In David Mitchell’s new novel, Utopia Avenue, a member of the 1960s psychedelic folk rock band that gives the book its name is asked by an interviewer which category its eclectic music falls into. “You’re like a zoologist asking a platypus, ‘Are you a ducklike otter? Or an otter-like duck?'” replies Jasper, the group’s virtuosic guitar player. “Like the platypus, I don’t care. We make music we like. We hope others like it too. That’s it.”
It’s hard not to read this as a wink at Mitchell’s own reputation for genre fluidity, given a body of work that encompasses historical fiction (The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet), bildungsroman (Black Swan Green), science fiction (The Bone Clocks) and a combination of the above (Cloud Atlas, for which he is best known). So, I ask the novelist over a recent video call, Are you a platypus? The 51-year-old chuckles. “All artists are. Actually, all human beings are. It’s not just within art, it’s what kind of person you are. We all hit the speed bump of reductivism.” It’s the price he accepts for his interest in “hybridizing genre,” he says. Few, though, seem to pay as much attention when Ian McEwan or Margaret Atwood does it.
Mitchell qualifies among their ranks; twice short-listed for the Booker Prize, his work has been compared to that of Haruki Murakami, Thomas Pynchon and Anthony Burgess. But he occupies a field of his own. His eight novels are experimental but approachable. His sentences can be lyrical, but his prose is propulsive. Beneath the layers of references and unconventional structures lie lucid narratives. Mitchell’s obsessions–beyond the fictional meta-universe he has created–are with human voyages of self-actualization; the process of figuring out who we are, and how we connect, in the brief time we have.
Speaking via video chat from the cottage in southwest Ireland where he has lived for 15 years, Mitchell is engaging and boyishly passionate about his latest interests. He jokes about his reputation as an introvert–of life stuck in lockdown, he says, “Yeah, but what else is new?”–and excitedly shows me his current reading material, a lavishly illustrated collection of Vincent van Gogh’s letters. Reading about the painter’s struggles put his own life as an artist in perspective. “Some measure of success is actually the greatest enabler,” he says. “So reading this it makes me feel fortunate that I have a [readership]. In my experience, pain and poverty and failure isn’t really very good for the writing life.”
Yet this is the milieu that Mitchell’s characters draw inspiration from in Utopia Avenue. The novel is a sprawling, immersive account of the British and U.S. music scene of 1967 and 1968, tracing the eponymous band’s halting trajectory from penury in London to the crest of global stardom. A linear narrative mainly set in England, it’s a departure from the time-hopping, continent-straddling works he is best known for. “It is maybe one of the most structurally straightforward things I’ve done,” he says.
The group’s rise is viewed mainly from the perspectives of three of the band members, each following their own journeys of self-discovery: folk singer Elf, bassist Dean and guitarist Jasper. As the book begins, penniless Dean is fleeing an abusive working-class upbringing. Elf is stifled by the expectations of her middle-class family. Jasper, the estranged scion of a Dutch aristocratic family, is grappling with the return of mental-health issues he thought he had long since left behind.
The germ for the novel was his love of the music of this era, Mitchell says–bands like Pink Floyd, Fairport Convention and the Grateful Dead that shunned conformity and found “new ways of putting a song together that hadn’t really been done before.” But he was also fascinated by these years as a pivot point, a time when the 1960s reached “a critical kind of ideological mass, where enough people thought that society was rebootable,” he says. “You could disassemble the flawed or repressive structures of the old world and replace them with something more just and more equitable.” Music, he adds, was the “medium of transmission.”
Above all, it’s a book about music–a fly-on-the-wall look at the realities of making a living from it, but also the process of writing and rehearsing songs. Mitchell has no background in music, but began learning guitar and piano while writing the book to lend authenticity to scenes where the characters try out new chord sequences and piece together songs. He interviewed musicians, and read roughly a dozen memoirs by survivors of the era and absorbed details “like harvesting plankton,” he says. He also went down a YouTube rabbit hole. The technology is “a great resource for novelists,” he says. “If this was the year 2000, I’d have no way to find out what Syd Barrett’s voice sounded like. Now it’s easy. You just need a laptop.”
This was especially important as the novel’s fictional characters interact with a greatest-hits album of historical figures as their fame grows. Barrett, David Bowie, Brian Jones and many others wander in and out of the book, while one character shares a stage with Leonard Cohen and another trips with Jerry Garcia. Mitchell says all these scenes were the product of “close study” of their speech and language. “It behooves you to not start giving people character traits that they really didn’t have,” he says. “I also didn’t want them to play an instrumental role in the plot, or co-opt them into an alternative universe where they didn’t die or they had a huge impact on something.” They’re in the novel for much the same reason as the music–because that’s how it actually was.
But this book also exists as a chapter in what Mitchell calls his “strange, ongoing übernovel.” Characters recur and connect from book to book, players in a meta-narrative about a centuries-long battle between two groups of immortals. Here, regular readers will spot at least a dozen connections to his previous works, but Jasper’s arc has special significance. (His surname, de Zoet, may suggest how.) Mitchell says that while he enjoys servicing fans who are “kind of immersed at the deepest level in my books,” he also takes care not to alienate new readers. The novel’s fantastical sequences can be read as the product of Jasper’s mental illness, he says. “It’s realism if you have read my books, but it’s psychosis if you haven’t.”
He hints that Jasper may have a future role to play in the meta-novel, but next up he’s working on a collection of his short stories, which he is rewriting so they are linked–similar in structure to his 1999 novel Ghostwritten. “It’ll be more contemporary and it won’t be historical,” he says. “I’d like to write a ‘now’ book.” He’s also been working on a possible TV show and a film, though he’s reluctant to divulge details. He previously did some credited work on a mooted reboot of The Matrix, whose original directors–the Wachowski sisters–also directed the 2012 adaptation of Cloud Atlas.
These kinds of collaborations are “great fun,” Mitchell says, but also hugely important creatively. “Normally, I labor away for four years seeing nobody. I have no colleagues. Just try working with nobody but yourself for four years. It does your head in,” he says. “Saying yes to one or two projects that take you outside the orbit of your habits is a great way of putting distance between your novels stylistically, and thematically. Hopefully it’s one way you can evolve.”
This appears in the July 20, 2020 issue of TIME.