The Universal Appeal of Music

It has been said time and time again that music is a universal language that majority, if not all, of us can relate to. It is a language that knows no boundaries, tangible or intangible. We listen to music to soothe an aching heart, to “fix a broken heart,”. When you feel elated, you listen to music or you make music. When you feel down or sad, you listen to music. Through notes and sounds, some alien and foreign, music has the power to make us feel deeper emotions. The jive and the vibe can make us unconsciously sway as in a trance. The influences of music ripples all over the world. Every important juncture in history is also characterized by its music. Music is a universal language that transcends both time and physical barriers.

In his latest novel , Utopia Avenue, David Mitchell took his highly innovative and imaginative narrative into the heart of music through the story of an unlikely band that converged under the unlikeliest of circumstances. The story commenced with Dean Moss being conned of his money, kicked out of his place, and fired from his job. It was an unfortunate and bleak period for Dean but he found his salvation, or rather salvation found him in the form of Toronto native Levon Frankland. Levon was scouting for talented musicians who will comprise what he envisioned to be the next big thing in London’s psychedelic 1960s music scene.

The first piece of the puzzle was Dean who, despite his misfortune, was a gifted blues bassist and song writer. Reluctantly jumping into the bandwagon, he joined Levon in putting together the other pieces to music scene’s next big star. First, they managed to coerce guitar virtuoso Jasper de Zoet and drummer Peter “Griff” Griffin to ditch their old band and join them. The final piece was folk singer Elf Holloway who was already a established soloist. They are four (or five) strangers in the height of their youth. But whilst they knew next to nothing about each other, they shared the same hopes and dreams. They were also bonded by their passion for music.

“Art is memory made public. Time wins in the long run. Books turn to dust, negatives decay, records get worn out, civilizations burn. But as long as the art endures, a song or a view or a thought or a feeling someone once thought worth keeping is saved and stays shareable. Others can say, “I feel that too.”

~ David Mitchell, Utopia Avenue

Mitchell’s first novel since Slade House (2015), the next conundrum for the band was choosing a suitable name for their newly-birthed band. Despite the unfamiliarity, each had his or her own idea. One name stood out. From a slew of eccentric choices, they ended up unanimously choosing Utopia Avenue. As Jasper chimed in, “‘Utopia’ means ‘no place.’ An avenue is a place. So is music. When we’re playing well, I’m here, but elsewhere, too. That’s the paradox. Utopia is unattainable. Avenues are everywhere.”

However, Utopia Avenue doesn’t just reduce itself as an exploration of music and of the 1960s music scene. Whilst each character brings in her or his own brand of music, each also ushered in their concerns, their pasts, and their stories. This gave the narrative its own distinct complexion for in each character, various subjects and themes are explored. Dean was the most vocal member and was, most of the time, projected as the band’s anchor. Behind the veneer hides his personal issues stemming from his stormy relationship with his abusive father. His resentment made him find comfort somewhere else.

Jasper, on the other hand, is the most enigmatic, and eccentric of the four. He was originally from Amsterdam but moved to his father’s London apartment to try the English music scene. He was hiding from his bandmates his struggles against his own demons which he had to grapple over the course of the story. Elf, on the other hand, has been constantly manipulated by her lover. Her unsavory history with her lover made her question who she really is. As the story progresses, she has to come into terms with who she is as a person. Griff had to deal with the untimely demise of his younger brother. Even Levon also had to struggle for acceptance and against discrimination.

Fathers and fatherhood was a recurring theme in the narrative. Dean had gripes against his father. Elf’s father was against her music and her ambitions of becoming a musician. Jasper’s father barely acknowledges him because he was born out of wedlock. Dean was also held back by the idea of fatherhood. His relationship with his father left an after taste that made him averse to the idea of fatherhood. But whilst there were a lot of bad fathers, there were also some that had impressionable presence. Later in the text, Dean encounters Ben, the stepfather of a child he met during a music festival. Ben’s unexpected talk about fatherhood gave Dean a sort of a Eureka moment.

“A brain constructs a model of reality. If that model isn’t too different from most people’s model, you’re labeled sane. If the model is different, you’re labeled a genius, a misfit, a visionary, or a nutcase. In extreme cases, you’re labeled a schizophrenic and locked up.””

~ David Mitchell, Utopia Avenue

The narrative was juxtaposed on the historical context of the 1960s. A blossoming of political enlightenment and awareness was taking the center stage everywhere. The latter half of the 1960s saw the blossoming of the counterculture. This band was also a product and a part of this social revolution. Over in the United States, talks of the Vietnam War reverberated and anti-war sentiments and protests were ubiquitous. Inevitably, music was seen as devise to deliver either subtle or ostentatious messages. With their growing influence, Utopia Avenue had to constantly grapple with questions about their stance on various political issues.

The changing music landscape gave the narrative a different complexion but it was the growth and development of the characters that kept readers riveted. The main characters’ diverse personalities propelled the narrative and it their growth and realization that made the novel even more compelling, such as Jasper’s conquering his demons and Dean’s personal eureka moment. Each chapter was uniquely headered, each bearing a title from tracks produced and recorded by band.

