Fun With Structure: Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell

I begin this essay with a confession: I have not yet read all of David Mitchell’s work. I’m going to, but I live in the tension between wanting to ingest all of it so it’s in my head, and wanting to ration his books out so I always have one to look forward to. Because of this I hesitate to write about him—I know I’m missing stuff, but also I want to miss stuff.

Does that make sense?

This is my roundabout way of explaining that in this month’s TBR Stack I’m going to look at Utopia Avenue, but just one specific thread of Utopia Avenue. I’m going to dig into spoilers for Utopia Avenue, The Bone Clocks, Slade House, A Tale of Two Cities, and, possibly, human civilization.

I’ll admit I wasn’t sure about Utopia Avenue. I’m still not. The basic plot, for anyone who wants to read this without reading the book (go read the book!) is thus: In late 1960s London, a folk singer (Elf), a blues-rock bassist (Dean), an experimental guitarist (Jasper), and a jazz drummer (Griff) are brought together by a visionary manager (Levon). They form a group called Utopia Avenue, and, indeed, create their own mini-utopia in Soho, where everyone (mostly) respects the folksinger, even though she’s a girl, and everyone is supportive and caring of the guitarist’s neurodivergence, and the class striations are mostly ignored, and everyone’s cool with the manager being a gay man—a little pocket universe of safety and creativity inside an era that was still extremely repressive if you weren’t a straight white dude with money. UA forms, bicker with each other, record songs, play shows, fight with management, try drugs, get laid, and, gradually, become pretty successful.

Because they’re a rock band, and Soho is a very small neighborhood, there are a lot of cameos by real musicians. Some critics seemed to think there were too many, and I’ll admit I don’t like every one of them, but I seem to like ones other critics didn’t—David Bowie performs a version of himself that is self-consciously manufactured and high camp; Leonard Cohen flirts with a girl via impossibly courtly metaphors; Frank Zappa delivers an impromptu sermon about authenticity that is both annoying as hell and totally correct. Check, check, and check.

The sections of the book are loosely organized around each of Utopia Avenue’s albums, and each chapter is about the writing of a song. Because of this most of the chapters are in the points of view of the band’s main songwriters, Elf, Dean, and Jasper, although Griff and Levon do get a some time in the POV sun by the end. This structure didn’t always work for me—there were few times that figuring out the plot of a chapter’s song undercut the tension of the chapter itself. But the sections that compleatly worked for me were the chapters starring Jasper de Zoet, the half-British, half-Dutch guitar prodigy who is kinda/sorta the Syd Barrett of the book (when Syd Barrett himself isn’t popping in for a cameo), that make up the most overt connections to the Mitchellverse. This is the fantastical thread—which, again, is the bit a lot of critics balked at. So maybe it’s me? Maybe I’m wrong and they’re all right. But Jasper is one of Mitchell’s best creations. He seems to be on the neurodivergent spectrum, though nothing’s quite nailed down. He’s diagnosed with schizophrenia with a side order of aural hallucinations—but he isn’t actually schizophrenic, and he isn’t hallucinating, it’s just that he has the soul of an evil Shinto monk living in his head, and the monk hates him and wants him to die.

Or to be more precise, the monk hates being unable to use Jasper’s body, and he wants the boy to die so he can take it over.

For most of the book, the monk is called “Knock-Knock” because that’s what he does, knocking intermittently inside Jasper’s head, so only Jasper can hear him. Jasper’s life is a straight up horror story—whether supernatural or psychological—threaded through an otherwise pretty straight-ahead story of a rock band on the rise. And this is part of what makes this thread work so well, since so many rock stories have this to some extent. There’s the aforementioned Syd Barrett, there’s Vince Taylor, there’s Bowie’s fear of inheriting the schizophrenia that afflicted his brother Terry, there’s Lou Reed (maybe) getting shock treatment for being queer, there’s Iggy Pop’s self-harm, there’s Joey Ramone spending time in a mental health facility, there’s Keith Moon being Keith Moon, there’s Kurt Cobain’s self-medicated depression—there’s a lot of musicians’ self-medicated depression. Untold numbers of people who were drawn to music to try to express themselves and heal themselves, who fell into the stereotypical addictions and overdoses because they were trying to treat illnesses that society ostracized them for.

