“Utopia Avenue”: four young people in the wind

Born on January 12, 1969, David Mitchell has no memory of the 1960s. Utopia Avenuehis eighth novel, one would easily believe that the English novelist lived his adolescence in the SwingingLondongolden era of the British Invasion, pirate radios, demonstrations against the Vietnam War, sexual liberation and the miniskirt. What can drive a worthy representative of Generation X to fantasize about the youth of baby boomers?

“I will give you the superficial answer first: fashion, music, cinema, aesthetics, style, art, theatre, literature, in short, the whole explosion that has taken place in the cultural landscape”, replies the author, twice finalist for the Man Booker Prize, met in the calm of a hotel in Old Montreal, not far from the frenzy of the Salon du livre de Montréal.

“And now the in-depth answer,” he continues. At the time, young people dreamed of a better world; they saw a window to a world where women would feel less powerless, where members of the LGBTQ community could love each other freely, where people with mental illness would not be looked down upon, where privileged white males would not be not the only ones to have their share of the cake. The late 1960s was the last time in history when people thought they could do better. Recently, movements #MeToo and Black Lives Matter briefly opened windows to a better world. »

Atypical quartet

Set from 1967 to 1968, the dense and dizzying choral novel recounts the rise of a psychedelic folk-rock group, Utopia Avenue, whose members were chosen one by one by their manager, Levon Frankland. Loyal readers of David Mitchell will have recognized in him the Torontonian briefly crossed by Crispin Hershey (kid in the present novel) in The soul of clocks (Alto, 2017): “I like Levon. If I had come to Quebec before, he would not have been from Toronto, but from Montreal. But hey, no one is perfect. Let’s say he has a brother who lives in Montreal. »

“Utopia Avenue is a band contrary to the clichés, because these are not four boys who went to school together. It is a hybrid of hybrids. In Elf Holloway, the keyboard player, we find the DNA of Fleetwood Mac, Fairport Convention and young singers doomed to failure like Sandy Denny. Dean Moss, bassist, brings a pub rocker energy akin to The Kinks. For Jasper de Zoet, the guitarist, I was inspired by Syd Barrett and Richard Thompson. Finally, Peter Griffin, aka Griff, the drummer, comes from jazz-rock and looks like Ginger Bake from Cream. »

Besides Levon, the band members have connections to characters from other David Mitchell novels. So Elf befriends journalist Luisa Rey from Cloud mapping (L’Olivier, 2007), Dean is from Gravesend, like Holly Sykes, heroine of The soul of clocksand Jasper descends from the character of A Thousand Falls by Jacob de Zoet (Viola, 2012). “These three novels and This house (Alto, 2019) form what I call the Marinus quartet, over which floats the shadow of immortality. It’s not a typical quartet. »

The Jasper case

Part love letter to music, part 60s rock encyclopedia, part psychedelic odyssey, Utopia Avenue recounts the improbable friendship between five people who were never meant to meet, which will be put to the test by toxic love affairs, one-night stands, strained family ties and a series of painful bereavements. Amid the turmoil, Jasper, by far the most complex and fascinating character of the lot, tries to keep a cool head.

“If you haven’t read The Thousand Falls of Jacob de Zoet, you believe Jasper is schizophrenic, but if you’ve read the novel, you know he’s in the grip of an evil spirit that has haunted his family for generations. I would say he has autism, which doesn’t preclude other mental health issues. Jasper is a manifestation of the idea that autism is not a curse, but another way of life, another architecture of thought. »

In the chapters where Jasper is the central character, David Mitchell illustrates that in addition to struggling with the voice in his head, the guitar genius has to deal with social conventions, constantly wondering how to react to a joke, a compliment, good or bad news.

“My son is autistic, I am an insider; he does not speak, but he was an informant. Nowadays we say neurodivergent to designate the autistic; I don’t remember the old Irish word we used to talk about neurodivergents back then, but I know it means “touched by God”, as if it were a superpower. When we know how difficult it is to evolve in this world when we are neurodivergent… Those who live with autism push us to see the world differently, to not conform to received ideas”, says the novelist, visibly moved, suggesting reading Diary of a young naturalist (Gaia, 2021), by Dara McAnulty, Irish autistic author.

rock planet

Throughout the pages, David Mitchell brings up countless rock and folk legends, including David Bowie, John Lennon, Brian Jones, Janis Joplin, Leonard Cohen, Jerry Garcia, and more. Claiming to be very meticulous, he watched several interviews on YouTube in order to be as faithful as possible to the way of speaking of each person.

“I didn’t want these musicians to take up too much space in the novel, only in certain scenes, because it wouldn’t have been the Utopia Avenue novel anymore, but they shouldn’t be insignificant either. The music scene is pretty small, so everyone was recording in the same studios, playing in the same venues, buying the same dealers. Everyone knew each other, supported and competed with everyone. In New York, everyone stayed at the Chelsea Hotel. It is therefore not strange that several musicians appear in the novel, the contrary would have been surprising. »

Bursting with life, music and songs, Utopia Avenue distils a baroque essence, each page evoking the fragility of life, the fleeting time, the withering youth and the ephemeral character of success.

“In the middle of the novel, there is a party at filmmaker Anthony Hershey’s house; all the people you meet there are dead today. Death is at the heart of life, but music survives musicians; so there is death in the middle of life, life in the middle of death and music in the middle of death. To be alive is to take part in the music, not necessarily in the sense of being part of a band, but before life begins, in your mother’s womb, you hear the beating of her heart, those of his own heart, we also hear the music. Basically, music is life. »

Utopia Avenue

David Mitchell, translated from English by Nicolas Richard, Alto, Quebec, 2022, 770 pages

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“Utopia Avenue”: four young people in the wind