JULY 28, 2020
DAVID MITCHELL’S Utopia Avenue (2020) chronicles the rise of a delightfully improbable genre-defying British rock band in the late 1960s. The members of the band include Dean Moss, a blues bassist from a rough, working-class background who navigates a complicated relationship with his abusive, alcoholic father; Elf Holloway, a pianist, folk singer, and songwriter coming to terms with her sexuality; Jasper de Zoet, an autistic Dutch guitar virtuoso who seems haunted by severe mental illness; and Peter “Griff” Griffin, a shaggy dyslexic drummer from Yorkshire. Under the guidance of the band’s manager, Levon Frankland — a queer practitioner of the “Dark Arts” — Utopia Avenue rises from obscurity to stardom during a turbulent historical moment of social change, revolutionary protest, and psychedelic enlightenment.
In many ways, Utopia Avenue is the Avengers: Endgame of David Mitchell’s novels. Although there’s (thankfully) no sign that this is Mitchell’s final creative work, it does serve as the conclusion of three books that may be regarded as a trilogy: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (2010), The Bone Clocks (2014), and, finally, Utopia Avenue. Just as Endgame wasn’t simply the fourth Avengers film, however, but rather the culmination of story lines linking the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe, Utopia Avenue isn’t just the conclusion of a trilogy; it connects in various ways with Mitchell’s entire creative oeuvre. Sometimes these interconnections are subtle — Easter eggs for Mitchell’s constant readers — while at other times they are vital to the core of the narrative.
One of the things I appreciate about Mitchell’s first novel, Ghostwritten (1999), is that it offers a sequence of interconnected short stories that each stand alone perfectly. This is to say that each chapter in Ghostwritten functions as a self-contained literary experience; you can read every story on its own and feel complete without needing to read any of the others. When you read them together, however, you can observe how each story is “ghostwriting” (or influencing the events of) the others in subtle-yet-powerful ways. For many years, I thought Mitchell’s larger body of work might replicate the same pattern — that each of his novels would stand alone as an autonomous literary achievement, yet also interconnect with his larger imaginative universe.
Time has proven me wrong; Utopia Avenue does not function this way. I don’t think that I can, in good conscience, recommend Utopia Avenue to someone who hasn’t first read at least some of Mitchell’s other works — it would be like telling someone to begin with Anne Rice’s The Queen of the Damned (1988) without first reading Interview With the Vampire (1976) and The Vampire Lestat (1985). It’s possible to read Utopia Avenue alone, but you’d be missing much of the excitement from seeing all the various connections coming together. If you haven’t read Cloud Atlas (2004) or seen its film adaptation, you won’t be able to fathom why the events in Utopia Avenue couldn’t take place if not for the vital musical influence of Robert Frobisher. If you haven’t read Ghostwritten, then Heinz Formaggio is just a weird name for a minor character, and the disembodied “Mongolian” who aids Jasper at a key moment will seem unexplained and baffling. And if the names “Enomoto” and “Marinus” don’t mean something to you, then honestly, about one-third of Utopia Avenue will be disorienting to read. I could go on and on, but — spoilers. For Mitchell’s fans, connecting all the dots is one of the great pleasures of reading his books.
Twenty years ago, in other words, Mitchell seemed more committed to a balance between stories that were both autonomous (in the sense of their ability to stand alone) and interconnected within a larger narrative continuity. More recently, however, his creative inclination has tipped decisively toward interconnection. One central aesthetic feature of his fiction might be described as parallel continuity: all of his works take place within a shared, interconnected setting where events and characters from one narrative directly or indirectly influence the events and characters in other narratives. Parallel continuity is a more complex, higher-order form of continuity than an isolated story’s internal continuity (the logical consistency of character and setting within a narrative) or the serial continuity characteristic of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes adventures (and most soap operas). Parallel continuity arranges disparate, otherwise unconnected narratives side-by-side within a shared, unified, and consistent setting.
A wide range of creators utilize parallel continuity to tell stories set in the same narrative “universe.” Many comic books, Stephen King novels, and even police procedurals (like the various CSI and NCIS franchise shows) all generate a certain “wow” feeling from creating for audiences the sense that the events occurring in one story take place alongside other events happening simultaneously elsewhere in the same setting. In some cases, the use of parallel continuity is little more than a shallow gimmick to promote a franchise and stimulate media consumption. For Mitchell, however, parallel continuity is much more than a marketing shtick — it’s an aesthetic device used in the service of a long-term, consistent theme that has been developing throughout the entire breadth of his creative work.