Seeing this story told through Jasper, and through the lens of the Mitchellverse, is fascinating. As a teen, Jasper goes to a sanatorium and takes his medication dutifully, learns the guitar, goes to therapy sessions. When Knock-Knock’s attacks get worse, Jasper begins to plan suicide, until a new voice in his head—a voice that belongs to a character from a different Mitchell novel—steps in to stop him. What that character is able to grant Jasper is not a cure, but is at least a temporary reprieve, which is mirrored in the book’s structure, as Jasper’s story goes back to being a “rock story” not a “Mitchellverse Fantasy Story.”

A few years later, at one of the peaks of Utopia Avenue’s success, Knock-Knock returns. This leads into the book’s real, dedicated “Mitchellverse Fantasy Section”, in which a supernatural threat breaks on through into the natural world. In the end this threat can only be dealt with through supernatural means, and the main characters—none of whom know they’re in a fantasy story—are wholly unequipped to save themselves. This then spills into the structure of the whole book, where Mitchell repeats the pattern he’s used in his last two books, to startling effect.

In The Bone Clocks, the “fantasy chapter” forms the penultimate section of the book. The book follows a woman named Holly through her life, from her teen years in the early 1980s until she’s in her 70s in the 2040s. Something the reader knows far better than Holly is that she’s a pawn in a battle between two different groups of immortals. That drama has mostly played out on the sidelines of her life, and when uncanny shit happens around her, the people in her life shy away from it. When we reach the fantasy chapter, she’s in her 50s, the battle has come to a head, and she is abruptly pulled into it. From the reader’s perspective, this seems like a culminating event; to her she’s having to accept a bunch of madness-inducing supernatural stuff and learn to literally fight on her feet. It’s all very over-the-top, and yes, a little strained, but you get that sort of jolt of A Giant Battle Between Pretty Good and Very Evil, and Good Wins in the End. You feel the catharsis that only fantasy fiction can give you. She lives. She makes it.

And then the book picks back up in the 2040s, with the single most horrific work of near-future fiction I’ve ever read. Because the book doesn’t end with that battle. It ends with Holly desperately holding onto a life 20 years further in the future, after the oil’s failed, electricity is a bare flicker, millions of climate refugees scramble from one unfriendly port to the next, food’s running out (and with a breakdown of international travel, it can’t be shipped to those who need it), the internet is basically dead, and violent gangs are beginning to take over most towns. Including Holly’s town, a quaint village in the West of Ireland. When you read this section you see Holly’s whole life fanned out behind her, her family back in England cut off forever now, her grandchildren facing a nightmarish future.

It’s stuck with me because it delivers what seems like a nail-biting climax of Good vs. Evil, then makes that climax look like a children’s bedtime story.

Slade House uses a micro version of this structure. Each story opens with real-seeming characters in a solid, realistic world, who are then lured to the haunted house/their doom. We readers know they’re in a haunted house story, and we watch them realize that their reality is not what they thought it was in the moments before their deaths. So, Battle between Good-ish and Very Evil, Followed by Horror Beyond Imagining. Slade House is basically watching The Bone Clocks’ last two chapters compressed down into linked short stories, so they act like the needles in the machine in Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony” beating into your skin—but in a good way.

I wasn’t thinking about these structures when I read Utopia Avenue, until it was too late. As I said, one of the things that makes the book stand out from Mitchell’s other work is Jasper himself. Here’s Mitchell’s fantasy universe cropping up again in an otherwise realist novel, yes, but it’s also a story of someone who already seems to be on the spectrum, and already has to deal with the friction caused by a society that doesn’t understand him. And since this is Mitchell’s own, still somewhat (I would argue purposely) undefined fantasy universe, the medication can’t help, but neither would something like an exorcism or witchcraft. And where in The Bone Clocks the fantasy section forces an otherwise realist character into a fantastical battle, and in Slade House the characters suddenly wake up to the brain-melting knowledge that they’re in a horror story, when Knock-Know returns, and shoves Jasper back into a fantasy story he’s in… New York City.

