September 30, 2020

David Mitchell Brings His Novelistic High Jinks to the Swinging ’60s

In a psychedelic moment toward the end of David Mitchell’s new novel, “Utopia Avenue,” which is about the birth, rise and demise of a British rock band in the 1960s, the long and lurid family history of one of the band members — a preternaturally talented, half-British, half-Dutch guitarist named Jasper de Zoet — unspools, filmlike, before his astonished eyes, all the way back to the late 18th century; as it does so, another character murmurs that “the chain of events would fill a hefty novel.” Indeed. We see Jasper’s boarding school days in the 1950s melting into his infancy; his father’s wedding in the 1930s segueing into the elder de Zoet’s childhood adventures with a kite; scenes from the Boer War (“a bloody, stupid mess”) dissolving into images of horse-drawn carriages; then colonial plantations in Java, Dutch East India Company ships sailing into Japanese waters; finally a trading post, a monastery, a room filled with corpses. Nagasaki, 1800.

So yes: enough to fill a novel. The joke here — one that will be immediately obvious to Mitchell’s fans — is that a number of these events have already filled a hefty novel: Mitchell’s own “The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet,” a work of historical fiction enhanced with supernatural elements, published in 2010. The self-referential winking is not at all atypical.

“Filling hefty novels with chains of events” is certainly one way to describe what Mitchell has been up to since his remarkable first book, “Ghostwritten,” came out in 1999. “Chain” is the key word here. In that debut and subsequent books — notably “Number9Dream” (2001) and the cult favorite “Cloud Atlas” (2004) — Mitchell spun remarkably intricate stories whose elements were ingeniously connected, like links in a chain, through time and space. (The messiness of the 2012 film adaptation of “Cloud Atlas” by the Wachowskis is a testament to the daunting complexities of the original.) In “Ghostwritten,” each of nine tales — beginning and ending with a first-person narrative by a young man who’s part of a terrorist cell responsible for a gas attack in the Tokyo subway — generates an element that finds its way into the next story. (The terrorist in the first story makes a phone call that is answered, in the second, by a youth working in a record shop; and so on.) “Cloud Atlas,” which like its predecessor mixes a vivid realism with dystopian sci-fi and fantasy, tells six stories, all variations on the same plot but stretching from the 19th century to a remote future. The first half of the novel gives you the first half of each of five tales, leading up to the sixth; in the second half you get the second half of each of those tales. Nested or parallel structures also distinguish “Number9Dream,” which follows a Japanese teenager as he searches for the father who abandoned him and his twin sister; his search is shadowed — or, perhaps, “twinned” — by dream narratives.

A seamless shuttling between the real world, evoked in minutely naturalistic detail, and imaginary ones would become as much a characteristic of Mitchell’s novels as their elaborate mechanics. “Ghostwritten,” for instance, juxtaposes a section whose protagonist is a hapless young British money-launderer in Hong Kong with one that’s narrated by an elderly, world-weary Chinese woman who’s seen more 20th-century history than you’d think one person could bear. Her story, in turn, abuts another that’s told by a “noncorpum,” a chatty disembodied intelligence that wanders from body to body over several decades. This daisy-chain construction was slyly effective, smoothing over the boundaries between successive stories and the wildly diverse worlds they depicted, making one feel as real as the next.

In those early novels, the narrative links that Mitchell liked to forge, the Fabergé intricacies of his designs, amounted to more than just showing off. They gave you, rather, a strong sense that there are obscure or even invisible unities that powerfully structure the reality we perceive. Not the least of those unities were political and historical ones. Mitchell, who is British, lived for many years in Japan and has a sharp eye for the naïveté and hypocrisy that have characterized the West’s behavior in the postcolonial world. “Ghostwritten,” in particular, with its pointed oscillation between cultist cells and expat financiers, of Chinese warlords in the 1920s and gangsters in a post-Soviet Mongolia where Danish backpackers now roam, suggests how, in a globalized world, everything is, in fact, connected, albeit in ways we often prefer not to acknowledge. It was an insight that was making itself felt in popular culture at the time Mitchell began publishing: The ingenious interconnections of his first few books are cousins of the ones you find in certain movies of the early 2000s (Steven Soderbergh’s “Traffic” or Stephen Gaghan’s “Syriana,” say), in which densely interrelated narratives were meant to reflect a lot of densely interrelated history — American, Mexican, Middle Eastern.

ImageIn Mitchell’s early novels, the Fabergé intricacies of his designs amounted to more than just showing off.