This theme, in short, is continuity itself: all our experiences, Mitchell argues, are continuous with the experiences of others, even if this is difficult or impossible to apprehend from within our limited frames of reference. Our stories are always ghostwriting — and ghostwritten by — other people’s stories. This insight — that all our experiences are interconnected — might seem obvious, but I would argue that since the late 1990s (when Mitchell started publishing fiction), transformations in media and communications technologies have increasingly created a sense, for many, that we can each choose to inhabit the landscapes of meaning that we prefer while disregarding interconnections with others and ignoring stories that don’t fit our chosen worldviews.
The consequences of this shallow isolationism of perspective can be seen today in certain responses to the COVID-19 crisis and to Black Lives Matter protests: despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, many Americans stubbornly imagine themselves to live within a story that says masks are useless and racism in the United States doesn’t actually exist. These examples are just the tip of a terrifying iceberg of post-truth discourse relentlessly asserting that reality is a matter of preference, rather than a shared (and stubbornly material) universe we collectively inhabit. In the late 1990s, the phenomenon of an increasingly globalized world at times seemed to offer a sense of complex interconnection between people’s life experiences, but the early decades of the 21st century have arguably ushered an era of informational balkanization, isolating many people into niche media ecologies and narrow ideological echo chambers. Despite the complex interconnection of our social worlds, it now seems easier than ever for some people to just build a wall and live inside their own chosen narrative worlds, no matter the consequences.
Is it any wonder, then, that Mitchell’s more recent works increasingly emphasize continuity rather than narrative autonomy? Now, more than ever, it seems vital to examine the various ways that our lives are densely interconnected rather than isolated and separate. Utopia Avenue brilliantly explores this theme against the specific backdrop of the utopian wave of revolutionary protests that occurred in the United States, Europe, and beyond in 1968 — a year (similar to 2020 in certain ways) when it suddenly felt like extraordinary social change might be possible on scales previously difficult to imagine.
Just as the main characters in the novel inhabit different social worlds (especially in regard to class, gender, and sexuality) and learn, in the course of their growing relationships, to understand what life feels like for others who have very different experiences, the novel as a whole explores how different social contexts collided during the transformative upheaval of the late 1960s. At one point, for example, Dean is stuck in an Italian prison on bogus drug charges fabricated by corrupt cops, and he reflects that people from the British middle classes (especially Elf’s parents, Clive and Miranda Holloway), “go from cradle to grave believing that every police officer is a devoted servant of the law.” The Holloways, in other words, can’t imagine a world in which the police might be the bad guys — this is simply beyond the horizon of their experience. They certainly couldn’t begin to imagine what Dean himself had witnessed months earlier at the massive anti–Vietnam War protest in Grosvenor Square, where police officers trampled demonstrators with horses and beat them with truncheons. Dean recalls, from his prison cell, how the protest exploded into violence:
Mounted officers swung truncheons like Victorian cavalry swinging cutlasses. […] Dean fled into the path of another horse and into the path of another and into the path of another, and tripped, saving his skull from a skull-crushing truncheon by a whisker. A hoof slammed the turf inches away from his head. […] A gang of coppers caught a man and pounded, pounded, pounded him with truncheons and boots.
Donald Macintyre, a demonstrator who was arrested at Grosvenor Square, notes that in 1968, the British media largely downplayed police violence and “was almost uniformly hostile to the protesters.” How, then, could middle-class Britons (like Clive and Miranda Holloway) possibly relate to Dean’s experience? The social world they live within is largely insulated from evidence of police brutality.
Later in Utopia Avenue, a music executive named Max Mulholland describes to Elf and the other band members his own experience of the “police riot” that occurred in response to anti-Vietnam protests outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968. “I was expecting a San Francisco–style flowers-in-gun-barrels affair,” Max recalls, but instead he was swept up in urban warfare:
Anyone was fair game. Straights in suits. Women. Cameramen. Kids. A&R men. Anyone not in uniform. The cops went for faces, groins, kneecaps. They drove vehicles fitted with “slammers” straight into the crowd. They tore their numbers off so they couldn’t be identified.
Although Mitchell finished writing Utopia Avenue before the recent wave of Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis, the parallels between the scenes he describes in 1968 and police violence against peaceful protestors in 2020 feel uncannily similar. And during both of these historical moments, there are many — the Clives and Mirandas of the world — who can’t imagine that police officers might be capable of serious wrongdoing, despite overwhelming evidence of unjust police brutality.