His fantasy section reminded me a lot of my favorite part of A Tale of Two Cities, actually—spoilers for a 170-something-year-old Dickens novel—when Sydney Carton decides to go to the guillotine in his doppelganger’s place, he spends his last day wandering around Paris, trying to absorb as much life as he can before his death. When Knock-Knock returns, he gives Jasper one last day before he takes over the young man’s body. Jasper does exactly what I’d do in that situation, and wanders around Manhattan, from the Hudson River to Central Park to Lincoln Center to Greenwich Village, cramming as much of the City into his brain as he can. And while this is absolutely “the fantasy section”—we know Knock-Knock is immortal, that he’s part of the ongoing cosmic battle in the background of most of Mitchell’s books, and the people who finally save Jasper in the end are characters we recognize from other stories—Jasper’s fear and resignation is grounded so completely in real human emotion that the fantasy aspect slides seamlessly along beside the more realistic fairy tale of Utopia Avenue’s journey up the charts. When a couple of familiar Mitchellverse characters come to Jasper’s rescue, it’s an incredible relief. After spending most of the book thinking of him as the doomed character, he seems to have a future again. After all, 2040 is a long way off.

The next chapter feels like a denouement, like this will be the part where we skip ahead a few decades and find out what happened to the band, probably from Dean’s perspective since he narrated the opening chapter. But no, we pick up in a sunny dream of California. Jasper seems wholly himself again; it’s unclear how much he remembers of Knock-Knock. Elf is happy, Griff is happy, the only clouds in the sky are Dean’s entanglements back home—a paternity suit, an unhinged drug dealer, an estranged father. All stuff he’ll need to actually reckon with when the band gets back to London. But for now, they’re in California! They play shows in LA and a festival in San Francisco. We get a barrage of cameos: Joni Mitchell! Crosby Stills and Young! Mama Cass! Zappa! At the point where Dean drops acid with Jerry Garcia even I’m getting a little like, “All right, already! Yes, the ‘60s were a high point which human culture will never again attain!”

But in the middle of the trip it becomes clear that Dean is being, not so much warned about something, as prepared for something. In a similar way to Jasper getting a warning from Knock-Knock to get his affairs in order. Dean doesn’t realize this, consciously, but the reader does, and then Dean begins doing it anyway—but in a young person’s way, making lists of all the stuff he’s going to do as soon as he gets home, planning for a future he assumes he’ll have. (How many of those lists did I make in college?) When he dies the next morning it’s in a botched bodega hold-up. The trio of would-be robbers are bumbling, even comical, right up to the moment when Dean is shot in the chest. His death is as shocking to the reader as it is to Dean—not the sacrificial culmination of the fantasy plot we might have been expecting, but a horrific, sudden, senseless death, that brings an end to the dream he and his bandmates have made reality. I loved Dean, and after Jasper’s close call I thought it was safe to relax. But no, the thing that kills a Utopian in the end is random American gun violence.

After I finished the book I was amused and mad at myself. How had he gotten me again? The chapter = a Utopia Avenue song structure lulled me into a false sense of security. When Mitchell’s bigger mythos suddenly Kool-Aid Manned its way into the book, I, a veteran of Slade House, was terrified for Jasper. But once Jasper was safe I was lulled into a different feeling of security! Like some smooth-skinned naif who hadn’t read The fucking Bone Clocks!

But isn’t this cool? This is at least the third time that Mitchell has used over-the-top, sometimes slightly clunky fantasy language to talk about a massive, eons-long battle between Good and Evil. He pummels us a little with complicated language, and lulls us into a false sense of security when Good, at least momentarily, triumphs. We have our moment of catharsis and relief. And then he drops us back into realism, where ordinary, non-immortal people do horrible shit and cause us real grief.

Leah Schnelbach still kinda wants to be in a band? But not as much as they want to be David Mitchell when they grow up. Come join them in the rackety tourbus that is Twitter!

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