Genre: Music, Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction
Narrative Style: Third person from a variety of points of view.
Synopsis: Utopia Avenue are a band put together by Levon Frankland. They are an unlikely bunch, mixing folk, psychedelic, rock and jazz influences. The novel follows their rise to fame and how they deal with their personal issues.
Time on shelf: Not very long. I’ve read four Mitchell novels before so I was excited to read this one.
Well, this was a disappointment. From very early on, it was clear that this was not going to be the usual Mitchell tour de force that I normally enjoy so much. The first character we are introduced to is Dean Moss, a gullible, uneducated bass player whose life is falling apart. Cue entrance of Levon Frankland who is putting a band together. They then proceed to pull together the other members of the band, all of whom are at crisis points in their musical careers. So far so predictable. The band suffer the usual setbacks in the start of their career – bad gigs, sinking singles and so on. Until, of course, things start to go well.
There isn’t much in the way of overarching story here. There is the story of the band and each of the members have a personal crisis. Dean had a troubled childhood with an abusive father, Elf Holloway thinks she may be gay but is unable to accept it (at least at first) and Jasper de Zoet has mental health issues. However, none of these things really have any momentum. There is no pace. In one chapter (the only one he gets) drummer, Griff is in a car crash which kills his brother. He doesn’t want to stay in the band. And then suddenly he is back in the band again. Because he gets no other chapters, we do not know his motivation. (Incidentally, Griff was a badly drawn stereotype of a Yorkshireman whose one trait was to say fook all the time. It made me question whether Mitchell had ever met someone from the North.)
The most interesting – and the most Mitchell like – of these storylines is Jasper’s. He has an interloper in his head who wants control of his body and briefly gains it. This is more like the Mitchell we all know and love and is the sole reason this didn’t get one star. Jasper is cured by horology, one of Mitchell’s trademark ideas. This is the only part of the story that isn’t straightforwardly realistic. I could have stood a bit more of it.
It isn’t only the plot that is problematic, however. It is the constant cameos of dead pop stars. Okay, so a band in London in the 1960s would meet some other pop stars, of course but these appearances are so frequent and are so blandly written that they quickly become tedious. Mitchell seems to think that the insertion of the name is enough and so does little to flesh out Brian Jones, Keith Moon or David Bowie (to name but three). They get there full name every time they are mentioned as if the reader is going to be as tickled by their appearance as Mitchell clearly is. I was familiar with some of these people but not all of them. A little more work at characterisation might have been helpful.
The one time Mitchell does expand his powers of description, it is quite successful. In a chapter set in the Chelsea Hotel, Elf fails to recognise Leonard Cohen so Mitchell has to describe him properly so the reader can work it out. Leonard comes across as wittily flirtatious, urbane and charming. Much as you might imagine really. By comparison, the other cameos felt lazy and self-indulgent. In fact, the one chapter from Levon’s point of view seems to have been included solely so that Mitchell could include an extended (and completely cringey) cameo from Francis Bacon which made me question which came first, the story or the star turns.
So overall, a disappointing read which saw me begin to anticipate the cameos rather than what might happen in the plot. A chapter in the Chelsea Hotel, I guess we’ll be meeting Leonard Cohen and Janis Joplin then. It was tedious and didn’t feel like it had been written by a writer as good as Mitchell. What a shame.