After the ingenuities of the first three novels — “Cloud Atlas,” each section of which features a character who is “reading” one of the other sections, is particularly dazzling — the two that followed left some readers scratching their heads. “Black Swan Green” (2006) was a more or less standard coming-of-age story, narrated by a precocious pubescent English boy as he navigates family, school, romantic and literary crises. That book showcased, once again, a remarkable talent for evoking the real — and gave off a whiff of treacle absent from the earlier books. (The ending, in which the nerdy hero outsmarts the thugs, gets his first kiss and is applauded by the other kids, will remind some readers — not in a good way — of the pat finales of those bullied-teen movies of the ’80s.)

Equally conventional, in its way, was “The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet” — the book to which Mitchell’s new novel alludes — a historical romance whose Japanese mise-en-scène raised high expectations, given the author’s talent and intimacy with that culture, but which turned out to be more than a little Walter Scott-ish. Set in early-19th-century Japan, it tells the story of a young Dutch trader whose love affair with a disfigured Japanese midwife draws him into rescue melodrama complete with a mysterious monastery and a cannibalistic cult of child sacrifice presided over by a demonic abbot. Those strenuously lurid elements made you wonder whether Mitchell had pushed as far as he could, creatively — whether he had done all the genuinely innovative things he had it in him to do. Certain gestures of the sort you’d come to associate with his novels — a composer whose work is central to “Cloud Atlas” crops up in “Black Swan Green,” for instance — come off as perfunctory, not integrated into the overall fabric in a meaningful way. It was as if Mitchell were winking at his fans.

A growing sense, as Mitchell’s career evolved, that the playful fantasist and the earnest realist in him had less and less to say to each other was confirmed by the publication, in 2014, of “The Bone Clocks.” The structural intricacies here are exhausting rather than involving, and the flirtations with the fantastical come off as silly rather than provocative. Like “Cloud Atlas,” it has a six-part structure, this time organized around a single character at various stages of her life — once again, in both real and supernatural planes. (The latter includes wise immortals called Horologists locked in cosmic battle with a race of evil beings, the Anchorites — sorry, the “Anchorites of the Dusk Chapel of the Blind Cathar of the Thomasite Monastery of Sidelhorn Pass.”) The elaborateness of the construction and the baroque excesses of plot and milieu felt more than a little compensatory — caricatures of earlier modes and motifs that, by now, couldn’t quite conceal an essential hollowness. It was a performance more than a novel. (So too its slender 2015 sequel, “Slade House,” which started life as a Twitter thread.)

“Utopia Avenue,” which is about nothing if not performance, looks, at first glance, like a return to Mitchell’s middle period. An expert historical novel, this time about the Swinging Sixties, it takes the form of an earnest Bildungsroman about a ragtag quartet of young Brits who briefly come together to make music and, in the process, find themselves. The choice of subject matter will come as no surprise to Mitchell’s longtime readers. The touchingly minute and knowing exegeses on great jazz LPs by the record-shop employee in “Ghostwritten” (“my place comes into existence through jazz”), the symbolic significance of a composition called “The Cloud Atlas Sextet” in several of the novels, the amusingly expert preteen calibrations of the emotional shadings in ’80s pop that you get in “Black Swan Green” — all this made you wonder when Mitchell was going to write a novel that put music front and center.

With one notable exception, the structure of “Utopia Avenue” traces a familiar arc. It begins in 1967, the year of the Summer of Love; a sequence of deft opening vignettes introduces the four musicians, all in their early 20s, who are brought together by a visionary manager to form a band called Utopia Avenue. They go on to achieve stardom; a tragedy breaks them up. As in a World War II bomber movie, the “crew” here represents a carefully varied socioeconomic spectrum so as to provide maximum potential for commentary on various political, artistic and cultural issues. Dean Moss, the gorgeous, sex-addicted, vaguely Mick Jagger-ish bassist, has barely survived an abusive, down-at-heels childhood in Gravesend; Jasper, the binational, upper-crusty product of boarding schools, suffers from psychological problems that, at first, you’re tempted to diagnose as Asperger’s. (He has to self-consciously “act” his smiles on cue and “decipher” facial expressions, which to him are as “impenetrable as Sanskrit.”) Elf Holloway, the band’s lone woman, culled from the folk circuit, is comfortably upper-middle-class and can’t understand why none of the guys she dates make her happy; Peter “Griff” Griffin, the gruff drummer, comes from a matey, blue-collar milieu in Hull. (Like many a rock drummer, he doesn’t get equal time here.) Each, moreover, represents a different musical tradition. Griff comes from the jazz world, Dean’s an R&B man, and so forth. The emphasis on eclecticism becomes a leitmotif.

