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David Mitchell’s expanding universe swallows up the ’60s

David Mitchell's latest novel is "Utopia Avenue."
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

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It was 20 years ago today (minus a couple of months) that David Mitchell’s first book, “Ghostwritten,” was published in the U.S. Since then, the author best known for the brilliant, boundary-smashing novel “Cloud Atlas” has proved that he can write just about anything. He’s done historical fiction set in 1800s Japan in “The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet”; delivered one short story in tweets and an additional story for a time capsule that will be opened in 2114; penned the British bildungsroman “Black Swan Green” and a mystery/fantasy/eco-dystopia, “The Bone Clocks,” which somehow managed to connect all his works into a single sprawling universe. His latest, “Utopia Avenue,” is a rock novel. After all that work, it’s time to have some fun.

Come on back to swinging ’60s London and meet the band: gifted but troubled Jasper de Zoet on guitar, handsome Dean Moss from Gravesend on bass, jazzy Griff Griffin on drums and, holding her own behind the keyboards, Elf Holloway. “Mix a shot of R&B with a glug of psychedelia, add a dash of folk and shake well,” one critic writes. It’s a little hard to imagine but just plausible enough, especially in 1967 London.

Everybody knows the arc of this story: Four scrappy outsiders climb the ladder of fame to a sweet perch, from which they might just crash and burn. Mitchell plays into and against those tropes — for example, he supplies his fictional foursome with plenty of drugs but also gives them a manager, Levon Frankland, who is actually decent. There is always a lot of play in Mitchell’s books, and this push and pull against expectations is one way to keep things interesting.

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Another is to tell the collective story of the band individually. Dean, Elf and Jasper, who alternate songwriting duties, also take turns narrating chapters. Dean is the most rock star-y — a cute little heartbreaker, carelessly magnetic. He provides the throughline as the band tries to find its way. He samples whatever substances and women cross his path, longs for a sports car and makes the biggest mistakes. When Italian police find drugs on them, it’s Dean who’s thrown in jail.

A book jacket for David Mitchell's "Utopia Avenue."
(Random House)

Griff has little to say within the narrative (a meta drummer joke), and manager Levon gets a turn, taking us down a vivid detour of London’s glitterati. As for Elf, she’s had moderate success as a folk artist but not so much romantically. Her personal woes pay off artistically with the song “Prove It,” one of many whose lyrics appear in full (an invitation to real musicians, perhaps). Here’s what it’s like for Elf when the band performs:

“Jasper slots a solo into ‘Prove It’ unlike anything he’s tried in rehearsal. It’s glorious. I don’t know how he does it. She glances at Dean, whose face tells her, I don’t know either. Jasper eschews guitar-theatrics, but the music finds a way onto his face … Jasper’s solo ends on a blistering Iron Man yowl, and his glance her way means, Your turn. Elf takes up the piano figure and expands it into a boogie-woogie solo. I love my job, thinks Elf. If there is a deeper fulfillment than watching strangers connect with a song she’s written, she has never found it.”

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Mitchell is particularly good at making us care about imaginary music. It’s a trick that’s been mastered by Michael Chabon in “Telegraph Avenue,” Esi Edugyan in “Half-Blood Blues” and Nick Hornby more than once. (Don Delillo’s “Great Jones Street” is great on fame but not so good at the music part.)

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Back to Jasper de Zoet and what some fans call the Mitchellverse. Of course Jasper’s connected to Jacob de Zoet, the Dutch clerk of Mitchell’s novel set 150 years earlier, and yet he himself doesn’t know this. Born into a wealthy family from which he’s estranged, Jasper has trouble understanding emotions and is haunted by a knocking sound so maddening that he was institutionalized. To his doctors, this might sound like mental illness. To those who’ve read Mitchell’s other books, it seems like a nasty soul vampire is coming, and his intentions aren’t good.

Do you have to read Mitchell’s other books to get this one? No, not at all. The meta-narrative is just a slim thread in this large novel. It’s nothing like “The Bone Clocks,” which details an epic battle between semi-immortal forces. For most of “Utopia Avenue,” those forces are knocking, but they can’t come in. When they do break on through, Jasper is barely able to understand what’s happened.

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I, on the other hand, had just reread “The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet,” so when Jasper turns and faces the strange eyes of once-powerful priest Enomoto staring back at him in a mirror, I knew exactly who it was. Anyone who has read (or, God forbid, seen) “Cloud Atlas” will recognize the composition by Robert Frobisher that appears on a record. And so on

Making like Marvel and building a universe is bold and exciting, but to some it might seem unliterary. These days people want literary fiction compartmentalized, while book series are reserved for mysteries, children’s books and other, well, massively popular genres. William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County is an exception, but Mitchell’s prose — described by Ursula K. Le Guin as “relentlessly brilliant” — is a thousand times more accessible than Faulkner’s.

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I picture Mitchell fans trying to map the connections in “Utopia Avenue” in the manner of a conspiracy meme. You never know which character — a pair of sexy goth fans, a mean landlord — might show up in another book. After tallying about 125 fictional characters, though, I decided to leave the cross-referencing to someone else. There’s more pleasure in letting the Easter eggs — like Dean’s seeing a movie that also appeared in Mitchell’s Murakami-esque “number9dream” — fall where they may.

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Another thing about Easter eggs: Dean sees that movie while standing beside Syd Barrett — one of many rock star cameos. The stars look very different today, but in “Utopia Avenue,” they’re young and charismatic. Brian Jones is the nicest of the bunch, and there are walk-ons by David Bowie, Janis Joplin, Leonard Cohen, Jimi Hendrix, Frank Zappa, Harold Pinter and many more. If at times their dialogue is a little too on the nose, if occasionally someone drops their own lyrics in conversation, it’s forgivable. Not every reader will be obsessive about ’60s lyrics, just as not everyone who reads this book will be obsessive about the Mitchellverse.

That Mitchell is braiding reality into his fiction in this book does give it a different glow. Brian Eno called Britain’s ’60s musical universe “The Scenius,” Elf explains. “Right now, the scenius of London, and Soho, is pretty perfect. We’ve the venues, studios with multi-track recorders, the radio stations, the music papers and magazines … We made our album, sure. But it emerged from the scenius.”

With his huge electric brain, Mitchell has written his own solo scenius, one that draws connections between Edo-era Japan and a distant, post-human-collapse future. It’s a grand project, brilliantly executed and deeply humanist. “Utopia Avenue” is the most fun stop along the way and aptly named. In 2020, there is something utopian about the idea of people gathering together to make and record and play music, to create a scenius together. We’ll get back to the garden someday.

Kellogg is a former books editor of The Times.


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