How David Mitchell connected Utopia Avenue to his previous books
In one sense, David Mitchell published a new novel this year, titled Utopia Avenue. But in another sense, it was just the latest installment in the great meta-novel that Mitchell has been writing for his whole career.
Some of Mitchell's novels are very focused on a specific time and place. Utopia Avenue, for instance, is the story of an eponymous '60s British rock band, while 2010's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is set entirely in the Japanese city of Nagasaki in the late 18th century, when the Tokugawa shogunate strictly limited contact with Europeans. Other Mitchell novels, like Cloud Atlas and The Bone Clocks, give a better indication of his overall project. Just as Cloud Atlas interweaves different stories from across time and space (a '70s detective mystery, dystopian sci-fi, contemporary comedic horror) that are connected by overlapping characters and themes, so do Mitchell's various novels play like interlocking parts of a greater whole.
"I do like my novels to have these hyperlinks between them," Mitchell tells EW. "Like how the songs on an LP like Sgt. Pepper's add up to more than the sum of their parts. The prime directive must be that if the reader has never read anything else I've ever written and will never again read anything I ever write, each book still has to make sense as a standalone novel. But then once that has been respected, then I'm kind of free to graft in characters and events from other things I've written in my slowly growing corpus.”
EW caught up with Mitchell earlier this year to discuss a few of the many "hyperlinks" connecting Utopia Avenue to his previous novels. Now that 2020 is coming to an end, readers who have already finished Utopia Avenue can double-check to see if they caught all the Easter eggs, and those who haven't gotten to it yet can see if they're interested in catching up.
Mitchell's debut set a template that he has returned to frequently: different characters and stories overlapping and forming connections. Two members of Ghostwritten's ensemble pop up in Utopia Avenue. The nameless, disembodied Mongolian spirit helps the band's star guitarist, Jasper de Zoet, with his mental struggles, and DJ Bat Segundo gives Utopia Avenue their first American airplay — helping them truly become a British Invasion band.
Mitchell's second novel took its title from a song by John Lennon, who appears as a character in Utopia Avenue alongside other '60s rock icons like David Bowie and Leonard Cohen. Protagonists Dean Moss, Elf Holloway, and Jasper de Zoet are often surprised at how humble and human these legends-in-their-own-time seem — and readers might be too.
"I had to be really careful to get their voices as pitch-perfect as I possibly could," Mitchell says. "YouTube is a great resource to sift through and study their mannerisms, figures of speech, and favorite phrases they would often kind of revert to. They need to be who they are. They mustn't feel like I've Photoshopped them together from that best-known moments. They're not at the height of their fame [in the book], so you shouldn't hear an angelic choir when they step onto the page."
Cloud Atlas (2004)
Luisa Rey, the indefatigable journalist from the '70s-set story line of Cloud Atlas (played by Halle Berry in the Wachowskis' 2012 film), shows up in Utopia Avenue as a love interest of band member Elf Holloway. The two novels also share a passion for music. Cloud Atlas' title refers to a musical sextet composed by the character Robert Frobisher (spotted by Elf at a record store in Utopia Avenue), and is itself a composition of six stories. Utopia Avenue is built to mimic a record by the titular band, with each chapter corresponding to a song.
"Music is a force beyond language," Mitchell says. "Maybe that's why I'm drawn to it. It's an antidote for an artist who spends all his waking life thinking about writing and trying to do it. Music isn't just a description of a profound experience, it is a profound experience. It is a paradox, an oxymoron, and an impossibility to try and write about — which of course is what makes it attractive to try. I don't make it easy for myself."
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (2010)
If there is one Mitchell book you should read before picking up Utopia Avenue, this is it. Virtuoso guitarist Jasper de Zoet doesn't just share a lineage with the protagonist of this 18th-century historical romance — they also have a mutual enemy who returns to haunt Jasper for his ancestor's actions. But that connection is only explicit if you've read both books.
"I like the idea that if you've never read Thousand Autumns, then Jasper is essentially suffering from psychosis," Mitchell says. "Whereas if you have read Thousand Autumns, Utopia Avenue is not a realist novel anymore. It's a mostly realist novel with this fantastical organ beating inside it. I love that your familiarity or non-familiarity is the finger on a switch between one genre for Utopia Avenue and another one."
The Bone Clocks (2014)
Author Crispin Hershey, one of the five protagonists of The Bone Clocks, appears at a party in Utopia Avenue as a young child. When Jasper de Zoet is suffering from his mysterious affliction, the only doctor who seems capable of helping him is of course named Marinus. Then there's bassist Dean Moss, who hails from the working-class English neighborhood of Gravesend — the same milieu that produced another Bone Clocks protagonist, Holly Sykes. Dean and Holly both had furious fights with their parents that led to them running away from home for varying lengths of time.
"There is a mechanism at work in kids that makes them want to reject you and go out into the world and start their own lives. That cannot happen without a little bit of friction," Mitchell says. "The Bone Clocks came at the beginning of that stage for me as a parent, and Utopia Avenue is slightly towards the end of that stage."
Slade House (2015)
The biggest connection between Utopia Avenue and its immediate predecessor is in their innovative structures. Slade House originated on Twitter, as bursts of 140 characters that grew into a full-length novel. Though Mitchell's newest seems like a more traditional book, it has its own unique structure: Each chapter corresponds to a song by the titular band.
"I wanted to try to replicate the experience of lowering the stylus onto an album and listening to it," Mitchell says. "It meant that the novel was quite rigidly timed. I couldn't mess about with the track order."