By Milo Nesbitt
David Mitchell, Sceptre, 2020
Thomas Pynchon, Jonathan Cape, 2009
Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood
Dir. Quentin Tarentino, Columbia Pictures, 2019
Afternoon, late, California. Air hazy with summer heat, good vibrations, and maybe even a little bit of marijuana smoke. Joni Mitchell plays softly on the radio, drifting in from somewhere in the background. Actually, wait, no, it’s the real Joni Mitchell, would you believe, and she’s offering you a drag. Or: the King’s Road, London. You’re a plucky young bassist with nothing but the clothes on your back, an easy Cockney charm, and the goodwill of David Mitchell (no relation, obviously), who’s really into his music and also happens to have written several novels, including this one.
Like the sound of either of those? Don’t worry, you won’t have to choose. Utopia Avenue, the novel in question, follows the fictional rock band of the same name on their journey from C-list obscurity to transatlantic stardom in the heady years of 1967 and 1968. So far, so far out. This being the work of a serious Booker-nominated author, however, the premise is spun into a big character-driven wedge of a novel. Specifically, there’s Dean Moss: aforementioned bassist whose estuary accent is rendered unnecessarily phonetically. Peter ‘Griff’ Griffin: drummer, Northern, probably not named after the protagonist of Family Guy. Elizabeth ‘Elf’ Holloway: folkish singer, middle-class foil to Dean and Griff’s salt-of-the-earth macho grit. And Jasper de Zoet: prodigiously talented guitarist, prone to psychic weirdness, and, obviously, foreign.
Courtesy of a chance meeting in a nightclub early on in the novel, these four comprise the band, and each chapter is narrated by one of its members. In fact, the structure is more rigorous than that: what might look like a chapter is also a ‘track,’ making up one of the three ‘LPs’ into which the novel is divided. It’s an attempt at an ambitious stylistic ploy by Mitchell, the novel as a series of concept albums. It also explains why, in one of the novel’s better jokes, Griff—the drummer—is the only one in the band who doesn’t get his own chapter. In the second half of the novel, we also get an initially intriguing horror subplot involving Jasper’s possession by a spectral presence known as ‘Knock Knock’. In fact, this turns out to be little more than a way of tying the story into the David Mitchell Extended Universe—references to things like ‘horology’ and cartoonishly evil monks in Sakoku-era Japan will, I’m led to believe, be familiar to long-time fans—though I can only admire any storyline which introduces us to a character called ‘Heinz Formaggio’.
But the actual concept behind the concept- album structure doesn’t seem to be anything more interesting or fresh than a boilerplate rise-and-fall story, which is supposed to gain, seemingly automatically, wider historical significance by virtue of it happening in a fictional version of the late ‘60s. You already know the story: things are good until they’re not; youthful idealism makes way for hard-headed pragmatism; the pleasure principle succumbs to the reality principle. As Utopia Avenue’s manager puts it: ‘the “free” in “free concert” means “bankrupt”. Walls and turnstiles. That’s the future of festivals, right there”’.
The plot hardly deviates from one cliché or another, whether it’s the barely-examined loss of innocence that supposedly characterises the late sixties or an endless list of grating celebrity cameos. David Bowie, recounting dreams about Magritte and the KGB; Brian Jones, running up a never-paid tab with his dealer; Jimi Hendrix, slightly dodgily calling everyone ‘cats’. And despite Mitchell’s undeniably weighty imagination and talent for scene-setting, at times the novel can seem only a series of well-executed but shallow set-pieces as the gang flit from one whimsical episode to the next. It’s easy to be cynical about these things, but between that and its built-in soundtrack, Utopia Avenue really does read like it was written to be made into a film (as was Mitchell’s 2004 novel Cloud Atlas).
Joan Didion once wrote that the Doors were ‘the Norman Mailers of the Top Forty’: disquieted, morbid, pre-apocalyptic. Along the same lines, Utopia Avenue certainly seem like the David Mitchell of their own fictional scene: genre-bending, critically acclaimed, hard to dislike even if it’s not your thing, but—you can’t help but think, even if it does seem cruel—just a little bit lame. Mitchell is at constant pains throughout the novel to remind us how much he knows about popular music. But how much does he know about the '60s? If you’re going to write about anything orbiting the counterculture, then yes, to some extent it was the decade of flower power and wide- eyed hippyism. But it was also the decade of the New Left, the Black Panthers, the Watts riot, the Chicano Blowouts, an uptick in police militarisation whose significance is felt ever more keenly in 2020. When the novel’s young, idealistic musicians, in the process of induction into the counterculture, are cheered wildly by crowds at protests for reminding everyone not to be mean to any policemen, you really have to wonder.
I didn’t love Utopia Avenue, but despite that, I found myself remaining interested in why Mitchell wrote it. Is it just me, or has there been something of a renewed interest in fictionalising the 1960s over the last decade or so? Or at least a specific narrative of the decade, one that takes the mythical “end of the ‘60s” as its chronological and thematic starting point? David Mitchell isn’t even the only middlebrow-fiction specialist with a late-‘60s novel out this year: William Boyd’s upcoming Trio promises to be about the ‘pressures’ of making a film in the febrile summer of 1968. A bit more flashily, there was last year’s Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood, directed by Quentin Tarantino, a long and counter-historical film about the Manson murders and the sun setting on the golden age of Hollywood. Emma Cline’s debut novel The Girls—also about the Manson Family—came out to much fanfare in 2016. Two years before that, the Paul Thomas Anderson-directed Inherent Vice was released, not too long after the Thomas Pynchon novel on which it was based, a conspiratorial detective story about a drug cartel and Los Angeles real estate as the blissed-out ‘60s turn into the coked-up, post-Manson ‘70s.
