This is the second part (of two) of my review of Utopia Avenue, the latest novel by David Mitchell just released in the UK.
To build upon the themes I touched upon in Part One, I must register that normally I avoid fiction like the plague and hitherto had neither been aware of Mitchell’s existence nor read anything by him.
I leave readers to decide for themselves whether the above admissions qualify as plusses or minuses and indeed whether the fact that Mitchell is a highly-regarded and successful novelist and screenwriter – whilst I am neither of those – give me any sort of platform at all from which to pass a worthy judgement upon his latest published work.
In mitigation, or perhaps deflection, M’luds, I’d submit that at least I’m entitled to express an opinion!
Firstly, on the evidence of Utopia Avenue (both the title of the book and the name of the band involved), Mitchell is indisputably an accomplished and creative wordsmith who – having devised a novel fixed in a historical period (in this case roughly 1967 to 1970) – has gone about his research diligently.
Furthermore, by deploying his creative skills he has injected a fairly routine but fast-moving ‘rags to riches’ pot-boiler story with enough invention, style, wit and clever understated allusions to give a credible impression that his fictional characters are inhabiting a real world that many readers will recognise and in some cases perhaps also remember from personal experience.
I took from Mitchell’s interview with Nihal Arthanayake on Radio Five Live on Tuesday 27th July that he (being born in 1969) was or is interested in popular music and therefore would probably have found it little or no hardship to research the popular histories of the Sixties and listen to the music of the era again – I’m guessing that his parents would have introduced him to much of it during his formative years.
My base review would therefore award Mitchell three stars out of five simply for his writing ability and preparation alone.
Much of the early part of the novel is set in and around Soho in London, an area close to which I spent a significant chunk of my own career, and it was fun to ‘tick the boxes’ of the streets, landmarks, hostelries and venues mentioned that I knew all too well, albeit some fifteen to twenty years after Mitchell’s characters were supposedly there.
And now comes the more delicate and difficult part.
Of the remaining two stars of the five available – I’m afraid I am inclined to offer only a further half a star.
My problems with Utopia Avenue in this area stem from two sometime related factors – authenticity and what I shall call here the ‘craft and artifice’ of the writing process.
Throughout the novel Mitchell includes copious references to music of the era – for example, walking around an area of London, a character will sometimes hear snatches of a well-known hit from the 1960s wafting from a nearby window. It’s a device that both reminds the reader of the music of the time and also – to an extent – signals the exact year or month in which the action is taking place.
No particular problem with it, well save that – as I was reading the novel – I became more and more ‘aware’ of the writer’s use of the device, eventually to the extent that often I began anticipating another example of it coming along … and was rarely disappointed.
Similarly, another angle upon the same ruse, Mitchell regularly drops into the action real-life musicians, actors and well-known people from the era as they come across his fictional characters. Or vice versa.
Among the genuine ‘cast’ who thereby jump on board – either fleetingly, or stopping by to chat with or get to know the movie’s characters – are the likes of David Bowie, Francis Bacon, Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones, Rod Stewart, Marc Bolan (before he was famous), Leonard Cohen, Janis Joplin, Frank Zappa and even John Lennon.
For all the brilliance of Mitchell’s writing – again, I humbly mention once again that I’m not remotely fit to lie his bootlaces as as a scribe, so therefore who am I to comment or criticise(?) – I found some of his passages of dialogue unconvincing.
For example, at one social occasion Utopia Avenue’s bass guitarist Dean Moss is asked to contribute to a conversation upon a rather highbrow intellectual concept. He does so with about fifteen-lines’ worth of discourse on it, without a single break or interruption, all worthy of some well-rehearsed and auto-cued media-friendly academic’s TED-Talk.
Hardly the sort of stuff you’d quite expect from a lowly musician in the middle of the mayhem of a cocktail party.
On three occasions Mitchell uses the device of a character entering a room and reading out a review of an album and/or a concert to his/her audience, this as a means of ‘informing’ the reader that Utopia Avenue the band are making progress in the desperate ‘wriggle’ up the slippery pole of monster success.
On innumerable others – to use another example – a new character enters the story and within a page, either upon being asked – or just out of the blue – makes a long statement providing a summarised history of their back-story and how they got to be where they are now. It’s ‘okay’ (I suppose) as a means of informing the reader of stuff they might need to know but frankly absurdly unrealistic and unconvincing as dialogue that one would ever actually come across in real life.
Having completed this 560-page tome I was therefore left feeling slightly disappointed.
Without doubt Utopia Avenue is a considerable achievement by Mr Mitchell, but was it a missed opportunity? Possibly.
Having left school at the age of eighteen in 1970, arguably “I was there” at the time – but even I couldn’t work out whether it was an inspired conjuring-up of the spirit of the era, or just a workmanlike effort at what some 21st Century person, however well-intentioned, imagined the Sixties must have been like.
It has been said that great novels rarely make great television or films.
And that, rather, (ironically) sometimes great films or television series can be made from not-quite-great novels.
Maybe there’s hope for Utopia Avenue yet.