The journey that will take Utopia Avenue from ill-paying gigs in grungy Soho cellars to sold-out concerts in sunlit California parks is filled with all-too-predictable pit stops: experiments with sex and drugs (“But yer have to get that feeling back. Not ‘want’ to. Have to. Only the second time, it’s not as good. Third time’s not as good as the second”); scrapes with the law; the temptations of money and the betrayals that come with offers of solo careers; the elusive dream of the perfect performance. As in some of the other recent novels, a recourse to melodrama pushes the plot along every now and then: There are crib deaths, car crashes, holdups. Twined around such moments are more subtle passages, particularly the flashbacks to the characters’ pasts — although the way in which each band member’s story showcases an “issue” (domestic abuse, mental illness, dyslexia, etc.) from which a song conveniently blossoms feels a bit convenient, a little too manicured.

A lot of “Utopia Avenue” is so conventional that you suspect Mitchell’s real interest may lie elsewhere. At one point, Elf refers to Brian Eno’s theory of the “scenius” — what Eno called “the intelligence and the intuition of a whole cultural scene … the communal form of the concept of the genius” — and it’s possible that the chance to evoke a rich creative milieu in all its saturated detail may well have been what first captivated Mitchell’s imagination. It’s easy to see why the concept of creativity as a weblike phenomenon, transcending individuals and connecting cultural scenes and cities, would appeal to him. The novel is at its best when he deploys his remarkable skills to evoke the place and the time in which his four characters find themselves — particularly at the beginning, when they’re still unknowns scrabbling around a London that seems comically opposite to anyone’s notion of utopia: “the brown Thames, the upside-down table of Battersea Power Station, smoke gushing from its three working chimneys, muddy parks where daffodils wilt around statues of the forgotten, bomb sites where ragged children play among dirty pools and mounds of rubble, a bony horse hauling a rag-and-bone cart, a pub called the Silent Woman whose sign shows a woman with a missing head, a flower-seller in a wheelchair, billboards for Dunhill cigarettes, for Pontins Holiday Camps, for a British Leyland dealership, busy launderettes where patrons stare into the machines. … Jasper considers how loneliness is the default state of the world.”

Music, of course, is what saves these tormented misfits, beckoning toward horizons they can barely imagine. At one point a couple of the band members sit around listening to the newly released “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” “Wow. It’s an inner travelogue,” one observes. “But ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’?” responds the other. “Surely that’s LSD?”

Mitchell evokes the band’s growing success by intertwining the lives of his fictional stars with those of real ones, a number of whom make clever cameo appearances — Allen Ginsberg, Francis Bacon, Leonard Cohen, the still-unknown David Bowie, Janis Joplin, Jerry Garcia. There are in-jokes about the pop music world that will be catnip for fans: In one scene set on the roof terrace of the Chelsea Hotel, Joplin, who’s been talking to Elf about the struggles of women musicians, gets to give her own account of the act of fellatio that Cohen immortalized in his 1974 song “Chelsea Hotel #2.” They go to parties at which hip lesbians say things like: “I played ‘Wedding Presence’ so often, I wore out the track. It’s numinous, if I can use that word.” (No, you can’t. A curious failing of Mitchell’s fiction is that all his characters talk, you suspect, like him. “Call me. Or repent at your leisure,” says one of Dean’s conquests, who’s supposed to be a factory worker.)

Unfortunately, this fine-grained if wide-eyed celebration of the ’60s and its ethos too often curdles into swoony set pieces in which characters are made to speechify about the values of that presumably more authentic, in-touch era. Here’s Elf, as she yields to the charms of Ms. Numinous: “Labels, I stuck them on everything. ‘Good.’ ‘Bad.’ ‘Right.’ ‘Wrong.’ ‘Square.’ ‘Hip.’ ‘Queer.’ ‘Normal.’ … They’re easy to use. They save you the bother of thinking. Those labels stay stuck. … The trouble is, reality’s the opposite. Reality is nuanced, paradoxical, shifting.”

Or Dean, lecturing on “freedom”: “What freedom isn’t: not a jingle, not a slogan, not an anthem, not a lifestyle, not a drug, not a status symbol. Not even power. … It’s inner. It’s limited. It’s fragile. It’s a journey.”

Or — in the novel’s final big section, set in San Francisco — Jerry Garcia intoning about the meaning of the ’60s themselves: “Every third or fourth generation is a generation of radicals, of revolutionaries. We, my friends, are the bottle-smashers. We release genies. … But the genies we let loose stay loose. In the ears of the young the genies whisper what was unsayable.”

The problem isn’t that all this isn’t true; it’s that these and many other “insights” into music and culture are not only sayable but have been said, very often and more persuasively. The grubby beginnings, the search for artistic expression, the threat of commercialism, the lure of fame, money, drugs, the lectures on “art” — all this is familiar from a vast literature of rock (Don DeLillo’s “Great Jones Street,” Roddy Doyle’s “The Commitments,” Jonathan Lethem’s “You Don’t Love Me Yet,” to name just a few) and an even vaster filmography (the Beatles films,The Rose,” “Purple Rain,” etc.). When all is said and done — and nearly 600 pages adds up to a lot of saying and doing — “Utopia Avenue” is astonishingly clichéd. Until, that is, you get to the end, where, as Mitchell fans might expect, a bizarre surprise is waiting.

