Matters of life and death
John Self reviews Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell, The Liar’s Dictionary by Eley Williams, and The End of Me by Alfred Hayes
David Mitchell makes invention look easy; not since the prime of Iain Banks has an author sprinkled his pages so generously with the shavings from a planet-sized imagination. Banks started out blending genres in discombobulating novels like Walking on Glass and The Bridge, but soon split his output into science fiction, which got his best ideas, and non-SF, which got family sagas and political rants.
Mitchell has resisted that pull and continues to deploy his imaginative gifts in quasi-mainstream settings with wholehearted, full-throated enthusiasm. You can see it all through his new novel Utopia Avenue, in the dash and panache with which he pulls off set pieces a couple of pages long that other authors would devote a chapter to, from a street hustle at the start to a robbery at the end: events which top and tail the musical career of Dean Moss.
Dean is the bassist in British band Utopia Avenue, whose rise and split Mitchell’s novel exhaustively dissects. His trademark style — wittily knowing — is everywhere, from the title (echoing other rock band novels, from Espedair Street — Iain Banks again — to Don DeLillo’s Great Jones Street) to the structure: it’s a pretty good joke in a world where drummers are the also-men of rock for Griff, Utopia Avenue’s tubthumper, to be the only member of the band who doesn’t get any chapters all to himself.
His vision is multidimensional but doesn’t penetrate much
The story is told from the viewpoints of band members Dean, Jasper de Zoet, and Elf Holloway. Each has a backstory: Dean’s estrangement from his — readerly viewpoint here — satisfying bastard of an alcoholic father; the psychiatric history of Jasper, who hears knocking sounds in his head; and Elf, the woman in the line-up, who’s lost in music after her boyfriend leaves and takes her career as half of a folk duo with him.
Utopia Avenue come together in 1967, individually talent-spotted by Canadian svengali Levon Frankland who then smooshes them into a folkish, jazzy, R&B-esque whole. It’s a funny sort of musical blend (“eclectic” says Elf; “schizophrenic” says an interviewer) and is the first sign of a lack of nerve on Mitchell’s part: just shit or get off the pot, man, and make them a death metal quartet or something.
Still, a novel about a band in the Sixties must be a filthy peep at some shocking behaviour, right? Not so much. The closest anyone comes to doing a Pete Townshend is when Elf twats a randy TV host in the face with a fake bass guitar. There are no big egos, power-offs or debauchery; everyone in the band is basically nice. “Nice? Nice?! That’s something you say about biscuits!” as Alexei Sayle once put it. “Pop stars shouldn’t be nice!”
Bar a few welcome nuggets of nastiness, mostly featuring dealer and pimp Rod Dempsey, the story runs pleasantly — nicely — on, with Mitchell’s attention to detail making even passing characters feel full of life. The band hits the big time, and as most writers find success less interesting than failure, Mitchell drops in some nice hits of grief and PR disasters, delivering some of the book’s best stretches in doing so.
This is a big book to cover a short period — the band is together less than two years — but there are elements and compounds I haven’t hinted at: primarily that Jasper’s storyline reveals extra dimensions — literally — to Utopia Avenue’s world. This ratcheting-up of the book’s surface complexity reminds us that Mitchell considers all his books to be part of one “meta-novel”, and Jasper de Zoet turns out to be the great-great-great-grandson of the hero of Mitchell’s 2010 novel The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. Utopia Avenue is crammed with references to earlier Mitchelliana, including Bat Segundo from Ghostwritten as a pirate radio DJ, Robert Frobisher from Cloud Atlas, the baddie Enomoto from Thousand Autumns, and recurring Mitchell characters Dr Marinus and Luisa Rey. It’s fun but also distracting, and at times feels like a test of your fandom.
This self-referential tricksiness contributes to the sense of Mitchell as a writer both ambitious and not: his vision is multidimensional but doesn’t penetrate much, just as Cloud Atlas’s cumulative nimbleness didn’t exceed the sum of its parts. Characters rarely dig deep (“How music works is learnable,” Jasper says. “Why it works, God only knows”), and there’s something superficial about the local colour, where lots of classic 1960s songs are heard on the radio: but only classics. The book is good on the relationship between the media and musicians, but there are more interesting thoughts about fame in a sentence of Updike (“celebrity is a mask that eats into the face”) than in the whole of Utopia Avenue.
