Books Read in 2021 6. Utopia Avenue – David Mitchell

Genre: Music, Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction

Narrative Style: Third person from a variety of points of view.

Rating: 2/5

Published: 2020

Format: Kindle

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.

Books Read in 2015 55. Ghostwritten by David Mitchell

Genre: Post-modern, literary fiction

Narrative Style: A range of first person monologues that are linked in subtle ways51MnXKfLFfL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

Rating: 4/5

Published: 1999

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: The story starts with a member of a cult who is on the run then moves to a jazz lover in Tokyo and then to a lawyer in Hong Kong who is in over his head and continues moving through seemingly disparate narratives to the end. However, there are links between the characters – some more subtle than others – and slowly an overarching narrative is revealed.

This is an exceptionally clever book. The range of different voices is astonishing and all are carried off with aplomb, all the more remarkable given that this is Mitchell’s debut novel. As the novel progresses and more of the underlying plot is revealed, the more you have to admire Mitchell’s skill.

As you might expect, with such a novel, some of the characters were more appealing than others. Some I could have read a whole novel about and felt bereft when the story moved on, others I found I just wanted to get through their chapter. This is particularly true of the chapter from the point of view of a spirit (if that is the right word) who has floated from person to person until they are eventually reborn in Mongolia.

However, the overarching narrative kept me reading and I was curious as to how the tale would end. The ending was satisfying whilst also offering a scary commentary on the uses of AI in war. The different narratives investigate different ways of being, different ideas about the soul, about intelligence and about free will. It makes sense then that this novel would end with a machine that is virtually sentient.

Overall, this was an enjoyable novel where the reader had to work in order to put the pieces together and make the links that Mitchell requires. I always enjoy having to work in this way and it certainly made me feel that I wanted to read more of Mitchell’s writing.

Writing Prompt – Make a list of the things that make you angry and then choose one of them to write about

This is quite an easy prompt for me as just about everything in the world makes me angry these days. Or if not angry at least a little irritated. So I am being quite restrained in keeping this list to ten things. There was a temptation, once I’d started, to just keep going. 

Writing prompt from 642 things to write about – Make a list of the things that make you angry and then choose one of them to write about. 

  1. Homophobia / Racism / Sexism
  2. Reality TV
  3. Stupidity
  4. Current education policy / Ofsted
  5. Mainstream music / film
  6. Modern parenting
  7. Ads with celebrity voiceovers / cameos
  8. People who are famous for nothing
  9. My computer’s inability to work for more than half an hour without crashing
  10. Trivial facebook statuses – I really don’t care what you are eating / watching / listening to right now.

Ads with celebrity voiceovers / cameos

Why does nobody ever seem to think about what they are advertising? Celebrities seem all too willing to sell their soul to whoever will give them the most money. And for a lot of them, it can’t be an issue of need. So why do it? Exactly how are we supposed to take David Mitchell seriously as a cultural commentator now that he has done a voiceover for that Phones For You advert. Surely the sort of nonsense he would be only to happy to ridicule if it were anyone else. But it’s okay. Just so long as he got paid shed loads.

The current king of all this is Kevin Bacon. Once a fairly good actor, now purveyor of dubious mobile phone promises. Whenever I see him, I feel let down. I’m not sure if it’s the chummy, smugness of his tone or the deadness of his expression that is more annoying. Whatever it is, I doubt I could ever take him seriously on the big screen again. Still, I’m sure the huge amount of money he got paid more than makes up for the loss of his dignity.