:: Article

Heaven Metal

By Jared Marcel Pollen.



David Mitchell, Utopia Avenue (Sceptre, 2020)

The novel is a social form, and thus it has to rely on a certain universality of experience: its readers are meant to recognize (if not identify) part of themselves in its dramas –– its truths are negotiated, its meanings are shared, and the audience arrives at them along with the author, who is in turn imperiled whenever they venture beyond the ambit of the social and into the land of the strange. In the world of fiction, the provinces of strange are: sex, dreams and music. All three prove extraordinarily difficult to write about well, precisely because they are not universal. They are rather, all kink and peculiarity –– what Freud called “the polymorphous perverse” –– a bundle of sense and sensation that can only be stabbed at with adjectives or synesthetic nonsense.

But music is unique in that it’s non-mimetic. It does not represent anything. This explains the old saw that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture” –– what would be the point? So as with sex and with dreams, the challenge then is not to seek the universal in the particular, but to make the peculiar universal by surrendering to solipsism. Like in this passage from A Clockwork Orange, where Alex settles down for the evening with a new violin concerto, which pours out in a lush Joycean cascade:

The trombones crunched redgold under my bed, and behind my gulliver the trumpets three-wise silverflamed, and there by the door the timps rolling through my guts and out again crunched like candy thunder. Oh, it was wonder of wonders. And then, a bird of like rarest spun heavenmetal, or like silvery wine flowing in a spaceship, gravity all nonsense now, came the violin solo above all the other strings, and those strings were like a cage of silk around my bed.

This is probably the best description of someone listening to music that I’ve ever seen in a novel. But it’s rare, and impossible to identify with. That’s the point. Unsurprisingly, Clockwork is a novel of quirks, where you deliver yourself unto fetish, and in which Alex’s passion for music, like his preoccupation with sex and violence, is an expression of the same mania. That’s why it works here, where elsewhere it so frequently doesn’t.

The other approach is through social realism. Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad, or Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue (to take two recent attempts) are examples of this. David Mitchell’s latest novel, Utopia Avenue, follows the same path, and like Egan and Chabon’s books, it is more about the business and community that surrounds music rather than music itself.

David Mitchell is a writer of many talents, a literary wizard whose works display a range and extent that are the criterion for any great novelist. His prose is sharp and swift, he’s light-handed and ambidextrous, and able to blend disparate genres into a modus vivendi that has proven conducive to Hollywood adaptions. His best book is Cloud Atlas, a matryoshka doll of six thematically connected narratives, which, if one were making a premature list of Best Books Since 2000, would be a strong contender for the top spot.

As it happens, Mitchell has an affinity for the strange. His works usually contain dreams, which he does fairly well, he fancies the numinous and the transcendent, and is often at his best as a prose stylist in his most meditative moments — the literary equivalent a hummingbird’s wings beating in slow-motion HD. One would expect then that a novel about music would channel the best of Mitchell’s gifts into a subject he is better poised to write about than most. He’s written about music before, most notably in the Robert Frobisher section of Cloud Atlas (the best of the book), and unlike Egan and Chabon, it’s clear that Mitchell himself either plays music, or has a theoretical knowledge of it.

But readers will not find much of this in Utopia Avenue, a novel that commits to the story of a rock band with a kind of docu-literalism, and is often remarkably incurious about the deeper meanings of music and what it is like for people to create it together. The novel takes its title from its eponymous group, Utopia Avenue, consisting of four members: Dean Moss (bass, vocals), Elf Holloway (keys, vocals), Peter Griffin aka Griff (drums), and Jasper DeZoet (guitar). The band is assembled serendipitously in London on a night in the spring of 1967, and begins its rise after the release of its first LP.

At the opener, Dean is the former bassist of Battleship Potemkin –– his instrument is on layaway, he gets mugged for his rent, evicted from his flat, and picked up by Levon Frankland (who becomes Utopia’s manager). Jasper (Dutch guitar virtuoso and quiet mystic) and Griff (a boorish Yorkshireman) are members of Blue Cadillac, which splits up in the middle of their gig on the night Levon introduces them to Dean. And there’s Elf Holloway, one half of a folk duo with her deadbeat Australian boyfriend, Bruce (possible Monty Python reference) Fletcher, who is on the lam in France when we pick up the story.