One unmistakable quality that characterizes a Mitchell novel is its unusual mix. Cloud Atlas and The Bone Clocks refused to be confined in any literary box. In Utopia Avenue, Mitchell aimed to do the same, albeit on a lesser scale, with its element of historical, dystopian, and scientific details. Utopia Avenue is also a continuation of interconnectedness of Mitchell’s novels. Characters from Mitchell’s other works, like Luisa Rey from Cloud Atlas, and Esther Little from The Bone Clocks, played roles in the narrative. Even Jasper de Zoet is an offshoot of another Mitchell novel.

Mitchell’s descriptive prose transported readers to a different, almost subterranean world proliferated not only by passion and music but also by perpetual amount of drugs, alcoholism, and sex. The band also got to meet some influential musicians such as some prominent members of the 27 Club like Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, Jim Morrison, and Brian Jones. It was an eclectic and interesting mix which sounded all too familiar and not familiar at all.

“But the genies we let loose stay loose. In the ears of the young the genies whisper what was unsayable. ‘Hey, kids—there’s nothing wrong with being gay.’ Or ‘What if war isn’t a patriotism test, but really fucking dumb?’ Or ‘Why do so few own so goddamn much?’ In the short run, not a lot seems to change. Those kids are nowhere near the levers of power. Not yet. But in the long run? Those whispers are the blueprints of the future.”

~ David Mitchell, Utopia Avenue

The narrative was so compelling and the music scene very evocative that it took some time before the novel’s flaws started surfacing. Some musical references, though pronounced, were out-of-place and felt forced. This weighed on the novel’s authenticity. There were times, as well, when the characters feel superfluous. There was too much focus placed on Dean but he felt like a caricature most of the time. On the other hand, Griff was treated more like a prop and his story was rarely heard.

Despite some bleak images and some blunders, Utopia Avenue resonates with positive and hopeful messages. It is about beating the odds and fighting for one’s dreams. Like most artists, the band members were looked down upon. Their families were against their passion and dream because they believe that there was no money in music. “There is no money in art,” is ubiquitous and a familiar sentence artists and musicians alike hear often. But music, as Utopia Avenue knew has proven, has the ability to transform the world and one’s self. In a rare moment of clarity, Jasper summarily captured the essence of music and of the story:

“Songs, like dandelion seeds, billowing across space and time. Who knows where they’ll land? Or what they’ll bring? Where will these song-seeds land? It’s the Parable of the Sower. Often, usually, they land on barren soil and don’t take root. But sometimes, they land in a mind that is ready. Is fertile. What happens then? Feelings and ideas happen. Joy, solace, sympathy. Assurance. Cathartic sorrow. The idea that life could be, should be better than this. An invitation to slip into somebody else’s skin for a little while. If a song plants an idea or a feeling in a mind, it has already changed the world.”

Rating

72%

Characters (30%) – 23%
Plot (30%) – 21%
Writing (25%) – 18%
Overall Impact (15%) – 10%

David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas remains one of my all-time favorite reads. It was highly-imaginative and innovative. It also earned Mitchell a fan in me. He has a propensity for genre-bending that was breathtaking to read and witness. The Bone Clocks, which was my last Mitchell novel, further underscored that. However, Utopia Avenue flew under my radar and I didn’t add it to my reading list until I saw it being listed as one of the best reads of 2020. I then bought a copy but I missed out reading it before the year ended. It was, however, my second read of 2021. Again, Mitchell’s writing was riveting and it was exhibited in Utopia Avenue. He managed to capture the spirit of the time while weaving an interesting tale of equally interesting set of characters. I did feel some elements were rushed or unnatural. Despite some minor blunders, Utopia Avenue, was still a good read that resonated with a clear message.

Book Specs

Author: David Mitchell
Publisher: Random House
Publishing Date: 2020
Number of Pages: 571
Genre: Historical Fiction, Science Fiction

Synopsis

The long-awaited new novel from the bestselling, prize-winning author of Cloud Atlas and The Bone Clocks.

Utopia Avenue is the strangest British band you’ve never heard of. Emerging from London’s psychedelic scene in 1967 and fronted by folk singer Elf Holloway, blues bassist Dean Moss, and guitar virtuoso Jasper de Zoet, Utopia Avenue embarked on a meteoric journey from the seedy clubs of Soho to a TV debut on Tops of the Pops, the cusp of chart success, glory in Amsterdam, prison in Rome, and a fateful American sojourn in the Chelsea Hotel, Laurel Canyon, and San Francisco during the autumn of 1968.

David Mitchell’s kaleidoscopic novel tells the unexpurgated story of Utopia Avenue’s turbulent life and times; of fame’s Faustian pact and stardom’s wobbly ladder; of the families we choose and the ones we don’t; of voices in the head and the truths and lies they whisper; of music, madness, and idealism. Can we really change the world, or does the world change us?

About the Author

To learn more about David Mitchell, the world-renowned author of Cloud Atlas and The Bone Clocks, click here.