Utopia Avenue is David Mitchell's latest piece of fiction in the meta-novel he is writing. Which is to say this book is set in the same mild-fantasy universe as several of his others. It follows the motley crew of musicians and management which form the titular rock/folk/pop band in London in 1967, including cameos from near every famous London-based musician of the time. I've no strong attachment to the era or to early rock-n-roll music and the book never relied on nostalgia or knowledge. Mitchell does a fine job of creating a sense of a time of social and artistic revolution. Maybe it's because I read it eleven months into a global pandemic, but man... he really sold it to me. Despite the often dark and sometimes fantastical undertones of this book, it is foremost about people and their relationships. Romantic, platonic, and professional relationships to each other. Our connection to ideals and philosophies through the art that we make and consume ("appreciate" sounds less destructive but also less intense) and how that connects individuals to groups to societies. So I guess this is a book about... everything?
This need to balance stories and dynamics at the individual, ideal, and population/crowd level is tough. It's a lot of plates to keep spinning. Or to mix metaphors it's a lot of cattle to herd. Mitchell mostly does a fine job, but every now and then somebody, some strand, some mention gets left behind and is picked up later, occasionally with a feeling of curtesy over curiosity. Giving space and attention to certain characters often rewards us, looking at you Jasper - you enigmatic guitar prodigy who spent time in a psych ward. Other times, characters flit between cast and side-character. At times, certain narratives felt simplified or condensed.
These possible shortcomings are redressed by the weaving of Utopia Avenue into Mitchell's broader shared universe. The supernatural-cum-fantastical elements in this book are rewarding in their subtleties, unanswered-ness, and existential consequences. Utopia Avenue is a book which left me with a sense of animism: that the world is alive. That the separation of human, world, soul, and other aren't as strict as we see them here in the west. It's the same feeling that Studio Ghibli films leave me with, and it is one which is uncommon in western media. Little surprise, then, that Mitchell's wife (Keiko Yoshida) is a native Japanese speaker, and they met in Hiroshima. I've not done the requisite research to attribute these things together, however, maybe Mitchell was like this anyway and that's why he's so drawn to the Japanese culture. I digress.
The final act of Utopia Avenue is as mystifying and bewitching. A feat it shares with Bone Clocks, Mitchell's 2014 novel. What I love dearly is both the magical elements, and how carefully they are placed and rationed, so that nothing can simply be dismissed as ✨magic✨.
The book feels optimistic about humans, and about our ability to create for and inspire one and other. This quality is what draws me endlessly to John Green, who has entirely nothing to do with this book or David Mitchell but who proudly beats the same optimistic tune over a din of (not unreasonable) pessimism. One, perhaps forced and on-the-nose, moment has the aforementioned Jasper (or possibly Mitchell, through Jasper) consider aloud in front of a press conference if music can change the world:
Which begs a question. “Who or what influences the minds of the people who change the world?” My answer is “Ideas and feelings.” Which begs a question. “Where do ideas and feelings originate?” My answer is, “Others. One’s heart and mind. The press. The arts. Stories. Last, but not least, songs.” Songs. Songs, like dandelion seeds, billowing across space and time.
Despite adoring Bone Clocks, I really struggled to get into Cloud Atlas (2004). But Utopia Avenue has reminded me of what I loved so much about Mitchell, and also how many of his books I have not read (six). Leaving a book feeling excited to read the author's existing body of work, despite previously failed attempts, is one of the finest endorsements of a book I can think of. Unfortunately it is a purely quantitative, personal review which isn't so translatable to others, but it is symptomatic. This book delivers worthwhile ideas with an unusually captivating language.
So I hope you read this book and it reminds you of the wonder of the world. Of the joys of creativity and human connection, and of how you can bend genres because they're there to serve curators not creators. Even if you've read all Mitchell's work and hate it (but still find yourself here) then I don't know what I could say to dissuade you. 4.5⭐