The novel is divided into the three sections, sided A and B, and titled after each of the band’s records, with each chapter as a song. Unlike Mitchell’s previous works, the narrative is mostly linear. Some sections are constructed diachronically with before-and-after arrangements (for example, a chapter in which the band does an interview with a reporter, who asks them how they got their record deal, as the scenes jump back and forth between the Q&A and the band in the office of the record label), but besides this, the story progresses in a more or less straightforward fashion.

Mitchell sets himself a task by writing about the 60s, a time so perfumed in the collective memory that it obscures its reality. Mitchell isn’t guilty of romanticizing, and he doesn’t take the easy route of trying to capture the zeitgeist by invoking the era’s political trappings –– there are glancing references to Vietnam, the new feminism, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the riots at the Chicago DNC –– but he never reaches outside the text and into the reader’s sense of history to shore up his world.

The novel is at a slight disadvantage when it comes to depicting any period in history. Film and TV can do this effortlessly by virtue of design. A show like Mad Men, for example, captures the 60s by the depth of its texture, in its costume and set-dress, and these details gift it an authenticity. Novelists on the other hand have to erect all this ex nihilo –– what’s on the table? what does the wallpaper look like? what’s the lighting? Is it bee’s wax candles, or sperm whale oil lamps? And how do you make the reader aware of all these things without announcing your research? In an interview promoting The Thousand Autumns of Jacob DeZoet, Mitchell described how a great deal of his time and energy was consumed with exactly this –– having to figure out what’s in the room, what’s it made out of and how the characters are going to interact with it believably.

Nabokov famously said that fiction is all detail, and as a writer you have to fondle the details. Very unlike Thousand Autumns, this is something that Utopia Avenue never manages to do. Indeed, outside of some cultural references, celebrity cameos (David Bowie, Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Leonard Cohen, among others) and reminding readers that the characters have long hair, there are few things about the novel that feel authentically 60s, and it seems as if it could just as easily be set between 1970-1971 (instead of ‘67-‘68) if not for that a few of the celebrity walk-ons would be dead by then. There are small moments, however, mostly in the form of music nerd factoids –– like how Hendrix lost the master of Axis: Bold As Love in the backseat of a London cab, or what “bleeding” means in recording lingo, and how this inspired the title of the Stones’ Let it Bleed –– which do make the reader feel a little more inside the world of musicians.

The other task is subject matter. Rock bands are clichés almost by definition (egos, fights, drugs, break-ups, stolen girlfriends and the rest of it). Mitchell manages for the most part to avoid this. But maybe he avoids it too much. He never convincingly conveys the way musicians interact with each other in a group, what the dynamics of a band are like, the kinds of disputes that always emerge. He does however capture with accuracy the business of music and the way bands were constructed at that time, almost like products, with an obsessive managerial attention to image, salability, song content and trends. Some of the most convincing scenes are where characters are arguing with A&Rs about which track should be the single, or how such-and-such a song should sound like another song recently released because it demonstrates a proven formula.

A big part of the foundering here is voice. In many ways Mitchell proves too sophisticated to lower himself to the level of the club, the green room and the recording booth. There’s a fair bit of pub-speak, characters say “yer” instead of “you,” Griff’s signature as a Yorkshireman is that he says “fookin’” a lot, and the characters crack crude jokes, like: “Yer know what we say about female hygiene in Gravesend… ‘If it smells like chicken, keep on lickin’. If it smells like trout, get the fuck out.’” Sometimes writers sound too much like their characters, and sometimes not enough. When Mitchell depicts rock stars talking to each other in this way, it sounds a bit like John Wayne playing a Gestapo––there’s something essentially unconvincing in both line and intonation.

