‘Utopia Avenue’ Rocks Too Softly
David Mitchell’s new novel could use more noise
Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell feels like fine masonry, the British brick-and-mortar stuff from Dickens to Rowling that evokes the lived-in, comfortable, secure. This level of attention to narrative is as one might expect from the author of the international bestseller Cloud Atlas. The release of a new novel by such as esteemed writer is rightfully treated as a major literary event, and that the title is also a rock novel makes it a major literary event to me, since I write and review rock novels. With Utopia Avenue, Mitchell contributes a compelling if too-comfortable effort that boasts artful craftsmanship but lacks the inter-band electricity to make a rock novel soar.
Mitchell’s story recounts the ascension of the eponymous band, which forms in 1967 when London-based manager Levon brings together four talented musicians of somewhat disparate styles to create a rock group to top the charts. While the band members of Utopia Avenue—bassist Dean, drummer Griff, guitarist Jasper, and pianist Elf—all are talented folks who seek success, Mitchell renders their disparate circumstances to portend that all sailing will not be smooth for the foursome.
“I need the others more than they need me, thinks Dean. Jasper could jump ship tomorrow. Any band in London would want him ….Griff has the jazz circuit. Elf has a solo career to go back to.”
None of the musicians in Utopia Avenue emerge from a vacuum. Each is from their own corner of the world, and the differences between them are ready places for cracks to form in the band’s facade. Mitchell needs to exploit these fissures to render compellingly the conflicts of a rock band, but he largely misses his chances. Yes, family members of the band die. Yes, Dean sleeps around and goes to jail. Yes, Elf has a shitty boyfriend. Never do any of these things threaten the band in any compelling way. It takes until page 384 for someone to have sex with someone who might shake the band’s foundation. Quelle impropriété!
Speaking of fissures, Jasper represents the most cracked band member, and the one with the most potential for upending their forward progress. Not only is Jasper half Dutch royalty, he has something of an autistic sensibility that leaves him guessing on context during all but the most straight-forward conversations. Mitchell writes, “Jasper speaks fluent English and Dutch, good French, passable German and Italian, but the languages of face and tone are as impenetrable as Sanskrit.” To compound Jasper’s condition, he suffers the effects of a psychosis he learns to refer to as the character “Knock Knock.” It’s this latter affliction that suggests his days in the band—not to mention of sanity— are numbered.
The foursome develop something of the bond of people out in the world together, where any punter can launch a beer in their general direction at any time. With the band’s ascension of the charts, it’s easy to imagine things going wrong, but the pals of Utopia Avenue largely maintain caring, appropriate friendships. Thank goodness such good sense didn’t infect the band members of Daisy Jones & the Six.
Mitchell’s novel features a number of guest appearances, famous rock folk to serve as mirrors to the band’s success, or to offer Ides of March-type warnings. John Lennon, Jimi Hendrix, David Bowie, and others make one-off appearances, but Gene Clark—formerly of the Byrds—offers the most true-feeling assessment of the life:
“I quit the Byrds ’cause I was tired of flying. Tired of that life, of the screams, of the faces, of the fame. So I quit. Fame molds itself to your face. Then it molds your face. Fame brings you immunity from the usual rules. That’s why the law doesn’t like us. If a freak with a guitar doesn’t have to abide by the rules of the great and the good, why should anyone? Problem is, if fame is a drug, it’s hard to kick.”
Mitchell’s novel, frankly, could use more addiction. Dean’s penchant for drugs and women threaten his extended childhood but never impedes the band in any way, which seems like an opportunity missed.
Between the Records
With Between the Records by Julian Tepper, another 2020 rock novel, the strong narrative architecture omnipresent in Utopia Avenue vanishes, but in its place emerges the sense that something unexpected might happen.
The novel starts when narrator Julian comes to Los Angeles from New Jersey with his brother Adam to see their father Walt, who lives with his second wife. Walt is holed up in a seedy hotel with his guitar and cocaine, trying to write a hit sophomore album to parallel the success of his first, but fresh inspiration eludes him. He doesn’t need his kids hanging around and disrupting any potential hookup with the muse.
Tepper’s novel reads like autofiction, or the telling of a tale that closely mirrors an author’s real life. Autoficton generates narrative tension from the close relationship of fiction to fact, to the point that the reader is pulled in as much by the plot as by the sense that the author is dishing on real-life relationships. Such mildly fictional efforts used to be called roman à clef, but perhaps because of the derogatory connotations of that phrase, the term autofiction has replaced it in modern parlance. Indeed, Tepper’s real-life father, Robert Tepper, is a pop musician of some renown in the 1980s. In autofiction, such a similarity draws the reader from fiction to fact and back, letting Google and Wiki searches fuel the narrative as much as anything that happens in the story. The reader is left to wonder, “Did this really happen?”
To Tepper’s credit, he seems not as interested in the dirty laundry aspects of his tale as in using the novel’s more conventional tools to suss out details of life in rock music. Here’s Walt on his issues with his former songwriting partner Billy:
“…I’ve supported him so long. I have dug in so hard to his music, written so much of it with him, and know it all so well. But there’s no reciprocation, Jules. It’s just all about him.”
As a musician of some 8,000 years, I’ve heard this argument many times—and not just in my head. I felt like I knew hit-chasing Walt, and his dismissal of his fatherly duties in favor of another shot at rock glory is one of the novel’s more resonant aspects. This is good, messy stuff, a peek into the emotional travails of rock musicians that Mitchell’s novel largely resists.
What can Julian and Adam do but learn to chase hits themselves? Years later, the brothers form a band with Adam as lead singer and Julian as his bass-playing second—again mirroring Tepper’s real life. The brothers manage an early 21stcentury recording contract, nationwide tours, and spots at tony music conferences such as South by Southwest, but none of that is enough to keep drummer Abe from looking fondly over the fence. Abe’s eventual abandonment of the band for marriage and fatherhood offers Julian a ready window into the whack-a-mole culture of rock band life:
“[F]or a band, the only thing worse than losing your drummer is having to find a new one. The chances of coming across a halfway decent player, let alone the one you need and desire, are almost none. You’re lucky if the next person coming in the door isn’t a complete lunatic.”
Tolstoy said that all happy families are alike, and each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. Not true for rock bands. All unhappy rock bands are unhappy in exactly the same way. Tepper’s narrator Julian bears the million little cuts that eventually lead to his—and virtually every—rock band’s death. Here’s his take on what it’s like to tour in a fledgling band:
“[D]o you remember what the promotor told us? Do you? That no one would be coming out tonight, not because of the two feet of snow on the ground … no, that would be too logical. It was because everyone had been at the club the night before to see Corey Feldman and his band and the likelihood of people coming out a second night in a row was slim. Yes, Corey fucking Feldman had stolen our would-be audience the previous night…”
I found myself nodding yes, yes. Tepper is out to render the quasi-Spinal Tap moments that don’t play well as comedy, the slowly breaking heart of a musician as he realizes that the show isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, that rock and roll dreams don’t come true—even when they do. Unlike Mitchell in Utopia Avenue, Tepper chooses to face down the abyss of rock band life. If his plot isn’t air-tight, the spaces in between leave room for something real to happen.
(Utopia Avenue, Penguin Random House, July 14, 2020)
(Between the Records, Rare Bird Books, March 10, 2020)