dedicated horologist, Mitchell was bound to write a novel about music, that art form most integrated with time. Even the syncopated structure of Utopia Avenue demonstrates how attentive he is to the rhythm of human experience. The short, intense scenes of this book are constantly interlaced with episodes from the recent or distant past that change the register of the present.

Near the end, Mitchell quotes the famous warning that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” But by then we’re already converted because all the buildings in this novel are swinging to the beat.