Those fans will have immediately recognized that the guitarist Jasper de Zoet shares his surname with the hero of “The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet” — Jasper’s direct ancestor, we now learn; it turns out that the demonic abbot in the earlier novel has survived death to fight another day in “Utopia Avenue.” This linkage is, as we know, a characteristic Mitchell tic — hardly the only instance here. A movie playing in the home theater of a Hollywood mogul in “Utopia Avenue,” for instance, is the same one that the hero of “Number9Dream” goes to see at a crucial moment; a radio host on whose show the band appears is the protagonist of one of the nine interlocking sections of “Ghostwritten”; and so forth. And so the new book is meant to be seen as enmeshed in, and adding to, the giant “web” that Mitchell has long been weaving — although here more than ever before, those winks feel gratuitous, not so much self-referential as self-reverential.

Far more dramatic is another favorite trick that Mitchell brandishes, this one having to do with Jasper’s narrative, which both provides one of the major climaxes of the novel and exemplifies how badly it goes wrong.

Throughout “Utopia Avenue,” Jasper is shown suffering from terrifying auditory hallucinations — knocking sounds that emanate from within his brain and that, we learn in a series of flashbacks, landed him in an asylum during his adolescence. Taken together with his other symptoms — the social awkwardness and inability to read other people — this affliction looks as if it’s going to be part of a riff on a familiar theme: the destructive madness of the creative artist. Indeed, in one of those flashbacks the author throws the young Jasper together with the real-life blues legend Big Bill Broonzy, who lived in the Netherlands in the 1950s and here warns the youth that “the blues is a language you can’t lie in.” But Jasper, we understand, isn’t lying when he sings and plays the blues: More than any of the other band members, he knows about psychic pain.

But “Knock Knock,” as Jasper calls his inner demon, turns out to be all too real. As “Utopia Avenue” nears its ending, the narrative veers violently and none too persuasively into the supernatural. We learn that the evil abbot from “The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet” has lodged himself, like a metaphysical parasite, in the brains of Jacob de Zoet and his male descendants, gathering strength with each successive generation until now, in the ’60s, he explodes into powerful physicality, hijacking Jasper’s body and doing with it what he will. And what he will, it turns out, is … to make music. When the band performs its debut American gig, Jasper’s hands are playing the notes but the abbot’s spirit is at the helm. The demon, it turns out, is no musician; the other band members, to say nothing of the disgruntled New York audience, feel that something is missing. What could it be? Mitchell doesn’t keep us in suspense. “Performance is not only technique: A performance is technique and soul.”

That’s an awful lot of plot for a fortune-cookie payoff. In this new novel more than ever before, the irruptions of the fantastical into the everyday, of one David Mitchell novel’s scenius into another’s, seem like the result of an act of will, even willfulness, rather than the product of an organic necessity.

Mitchell — to say nothing of readers who have embraced the glittery notion that all this “connectedness” adds up to something meaningful (what?) — clearly disagrees. Almost exactly halfway through “Utopia Avenue” there’s a scene in which a pompous eggheaded interviewer criticizes the band for being “schizophrenic,” its music a disorienting pastiche of “acid rock, folk with acid effects, R&B, folk interludes, passages of jazz.” When the band members push back against his crude insistence on pigeonholing them — “Wouldn’t the adjective ‘eclectic’ be more apt?” Elf asks — the host digs in. “But into which category of music,” he asks, “can Utopia Avenue be located?” Given what we know about the eclectic nature of Mitchell’s artistry, it’s almost impossible not to take the scene as a response to his own critics.

But the issue isn’t that “Utopia Avenue” and some of the other novels fail some superficial critical litmus test — some arbitrary insistence on tonal consistency or unity of genre. The problem is that they fail to meet the high standard Mitchell himself established early on: a standard that insists that a work’s stylistic eclecticism harmonize with, and serve, large and significant themes. No doubt the appearance in “Utopia Avenue” of vengeful transubstantiating Japanese demons and some conveniently timed Horologist psychosedation will excite some of his fans. Others, who have admired his work in the past but are finding it increasingly unpersuasive, can recognize the sound of a broken record when they hear it.

Daniel Mendelsohn, the editor at large of The New York Review of Books, teaches at Bard. His 10th book, “Three Rings: A Tale of Exile, Narrative, and Fate,” will be published in September.