Not that anyone would much appreciate the comparison, but the horologists and their mission in the overarching, connective tissue in David Mitchell’s novels bears marked resemblance to the overarching, connective tissue in the Assassin’s Creed games. And, as in those games, what I enjoy most about the novels is how deep you can sink into the characters and location unique to the book, leaving the overarching structure aside.
Of course, in Utopia Avenue, the vast majority of what is supposed to cement us into a time and place is lost on me: next to every wink-wink-nod-nod musical reference has been lost on me (I recognized Nick Drake, but that’s about it: a revolving door of producers, lyricists, music talk show hosts, remorseful bassists and replacement bassists has been opaque to me, as expected), and the technicalities of producing music in the late 60s, so lovingly transcribed, might as well be in hieroglyphics to me.
The characters, though, are where I feel most at home in this book, perhaps more so than any since the Zedelghem chapter of Cloud Atlas (which I do want to reread, as well as The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet, for their connections to this book). Usually — and take this “usually” with a grain of salt, because most of Bone Clocks is hazy for me; as are whole big chunks of my life I spent trying to will into a meaningful career a job I took to avoid penury during the [last] recession — usually, then, we are hustled off from character to character too quickly to come to love them. Or we are shunted to their relatives or descendants, and it becomes something of a carnival of mirrors, trying to squint into this new character to understand bits of the last one we never got to know properly.
In Utopia Avenue we get to sit with each of the four band mates, repeatedly, and it’s far more rewarding than any day trip into psychedelia, caroming from one cameo to the next. Elf and Jasper in particular are endearing. I don’t generally…love?…how female characters’ interiorities are written. Except when they write grief — like when Cheryl Strayed wrote about the horse, and her mom saying “my dear, my dear” in Wild. Then, women seem like creatures to whom I am kin. But in general, no. It makes me feel like I’m watching a pantomime at best, if it’s not making me wince.
Elf, though, is amazing—
—and I haven’t rooted so hard for a femme couple since fanfiction, when she sought Luisa Rey. I wanted so very much for her to be happy. I love how she navigates being the only girl in the band. Being constantly asked about being the only girl in the band. How her skill isn’t just sounding good but building good things, and she has the craft know-how to help others to do it too. I loathed her blindness to her boyfriend’s idiocy, but rejoiced that what finally peeled her eyes open wasn’t self-pitying sorrow but incandescent anger at him for stealing her song right out from under her nose. I love that she’s the learned one, that her family’s not a mess but she can still write. I love that she picks up on things being wrong with people under their surfaces. Elf seems like an actual person. Not a performance of Erudite Femininity.
And Jasper…his autism actually invites a more serious, less kooky view of the horology mind/control stuff than the more neurotypical renderings of it seen in The Bone Clocks. Instead of wasting time having us read more shock and disbelief from the character just learning about it (not that it’s not deserving of shock, but we’ve encountered this so often as readers by now that we could write the script for the once-per-book horology reveal ourselves), we jump straight to logical compartmentalizing, which is the best tool Jasper can summon to protect himself.
Jasper is endearing in his forthrightness, both with the world he often fails to understand, and with himself. His difficulties, rather than making him fragile, make him a more likable path into the — I can’t remember what Mitchell called it on the book launch interview I got to watch for ordering a signed copy through B&N — the Mitchellverse, I think his interviewer called it? The horological stuff. You don’t have to have read the other books to enjoy Utopia Avenue, it’s true, but Jasper’s story in particular is going to make more meaning for you if you do.
Jasper is where the book feels ready to end. And it doesn’t. The real ending feels…edited? Like an editor said no, we can’t end with your mystical stuff, man, we need to end on a note people who came to read about the music scene in the 60s will understand. So we do. And it feels unnecessary. Or it would if I had not attended that interview, where Mitchell said something like “and people will need to know why Utopia Avenue isn’t famous, why they haven’t heard of them.” Which a.) isn’t necessarily true, but b.) put me in the position of reading faster and faster as I reached the end of the book, wondering, now that I had been told to wonder, what tanks the band.
I guess, I guess, the Mitchellverse requires an explanation for Utopia Avenue’s absence from the other books? I guess? But they could just be absent, end of story. You don’t need to retcon them into the other stories, they can just not be there and that’s fine. Arguably, I guess, you don’t need to retcon Luisa Rey into being gay, either, but I appreciated it here, and it was a sidenote — a welcome sidenote — not a glaring attempt at being hip and woke, like a certain children’s fiction author insisted upon recently.
Utopia Avenue remains one of the more enjoyable books in the Mitchellverse. Again, not because of its setting–which is mostly wasted on me–but because of the characters. Whom we get to know good and proper this time, instead of rushing off to view the antics of someone tangentially related to them.
If you’re interested, here are notes I jotted down during Mitchell’s B&N interview, which was conducted across the Atlantic by Charles Yu, whose work I have not read (but Mitchell had, and referenced it frequently, resulting in more of a conversation between writerly acquaintances than a series of remarks, which was more enjoyable to hear anyway):
- there is no escaping the cluster of archetypal themes [that keep coming up in your work] because they are you
- work with the fact that you can’t escape
- one of his themes is miscommunication
- find new manifestations of your archetypes
- novels can be better at feelings than feelings
- more precise
- what novels are really good at
- the watching of longform drama (shows) over films as surely having some influence on the novel (novels in general and also this one specifically)
- research: go there, walk around, look for ghosts
- Yu: “I formulate an emotional [tax? fact? I can’t read my handwriting] and write a rule around that”
- what is being taken for granted in this world? what do people say “this is just the way things are” about
- what IS the way things are?