No doubt many people smitten with the heady, inventive pop music of the late 1960s have wondered what it would have been like to be part of the scene at the time.
But are those musings enough to sustain 574 pages?
“Utopia Avenue,” the eagerly awaited new novel from David Mitchell (“Cloud Atlas”) leaves the answer in doubt. A shaggy, sprawling, picaresque tale, with one brief detour into time-traveling fantasy fiction, it certainly has its moments. But it’s also a bit of a letdown as it tells the story of four musicians of varied backgrounds who are thrown into a psychedelic-folk band put together by an enterprising Brian Epstein type toward the end of 1966.
Mitchell’s take on how the members of Utopia Avenue find their musical chemistry and their audience is winning. The individual stories behind three of those band members (the drummer doesn’t have much to say for himself) also have appealing weight. But cameo appearances by The Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones, Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett, a presuccess David Bowie and many others feel as though Mitchell expects their names alone to do his character-portrayal work for him. The book is also strewn with allusions to Mitchell’s earlier fiction in ways that feel more gimmicky than meaningful.
Mitchell, who was born in 1969, is better when evoking the general texture of the period. And he almost convinces you that this band he’s dreamt up — which eclectically blends folk, jazz, blues and guitar-god elements — could have enjoyed minor chart success in the winter of 1967-1968.
All four members of Utopia Avenue have good reason to try something new. Bassist Dean Moss is penniless and headed toward homelessness. “A police cell would solve his immediate housing dilemma,” he muses as he considers throwing a brick through the window of a coffee shop that just fired him, “but a criminal record wouldn’t help in the long run.”
When discreetly gay Canadian music manager Levon Frankland takes Dean under his wing, Dean wonders if it’s because he has the hots for him. Instead, Levon has an offbeat band concept in mind, based not on Monkees-like teen-idol appeal but on real musical possibilities.
Levon’s next recruits are guitarist Jasper de Zoet and drummer Peter Griffin (“Griff”), both happy to accept his invitation when their blues band implodes onstage midperformance. The final musician to join the lineup is folk singer Elf Holloway, likewise in the market for a new gig after her musical and romantic partner ditches her.
By the end of 1967, they’ve cracked the Top 20 singles charts, appeared on “Top of the Pops” and have an LP ready to go. After an array of mishaps — a drug arrest in Italy, a psychic crackup for Jasper in New York — the band hits the West Coast in late 1968, where things take a disastrous turn.
Mitchell’s portraits of Jasper, Dean and Elf are the book’s strongest component. Dean is trying to escape his working-class background, especially his alcoholic, abusive father. Guitar virtuoso Jasper — diagnosed with “aural schizophrenia” in his teens — is on medication to keep his hallucinations at bay, and his difficulties interpreting social signals can be a source of humor. (When an uptight business executive calls him a “nancy-boy” because of his long hair, his response is so artless it’s delightful.)
Elf, the steadiest of the four, is the soulful heart of the novel. In a laudably cool way, she sidesteps the sexism she inevitably encounters. And she’s poignantly brave and understated in the way she comes to grips with what she’s looking for in a lover.
Levon, alas, is one of the book’s disappointments. Mitchell never really takes us inside his story. Characters’ commentary on the music of the time is more on-target. (The Beach Boys’ “Don’t’ Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulders),” Elf notices, is “a much weirder song than it admits to being.”)
Mitchell festoons the book with philosophical asides that don’t amount to much (“Do you think reality is just a mirror for something else?”), and he plays games that may not work for readers not already steeped in the period. The identity of a dapper gent named Lenny whom the band meets in New York, for instance, is hinted at in lyrics from past and future Leonard Cohen songs … anachronisms that are deliberate, if corny. But Elf’s reference to the “Scenius” theories of the band’s friend Brian Eno, several years off-chronology, feels more like a mistake.
One early passage in the book, where Dean crosses paths with painter Francis Bacon and his boozy circle at the Colony Club, is such a blast that it almost makes you wish Mitchell had focused more narrowly on the plight of an attractive, young, straight would-be rock star navigating Bacon’s world. As it stands, “Utopia Avenue” feels both overstuffed and incomplete.
“Utopia Avenue” by David Mitchell, Random House, 574 pp., $30
David Mitchell will present an online lecture hosted by Seattle Arts & Lectures on Thursday, July 23, at 7: 30 p.m. Ticket bundles start at $55 and include a copy of “Utopia Avenue”; head to lectures.org for more info.
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