According to another old cliché, “if you can remember the ‘60s, you weren’t there”. For all the novel’s painstaking evocation of this particular historical moment, it’s useful to remember that it’s coming from someone who definitely wasn’t there. This isn’t a criticism in itself—Mitchell’s knack for this kind of period detail is evident. But, born in 1969, he’s writing for a likely audience of two or three generations, all of which, like him, didn’t live through and therefore don’t remember this particular period. Since then, we’ve had both the uncritical hagiography of the decade’s more hedonistic aspects, and we’ve had the subsequent counterweight to what Rebecca
Solnit calls the ‘Didion ennui.’ Perhaps the ‘60s are overdue a cultural update; writing a novel about them doesn’t have to seem like a futile, worn-out activity.
There’s a slightly sceptical, Fredric Jamesonish take here, which is that the ‘60s have come back not just in style, but as style; once reconceived as a series of enviably chic
moments, unmistakeable ‘60s vibes, the decade’s awkward materiality—the conflicts
and possibilities for change it contained—can be conveniently written-out of history.
For Jameson, this kind of selective forgetting is a foundational feature of postmodernism— and when we get into this conceptual territory, it’s clear that Mitchell has a stake. The end of the novel takes us back to the future, with Elf recounting the band’s experience of finally finishing their incomplete last album
from recovered recordings, scraps of history. ‘Were we purist restorers or postmodern creators?’ she wonders. It’s a welcome bit of self-awareness, tying up the threads of music and writing interwoven throughout the novel. Mitchell must know that he’s messing with history here. While the novel seems to have been written from borrowed nostalgia for the unremembered ‘60s, Mitchell knows you can’t write about the past in a vacuum; to do so is always meaningful in ways that pertain to the present.
Earlier this year, a clip of Barack Obama went briefly viral (as they seem to do with seemingly bulletproof regularity). This one involved the former US president expressing his much-needed opinion on the hot new topic of cancel culture: ‘you should get over that quickly’ being the opinion in question. ‘The world is messy; there are ambiguities; people who do really good stuff have flaws. People who you are fighting may love their kids, and share certain things with you’. It’s quintessential Obama: commonsensical, anodyne, instinctually conservative. But what’s it got to do with Utopia Avenue?
For one thing, Mitchell’s characters replicate such sentiments, across the board. Elf instructs her adoring crowd to ‘give the police guards an easy day’s work’ on the grounds that ‘they’re Londoners too’. Likewise, one of Jasper’s lovers despises these ‘new revolutionaries’ as a ‘Molotov-cocktail brigade,’ who quote Che Guevara and smash the windows of elderly widows. If only they could wake up and realise that the world is messy and there are ambiguities! As a ‘psychosurgeon’ who later treats Jasper puts it, ‘if ethics aren’t grey they aren’t really ethics’. Overall, it’s hard to shake the feeling that whenever Mitchell even comes close to politics, his approach is to adopt the same kind of prevarication and allegedly real-world wisdom we find in Obama’s words. When Dean, finding himself in the middle of an anti-war protest in London, ‘wondered how any of this would stop B52s bombing Vietnamese villages,’ it’s difficult not to wonder if Mitchell might be somewhat showing his hand. Is it not a bit odd for this devil-may-care musical icon to be parroting the opinion of a jaded, middle-aged cynic? Compare, for example, Ian McEwan’s Saturday, in which the protests against the Iraq War are taken by the sensible, decidedly McEwanish narrator as nothing more than foolish young daydreaming.
More to the point, Obama has partly attributed this supposed love of nuance and ambiguity to reading novels. In a 2015 interview he told the author Marilynne Robinson that fiction taught him how to understand his ‘role as citizen,’ which ‘has to do with empathy. It has to do with being comfortable with the notion that the world is complicated and full of greys, but there’s still truth there to be found, and that you have to strive for that and work for that. And the notion that it’s possible to connect with some[one] else even though they’re very different from you’. If Mitchell has a view on the otherwise taken-for-granted narrative of the death of the ‘60s, it’s that the decade let itself down by viewing the world in black and white—in which case he would conform to the line of thinking expressed by Obama, that the most important realisation one can have is that the world is ‘full of greys’.
The critic Nicholas Dames has described the Obama-Robinson interview as a ‘presidential imprimatur to our moment’s most popular theory of fiction’: that it exists to turn us into better, more empathetic people. But the last few years, if they have taught us anything, suggest the empathetic approach is often basically inadequate, the product of an unwillingness to confront the possibility that there really might be an enemy, or at least that groups of people really can act in ways
antagonistic and malicious towards other groups of people. When the message of peace and love—of empathy—can so easily spiral into the language of compromise, of settling for less, of patronising cynicism, then it might be time to leave it for dead. If this really is 2020, we should probably start acting like it.
Art by Anna Covell