David Mitchell has written some of the most innovative novels of the past 20 years, from the post-apocalyptic Cloud Atlas to Slade House, a ghost tale about a mysterious residence “that only blinks into existence one night every nine years.” His latest, Utopia Avenue, is a journey into new territory and a return to earlier themes. One of the biggest surprises here is that an author who has built a reputation for creating original worlds now seeks originality in a seemingly familiar milieu: a British rock band’s brief moment of fame in the psychedelic heyday of the late 1960s.
It’s 1967, and impresario Levon Frankland, on the lookout for fresh talent, spots bass guitarist Dean Moss, a 23-year-old “long-haired lout” who’s desperate for a gig and a place to live. Soon, Dean joins a band that includes drummer Peter “Griff” Griffin, no stranger to having bottles thrown at him during a set, and lead singer Elf Holloway, formerly half of a folk duo with her Australian ex-boyfriend, a man who isn’t above using thievery and unfaithfulness to achieve his goals.
So far, so familiar, but this being a Mitchell novel, a wrinkle is not too far off. This novel’s wrinkle involves lead guitarist Jasper de Zoet, a man who, ever since an afternoon on the cricket pitch during his youth in the Netherlands, has heard a persistent knocking in his head. The knocking has now returned, as has the message tapped out by this foreign entity inside his brain: “Life and liberty . . . De Zoet must die.”
Utopia Avenue is more ramshackle than Mitchell’s earlier works. Some plot elements, including episodes of revenge, jealousy and blackmail, are exactly what one might expect to find in a story of newly celebrated musicians. Mitchell fans, however, will welcome the continuation of flourishes from such earlier works as The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet and The Bone Clocks, including the reemergence of characters from those novels and the neologisms that made Mitchell’s previous works such mind-bending experiences. Mitchell’s song may be different, but readers will recognize the tune.