This goes as well for the novel’s celebrity appearances. Gene Clark says things like: “if fame is a drug, it’s hard to kick”. Janis Joplin says: “I’ll be damned… it’s reefer o’clock”. And Syd Barrett, in advising Jasper about mental illness, tells him: “People who never set foot beyond the Land of the Sane just don’t understand”. These sound like lines out of the worst kind of parody, and they cheapen and reduce their real-life personalities in a way that an author wouldn’t dare do with their own creations.

With the exception of a few climactic moments, Mitchell largely avoids trying to describe the sound of the band playing, and when he does, he relies on abstract, adjective-laden prose: “[Jasper] gallops into a rapid-fire outro. Elf summons a crescendo of bathybic, many-fingered runs; and Dean’s hanging on for dear life, his faster-than-eye fingers skimming around his fretboard”. This kind of description leads –– sometimes intentionally –– to mixed-metaphor and confusion. How does one gallop into something that is rapid-fire? What does a bathybic run look like on the piano? Who knows? This isn’t Mitchell’s fault. It’s something that appears in almost all music journalism. Try it for yourself: take a song you love and write down what it sounds like from start to finish. Even if faithful to its basic elements –– what the beat is doing, how fast it is, how many instruments are playing –– it likely won’t give you any idea of what it sounds like.
Mitchell is at his best when he flourishes the things he seems to love most, and the chapters regarding Jasper DeZoet are the only parts of the novel that contain the author’s signature métaphysique. As a student at Bishop Ely school in England, Jasper is inhabited by a foreign psycho-phenomenon that communicates with him via a sequence of knocks. The presence, known as “Knock Knock” follows Jasper to Rijksdorp clinic in Amsterdam, where he is prescribed Queludrin and is inhabited by a second voice, known as the “Mongolian”, who offers to wall off Knock Knock in Jasper’s consciousness. The medication begins to shed its effects as the band rises to fame and the whole psychodrama culminates on the night of the band’s first show in New York City.

The DeZoet sections are where the style is most alive, the prose the sharpest, and the only area that offers any intimation of a deeper theme in a book that is conspicuously absent of deeper themes. Indeed, for a novel set in a time period so rife with thematic potential, Utopia Avenue doesn’t seem to have anything under its floorboards. What is music’s relationship to youth, or liberation, or cultural or political revolution? Maybe popular novels shouldn’t concern themselves with such questions. Mitchell seems to agree, because the book barely makes overtures to any of them.

What the novel does have though is connections, another signature for Mitchell, whose canon is starting to look more and more like the unspooling of a long tapestry, the weaving of which is taken up by various characters in its continuum. There is a brief mention of the “Cloud Atlas Sextet”, which Jasper owns a copy of, and later in the novel, Esther Little and Dr. Marius, the Horologists from The Bone Clocks, appear in the DeZoet narrative, and we learn –– without giving too much away –– that the voice inhabiting Jasper’s consciousness shares an origin with a character in Thousand Autumns, in which Marius also appears. As with Cloud Atlas, it’s exactly these types of connections that make Mitchell’s books fun, and indeed, the DeZoet coda is the funnest part of the novel.

Connections can serve as a nice substitute for depth, especially in popular fiction. But in the trench of meaning, connections run shallow rather than deep. It doesn’t take much to notice them, but they are always pleasing. And Mitchell is pleasing. At this point, reading his newest novel is like picking up a thread in the dark and following it until you reach the next knot. For readers who haven’t touched any of Mitchell’s back catalogue, Utopia Avenue is unlikely to offer anything special, but for those who have, the book is buttressed a bit by its place in the larger scheme. The author is building a long Something, on a scale rarely seen in fiction that is to be taken seriously, and like a cathedral being made in installations, the finished product is something only Mitchell can see, and the imagined whole is beginning to look more majestic than its composite parts.



Jared Marcel Pollen was born in Canada and currently lives in Prague. His work has appeared in Quillette, 3:AM Magazine, The Smart Set, The Millions, Bright Lights Film Journal and Political Animal. He is the author of The Unified Field of Loneliness (2019) and the novel Venus&Document (forthcoming). Grievances can be filed on Twitter @JaredMPollen

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, July 10th, 2020.