Heaven and the mundane

Over eight novels and counting, Cloud Atlas author David Mitchell has created a multiverse within his ever-expanding ‘über novel’

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As San Francisco enjoyed the Summer of Love in 1967, London’s Swinging Sixties were already in motion, allowing the city’s young residents to live their utopian dream. The capital’s downbeat post-war image was eclipsed by the bright colours of fashion and Pop Art. This new era also paved the way for political protest, set to a psychedelic soundtrack featuring the likes of Cream and Pink Floyd.

“My Canadian editor once said: ‘I know what you’re doing, Mitchell. You’re making your own Middle Earth, aren’t you?’” 

Although the counterculture revolution later drew criticism, it nevertheless helped to shape the collective consciousness and proved that creating a better society was achievable. This vibrant yet turbulent period in modern history is the setting of Utopia Avenue, the highly anticipated new novel by Cloud Atlas author David Mitchell, in which a band of the same name climb rock stardom’s precarious ladder.

“Utopia is otherworldly,” says the 51-year-old, speaking via Skype from his home in County Cork, Ireland, where he lives with his wife and two children. “It’s only really a place you can glimpse, but those glimpses are crucial and without them, you are in a dystopia. Even if by some chance you do get there, it rarely stays that utopia for long. Utopia Avenue is in the real world – it’s an impossible thing alongside a very mundane, suburban thing, so the band and I like the name because it’s an oxymoron.”

Mitchell was born in Ainsdale, Southport in 1969, where he has fond childhood memories of playing in the sand dunes. He moved to Worcestershire with his family, aged six, and later graduated from Kent University with a masters in comparative literature. In 1994, after a year in Sicily, he moved to Hiroshima, Japan, where he worked as an English teacher. There, he met his wife, Keiko, before writing his debut novel, Ghostwritten, which was released in 1999 and awarded the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize. A further six novels followed, including his seminal work Cloud Atlas, which was adapted into a motion picture starring Tom Hanks. Was being a writer always an aspiration?

“It would have been a bit of a stretch at times to call it an aspiration, or even a daydream, but even if I couldn’t always express it, I think I’ve always had an affinity with language,” explains Mitchell, a proud patron of the British Stammering Association – an affliction he has himself suffered with throughout his life.

“I also got pleasure from world-building, narrative building and imagining people who weren’t real. I noticed that long before I ever formulated it in a sentence.”

The novel pays homage to the 1960s’ timeless sounds as the fictional band rub shoulders with real-world artists. Like his latest characters, music has shaped Mitchell’s life immeasurably.

“The biopic of your life has its own soundtrack,” he says. “There are songs from your youth that licensed you to act and think in certain ways. Songs that contain different versions of yourself and songs that you play for their mood-altering properties. The marriage of lyrics and music can alter how you feel in life-enhancing ways and I wouldn’t want to live in a world without that.”

Over eight novels and counting, Mitchell has created a multiverse within his ever-expanding “über novel”. He is masterful at interlocking stories – often across continents, genres and time periods – earning him a loyal fan base. It is also a favoured trait to introduce past characters into someone else’s tale.

“Shakespeare did it, so I can’t claim to have invented this and I wouldn’t,” admits Mitchell, whose previous novel, Slade House, originated from experimental storytelling on Twitter.

“When a character in an earlier novel walks on stage in a new novel they come with luggage and associations. The prime directive has always been that if this book is the only thing by me that you ever read, then it must make complete sense as a standalone novel. But if you have a popular character in an earlier book, then why not use the luggage they’re bringing in the present book? It’s kind of irresistible.”

Mitchell’s body of work is akin to the popular fantasy of JRR Tolkien and George RR Martin in terms of its ambitious worldly scale.

“My Canadian editor once said: ‘I know what you’re doing, Mitchell. You’re making your own Middle Earth, aren’t you?’” laughs the two-time Booker Prize nominee. “I began to dispute it, but then I thought about it and they were essentially right. I want to write this cathedral-sized literary undertaking – bigger than Westeros in terms of world size – and I also don’t want to do that, because if I tried to, it would be at the expense of everything else. The ‘über novel’ lets me do both.”

Following shows in Europe, Utopia Avenue travel Stateside on tour, bridging their utopian dream with the American Dream. Such journeys mirror Mitchell’s globetrotting, which was vital to his early novels before starting a family.

“The days where I could put everything I owned in a backpack and go off for six months, living as cheaply as possible, are pretty much long gone now, but I have brilliant memories of those days,” he reflects, having had his planned book promotion schedule affected dramatically by Covid-19. “They were really important in terms of replenishing the compost heap of experience that I could draw from. I like to visit a place as if I’m a location scout, thinking, what use could this place be for narrative? There are good valid reasons to do things, in and of themselves, but there’s often a secondary, more novelistic reason for going to a place or saying yes to an invitation.”

