David Mitchell has a gift for voice. I don’t understand how he does it, but it’s there from the first page: here is a person you’ve just met, and you absolutely, definitely want to know what they are going to do next.
This makes it all the more disappointing when he descends into a fit of of exposition (looking at you, Bone Clocks). Utopia Avenue contains a forgivable amount of exposition, but it is afflicted by a sort of nostalgic obligation; the trials of the titular band are punctuated by a sort of pop culture Bingo card: bump into David Bowie on the sidewalk, get into The Scotch, meet John Lennon under a table. They play like cameos for a knowing audience more than true rites of passage.
The progress of the band is formulaic; this is forgivable because this is not a new story. We know the band is going to succeed, that’s what we signed up for. What keeps it engaging is the usual Mitchell magic: the personal crises, the family tragedies, the betrayals, redemptions, the humanity of it all. Unfortunately, this material is diluted by the sequence of gigs and set lists. And while Mitchell does a creditable job of narrating gigs, reading a concert feels as awkward as it sounds. Such an intense sensory experience cannot be transmitted via text. The result is a pervasive feeling that you are missing something. In spite of all the metaphors, you still can’t hear the band. Or perhaps I lack imagination.
There is also another more insidious pattern developing in Mitchell’s library, and I’m going to describe it in terms of world-building. His novels are often collections of smaller stories woven together; he has himself described them as such. This can make for a truly remarkable experience, as in Cloud Atlas. However, when elements from past novels are woven together in a single book, this causes a small-world effect. It pains me to make the comparison, but this is part of what plagued the Star Wars prequels: if all your characters appear in all your books, your fictional world becomes smaller: there are no more avenues to explore, no more mysterious origins, no more loose threads. A single chance encounter can be an amazing thing, but the value is in the scarcity. In Utopia Avenue, the world runs a little too thick with Mitchell’s other creations.
If you are a fan of both the psychedelic scene of the late 1960s and David Mitchell, you might get a kick out of Utopia Avenue. You may enjoy the cameos as delightful toppings on an indulgent sundae. I, however, was underwhelmed, but even at his most underwhelming David Mitchell still manages to be memorable.