Just as ambitious, but to my mind more satisfying, is Eley Williams’s debut novel The Liar’s Dictionary. Williams’s award-winning story collection Attrib. showcased her playful way with language and ideas, and I wondered if she could maintain the magic at novel length. As it happens, The Liar’s Dictionary is even better, and made me almost tearful with gratitude that a book as clever as this could give such uncomplicated pleasure.
Here’s the high concept: in 1899 Peter Winceworth is working on Swansby’s New Encyclopaedic Dictionary, and through boredom starts to insert lots of fake words (like skipsty, v., the act of taking steps two at a time). In the present day, a young intern named Mallory is working on the dictionary’s second edition and is tasked with removing them all.
Fake words in dictionaries are a real thing; they’re called mountweazels and were traditionally added to prevent copyright infringement. And Winceworth is the perfect character to rebel in such a silent, time-locked way: he’s a quivering milquetoast with a lisp he faked as a child and is now stuck with. Mallory, unpicking Winceworth’s work today, is a very modern woman, gay but not out (“I just didn’t have the words”).
Williams’s triumph in The Liar’s Dictionary is to bring together two people a century apart with a unifying comic vision. In each setting she creates a completed world full of sticky details: a songbird banging against its cage, a slice of birthday cake in a trouser pocket, an attempt to talk while eating a hard-boiled egg. There are pleasingly silly jokes (a series of cats called Tits), delight taken in names (Winceworth’s nemesis is Frasham, a man who would now be described as a jock) and brilliant set pieces involving parties and pelicans, all in the service of an inquiry into language and words.
Language is what enables Winceworth and Mallory to communicate indirectly through the entries in Swansby’s dictionary, and back to back on the pages of this novel. “To name a thing is to know a thing,” observes Winceworth. And the corollary: if something has no name, does it exist, and if we cannot find ourselves represented in language, do we?
Look: it’s possible that I am the perfect reader for this book and that no one else will get as much out of it as I do. But it gave me the same joie de livre that I got from the likes of Italo Calvino, Nicholson Baker and Andrew Crumey when I first started reading fancy grown-up novels twenty-odd years ago. And when you find a book like this, you grab it, and you hold it close.
Satisfying a different avenue of my reading appetites is Alfred Hayes’s The End of Me, which Paul Bailey temptingly called “by far the most bitter and painful of [his] bitter, painful books”. Hayes was an Anglo-American screenwriter and novelist who died in 1985, and whose reputation rests on slim vols now being republished by Penguin Modern Classics and New York Review Books, stalwarts of the tasty reissues trade.
Hayes’s milieu is romantic obsession and doomed love, usually experienced in the smoky, tarnished sheen of mid-century Hollywood. He is never cheerful — his 1958 novel My Face for the World to See begins with a failed suicide attempt and goes downhill from there — but even by these standards, The End of Me, which was published in 1968 after a decade of silence, is bleak.
Literature is populated with fiction that is short because it cannot keep death at bay for long: Spark’s The Driver’s Seat, Fitzgerald’s May Day, Salinger’s A Perfect Day for Bananafish. Hayes’s fiction sits in their company, and in a sense Asher, the washed-up Hollywood writer who narrates The End of Me, is dead from the beginning, his sentences short, his emotions blunted, his instinct for flight.
He flees the west coast and heads to midwinter New York, where he reminisces on friends who have died and his two marriages that died (“I do everything twice”) while still hoping he can weather his internal storms. New York, after all, is home: “I’d heal among these brutal angles. I’d bathe in her like a spa. I’d convalesce in her indifferent arms.” But he cannot resist human company and gets tangled in the briar patch of a relationship between a young poet, Michael, and his girlfriend, Aurora.
It is, let’s say, not traditional holiday reading, but summer 2020 is not a traditional holiday season. The End of Me is the most misanthropic novel I’ve read since Joseph Heller’s Something Happened, and I loved it.
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