When his son was diagnosed with autism at the age of three, Mitchell came to understand the challenges faced by those living with the condition, who often find the modern world overstimulating and difficult to navigate. “To think of it as a disability, much less an illness or a curse, is a grave disservice,” he says, after co-translating two novels on the subject by Naoki Higashida from Japanese to English with his wife.

“It can be hard, but often these hardships come about by the neurotypical world not knowing how to make the world more friendly for autistic people. If I could spare my son the hassle, pain and future problems, I would remove those obstacles. However, I am very grateful to him – and autism – for teaching me about neurodiversity.”

Beyond its central focus on music, one of Utopia Avenue’s wider themes is the collision between idealism and reality.

“[In the late 1960s] it was believed by a critical mass that if you willed it strongly enough, you could change some of the foundation blocks upon which society is built,” says Mitchell, of movements including civil rights, the CND and feminism.

“Many of the organisations that have an influence on the world, such as Greenpeace or Amnesty International, can trace their roots back to this exciting time. Any institution we value – including the NHS, universal suffrage or the welfare state – was at some point somebody’s dangerous, subversive and utterly unrealistic utopian dream, viciously suppressed by the powers that be.”

Despite this period sparking much-needed progress, Mitchell believes that society has continued to neglect the disadvantaged over subsequent decades.

“Our society assumes that you’re healthy and middle class – and if you don’t fit into those categories then you’re in trouble. That’s not a society. A society only deserves to call itself that if it is taking proper care of those who need it,” he says passionately. “I know everything costs money, but the levels of inequality are so pharaonic they make the Victorians look fair. It’s despicable, it’s wrong and the answer is not revolutionary. The answer is just fair taxation or a fairer idea of fair – that would do so much. Why does it make you a raving, drooling Marxist for saying: ‘We can do better than this’?”

Mitchell considers the issue of homelessness. “If you have a roof over your head and food in the fridge then you’re already one of the lucky ones. One stroke can take your life off script – suddenly you need other people and having a decent income isn’t enough anymore. If you have a kid who will need help when you’re no longer around, you start thinking about this more.”

Against the backdrop of a global pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests, societal inequalities continue to be put under the microscope. The utopian dream of the Swinging Sixties has been replaced by an all-encompassing movement for a permanent change to the longstanding status quo. Although divides remain, recent surges in community spirit and increased government scrutiny by the press have done much to unite society. Mitchell contemplates whether the tide is turning.

“I am hopeful. Our better angels are there in the newspapers and media. They are there in the behaviour of many of our neighbours too, especially right now.

“As long as this is not exterminated, snuffed out or misappropriated by murky forces, then there is no reason to believe that this hope cannot be nourished into something much stronger.

“It’s important to believe, but you can’t stop there either. Hope is not enough. You need hope and action.”

Utopia Avenue out now (Sceptre Books, £20)

The Sounds of 1967: ten of the best by David Mitchell

A Day in the Life by The Beatles from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

The Beatles in a single song: groundbreaking yet grounded, dream-like yet quotidian, edgy Lennon and melodic McCartney, ending with one of the all-time great final chords.

I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl by Nina Simone from Nina Simone Sings the Blues

A sumptuous two minutes 32 seconds in praise of sensuality and bluesy longing. Curvaceous sax solo thrown in for free.

All Along the Watchtower by Bob Dylan from John Wesley Harding

A windswept harmonica, urgent bass and drums, and lyrics that project feverish flickering images from stories or visions.

My Back Pages by The Byrds from Younger Than Yesterday

A crackling, yearning, soaring Dylan cover. Busier than the original, this version serves the lyrics better. Roger McGuinn’s 12-string guitar solo is brief but heart-breaking.

White Rabbit by Jefferson Airplane from Surrealistic Pillow

In 1967 psychedelic songs were 10-a-penny and five-a-cent: psychedelic songs as irresistible, catchy and sinister as this were rare. The song itself, like Alice in Wonderland, has become a cultural touchstone.

Montague Terrace (in Blue) by Scott Walker from Scott

A prose poem of seedy bedsitland belted out by a heartthrob-turned-chanson powerhouse, set to a lush orchestral arrangement. Astonishing. They don’t make ‘em like this anymore. They didn’t make many like ‘em back then, either.

Ruby Tuesday by The Rolling Stones from Flowers

An evergreen portrait of a woman with an elegant melody, coloured by Brian Jones on recorder. Vulnerable and curiously un-Stones-like.

I’m Waiting for the Man by The Velvet Underground from The Velvet Underground & Nico

This jangling two-chord song about scoring drugs sounds as fresh, listless and immediate today as it did half a century ago when, surely, it must have sounded like a song from another planet?

A Change is Gonna Come by Aretha Franklin from Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You

The Queen of Soul fully inhabits Sam Cooke’s song, buoyed by piano and organ. For as long as prejudice and injustice exists, the song will be not only moving and beautiful, but relevant.

Little Wing by The Jimi Hendrix Experience from Axis Bold As Love

Tender lyrics and an intricate guitar part that interweaves with the vocal like a backing singer. I wish Little Wing was three times as long.

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