avatarTerry Barr

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(HOW) HAVE LGBTQ FILM & LITERATURE SHAPED YOU?

Is There a Queer Utopia? On the Virtues of David Mitchell’s Rock Novel

I teach ‘Utopia Avenue’ in my Rock and Soul Literature class.

Photo by Anukrati Omar on Unsplash

I’m the sort of person who hates to wear name tags. I had to do it again, recently, at an exhibit of “Queer Zines” collected by the staff of the Furman University library. On this occasion, I did as told and also listed my “he/him” pronouns.

The exhibit was illuminating, especially seeing paperback novels about transgender people from the 1950s. Sure, the taglines were a bit lurid:

“He believed he had found the perfect woman, until he looked under the sheets.”

I paraphrased that one, though I think I’m close to the mark. The cover showed a half-naked man, about to pull the bed sheets off of someone lying underneath. I wanted to look at the book more closely, but it was being kept under locked glass. Now, I can’t remember the title or author.

“Where might you have purchased such a book back then?” my wife asked.

“Perhaps a big city newsstand,” I replied. For I seem to recall racks of strange paperbacks lurking when I bought my comic books back in the 1960s. Back before anyone realized that BatWoman is queer.

I did have fun perusing the vast collection of zines from gay and lesbian and transgender publishers/writers. So very many, and so wonderful that they’re housed at a university that formerly was affiliated with the Southern Baptist Church. So, if you ever think times haven’t changed at all, there you go.

As we left the building, my first act was to remove my label as I do on any occasion when I’m forced to fill in a blank that starts with,

“Hello, my name is….”

Why this bothers me so much is a good question for my next therapy session.

So yeah, labels and me don’t play well together. I am ambivalent about identifying myself too closely or exactly, because whatever I am also means that there’s something that I’m not, at least according to someone.

There are certain real truths about my life:

I am a man married for forty years to the same woman.

We have two grown daughters, so I am a father and a grandfather too.

I am an “ally” of the Black Lives Matter, Feminist, and Queer movements. I believe in human rights and equality for all.

I also have a Ph.D. in English. I am a doctor, and my concentration is Modern Literature, especially the Modern Novel, which doesn’t mean I don’t adore Shakespeare and Dickinson and Melville and Flaubert. But grad programs ask for concentration, and so be it.

These thoughts were provoked by the prompt James Finn gave us to write about LGBTQ literature. Or work that includes queer characters and themes. Or work that embraces human complexity, which is what I’ve always loved and longed for in literature.

Almost by chance, as I was contemplating what work to write about for this prompt last night, I came across a telling passage in David Mitchell’s 2019 novel, Utopia Avenue (Random House), a work I’ve written about often and which I’m teaching in my Rock and Soul Literature class.

The novel concerns a 1967–8 era British rock and roll band, the eponymous “Utopia Avenue,” composed of three men and one woman of various English backgrounds and ways. The novel kills me in part because while I wasn’t living in the London of that time, I was living in the Bessemer, Alabama, of that time, wishing that I could be living in the Carnaby Street of that time, or in Penny Lane of that time, or somewhere where I might fit in better, at least in my own vision of me and time.

While the band is fictional, its members run across real artists from Allen Ginsberg to Dali and then to Keith Moon, David Bowie, Jimi Hendrix, Brian Jones, Leonard Cohen and Janis Joplin. On the one hand, Mitchell’s plot for the band is pretty simple: meet, jam together a while, play live shows, cut an album, and then get famous before… but I won’t give that away.

On the other hand, there are some serious mental-health issues living within one of the band members that cause the work to float between times, to confuse past/present/future and, if you’re into Mitchell, to bring in characters from his other novels to form something like the David Mitchell Experience.

Where, might you ask, are the queer themes and characters, though?

For one, the American manager of Utopia Avenue, Levon, is himself gay and in one dizzying section is swooped up into a party of characters who explore the London nightlife circuit. Someone and someone are dancing together and another character has to look twice or three times to make out that there are no women in this club. Quite the revelation.

But Levon’s role is minor compared to that of the band’s keyboardist, a woman known by her nickname, “Elf.” Elf has some pretty sorry affairs with men: her father can’t understand why she wants to hit the road in a male band when she could stay around home, get married, and lead the good life. Her boyfriend, Bruce, is one of those classic males who likes to think he’s the important one and that women really wouldn’t mind sharing him. That is, if he were brave enough to tell them about each other.

I think you see where that plot line is heading.

While her bandmates appreciate her songwriting, singing and playing, Elf still has to contend with not being taken seriously as an artist. She still smarts from her failure in love.

And, she still feels bound by the labels her world dictates she live with and under. Until, and this is the section that got me last night, she meets Luisa, an investigative reporter from New York. Chemistry is chemistry, even though the mixture often must be contained beneath a counter, if it manages to get mixed at all.

Elf keeps this love affair secret while in London, worrying about what her family would think, how they would see her, what they might call her; however, when she and Luisa reunite in New York, she experiences epiphany:

“I look back at my old self, before I met you, and I understand her better than I did when I was her.

— And what have you gleaned, here where the Wild Dykes be?

— Labels.

— Labels?

— Labels. I stuck them on everything. ‘Good.’ ‘Bad.’ ‘Right.’ ‘Wrong.’ ‘Square.’ ‘Hip.’ ‘Queer.’ ‘Normal.’ ‘Friend.’ ‘Enemy.’ ‘Success.’ ‘Failure.’ They’re easy to use. They save you the bother of thinking. Those labels stay stuck. They proliferate. They become a habit…You start thinking reality is the labels. Simple labels, written in permanent marker. The trouble is, reality’s the opposite. Reality is nuanced, paradoxical, shifting…People harp on about freedom. All the time. It’s everywhere. There are riots and wars about what freedom is and who it’s for. But the Queen of Freedom is this: to be free of labels…” (454).

All this to say that what has prevented her from finding true love are the labels society pounds into us about what is and what isn’t; what must be, should be, has to be, and can never be.

Elf ends her “lesson” at this point, and I certainly don’t want to get in lecture mode here, either. It might feel trite or anti-climatic, but that other great English band had a hit with a simple song about love being all you need.

They attached no labels to it, and if you delve deeply into John Lennon’s life, at least, you might see that even he was often less free than he would have liked to be.

So is Utopia Avenue a queer novel?

It is if you want it to be, or at least it’s not afraid to pull back the sheet to see who else might be standing there, waiting to fall in love.

Finally, since Rock and Soul themselves have never been quite as liberated, free, as they want us to believe they are, I love that Utopia Avenue takes its time to develop Elf and Luisa — to give them this crucial moment that allows Elf and any reader the chance to look back at our old selves and glean some understanding of who we are, even if, like me, we might still be somewhat ambivalent about the tags we see.

This story is a response to the Prism & Pen writing prompt, (How) Have LGBTQ Film & Literature Shaped You?

Here are other brilliant stories based on this prompt:

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Literature
LGBTQ
Music
Novel
David Mitchell
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