Behind the ugly reality of police violence against demonstrators, of course, lurk the even more troubling issues that protesters in the 1960s were demonstrating against in the first place: American imperialism in Vietnam, systemic racism in Europe and the United States, and the economic exploitation of disadvantaged classes across the world. Yet, as Mitchell shows, the complexity of each of these issues can seem incomprehensible within the insulated world of Euro-American middle-class life. After he hears a news bulletin on the radio, for example, describing the riots and arrests in Paris in May 1968 (a revolutionary moment when student protests galvanized more than 22 percent of the population of France to unite in civil unrest against capitalism, traditional institutions, and American imperialism in Vietnam), Clive Holloway simply quips, “We didn’t have a university education given to us on a plate,” as he dismisses the news in disgust. Demonstrators, in other words, are spoiled, entitled, socialist brats, and they have never had to work hard to earn the things they’re tearing down.
In the face of such arrogantly uninformed attitudes, it’s sometimes easy to fall into a sense of despair: how many Mai Lai massacres does it take (one might ask from the vantage of 1968), before people start to believe that America’s war in Vietnam is unjust? Or, today, how many people of color have to die at the hands of police officers before the Clives and Mirandas can begin to fathom that there’s something fundamentally unjust and racist at the heart of American law enforcement?
Mitchell, however, never succumbs to despair in his fiction. Yes, there are always people who can’t see beyond the isolating bubbles of their own narrow worldviews, and who therefore prey upon others — either deliberately or unthinkingly — for personal advantage (the society of Nea So Copros in Cloud Atlas is one massive example of this, as are the Anchorites from The Bone Clocks). Despite such narcissistic predations, however, Mitchell argues that there are at least two things that have the power to puncture our isolation and bring our worlds into contact. The first is violence; the other is art.
There are several moments in Utopia Avenue when characters ponder whether violence is a legitimate form of transformative praxis: “Is that how you build a better world?” asks Clive Holloway, “Pelting the police with stones?” Others echo this question throughout the novel, and it is often the case that during key moments of revolutionary conflict (such as Grosvenor Square, the Chicago police riot, or the 1968 student demonstrations in Paris), civil unrest seems chaotic and destructive — not a positive avenue toward utopian change. Yet, as I’ve personally witnessed in my home city of Minneapolis, sometimes you have to burn down the precinct before anyone listens. If it wasn’t for the intensity of anti-Vietnam protest in the late ’60s, would the war have ended the way it did? Similarly, if it wasn’t for the destructive civil unrest in Minneapolis (and across the United States) in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, would cities across the country now be seriously considering defunding and dismantling police departments as we know them? Historical causality isn’t nearly this straightforward, of course, but sometimes throwing rocks — as a form of counterviolence — can serve a purpose when it comes to puncturing the seemingly indestructible force fields of systematic complacency.
Violence, however, isn’t the only way to wake people up to the continuity of our social worlds. The other avenue that can usher us toward utopia, Mitchell argues, is art. In an interview, Jasper (the band’s guitar virtuoso and philosopher) argues that “the artist rejects the dominant version of the world. The artist proposes a new version. A subversion. […] Tyrants are right to fear art.” Later, in response to a question about whether songs can change the world, Jasper responds that people are the ones who change the world:
People pass laws, riot, hear God and act accordingly. People invent, kill, make babies, start wars […] Which begs a question. “Who or what influences the minds of the people who change the world?” My answer is “Ideas and feelings.” Which begs a question. “Where do ideas and feelings originate?” My answer is, “Others. One’s heart and mind. The press. The arts. Stories. Last, but not least, songs.” Songs. Songs, like dandelion seeds, billowing across space and time.
Jasper concludes that art moves people in indirect and unpredictable ways, yet it almost always offers “an invitation to slip you into someone else’s skin for a little while.” It’s not difficult to see this as a metatextual commentary on both the transformative power of music and on Mitchell’s own views regarding writing and literature. His stories invite us to slip into someone else’s story and see how every story is continuous with others, rather than isolated and autonomous. When we begin to contemplate how we occupy a world of parallel and intersecting continuity, then we can begin to consider how seemingly disconnected events — like the atrocities of a secretive cult in Japan in 1799 and the mental breakdown of a Dutch guitar prodigy in 1968 — are directly and intimately connected. Although this specific example is fantastical, it gestures toward other invisible interconnections we too often fail to consider, such as the effects of our everyday carbon emissions on the planet, or the consequences of refusing to wear a mask in public during a global pandemic.
Continuity, in other words, is a utopian avenue, a road that connects our lives to the lives of others. When we open our hearts (and our imaginations) to the ways that we live in continuity with others — rather than dismissing the truth of their experiences in order to inhabit the comfortable isolation of illusion — we can then begin to walk a path toward meaningful revolutionary change.