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Photo by Valeria GuglielmiLIKE HIS MENTOR JOHN BERGER, GEOFF DYER IS AN ODD HYBRID of novelist, critic, memoirist, historian and prose poet. Of the seven books he has published, three have been novels (The Colour of Memory, The Search, Paris Trance), one has been a history of World War I (The Missing of the Somme), another has been an idiosyncratic and gorgeously written meditation on jazz (But Beautiful), and two have been books about other writers: Ways of Telling, a study of John Berger, and Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling With D.H. Lawrence, a very funny account of trying and failing to write a "sober, academic study" of the great English novelist while managing to write a great deal about everything else, from the "Italianness" of Italian train conductors to the horrors of deconstructionist criticism.
Paris Trance, Dyer's new novel, is about a young Englishman named Luke who moves to Paris to write a novel and never gets past the first page. Instead, he gets a low-paying job, plays soccer, cooks eccentric meals, makes friends, takes drugs and falls in love. In short, he lives his novel instead of writing it. But just as there are novelists who only have one novel in them, Luke has only a couple of years of happiness. He will become a sad character, but Dyer catches him in his moment of glory. You might even say he catches gloryin its moment of glory.
At the end of Women in Love, D.H. Lawrence has his novel's hero explain that love for a woman will never be enough for him. He must have perfect friendship with a man also. In Paris Trance, Dyer serves up the full Lawrentian ideal. First, Luke becomes best friends with Alex, another English expat with whom he shares a passion for soccer and movies; then he falls in love with Nicole, a Serbian graduate student who is always walking past the square where Alex and Luke play soccer (Alex helps out by kicking the ball in her direction so Luke can strike up a conversation); then Alex falls in love with Sahra, an American interpreter. Closing the circle, Nicole and Sahra become best friends also.
In lesser hands, this could be perfectly ordinary, of course, but Dyer makes you believe it. His book is filled with superb, unembarrassed and unembarrassing writing about sex, touch, flirtation and courtship, and all the hopes and dreams that men and women invest in each other. Other highlights include a hilariously escalating sports rivalry between Luke and Alex, a funny parody of Brief Encounter, and, at the end, a stunningly described acid trip that closes the book on a freeze-frame.
Female friendship plays a lesser role in the novel, yet one is impressed throughout by how deftly Dyer balances the sexes, and how attuned he is to the female side of things. The book does have its weaknesses (the dialogue between Luke and Alex can become a little too cute, like Tarantino rewritten by Seinfeld), but Paris Trance is moving and memorable as few novels are. This is what life is like when it's lived ecstatically, Dyer seems to be saying; what it's like the rest of the time, dear reader, you don't need me to inform you.
Dyer spoke with the Weekly by phone from his home in London.
L.A. WEEKLY: In Paris Trance you seem to have avoided all the usual fussy novelistic details and cut straight to what you wanted to write about: love, sex, friendship, movies, soccer, etc. From some of the things you say in Out of Sheer Rage, and the lack of plot in your novels, I take it you're somewhat impatient with more traditional fiction?
DYER: Yes, that's true. Not only as a writer, but also as a reader, I find that many of the things people do to novelize their material almost always diminishes my interest in what the book ends up being. One of the differences between 19th century fiction and current writing, it seems to me, is that in the 19th-century you're defined by what you can be bothered to do. Dickens and Balzac are the supreme examples of that. They can be bothered to do everything, and that ambition culminates in Joyce, I guess. It seems to me that now it's possible to write in the opposite way, where what you do is defined by what you can't be bothered to do. I can't think up stories, I'm not really interested in plots, and I'm not even that interested as a writer in developing character. But of course if you do without those things, then other things have to do more of the load-bearing, so a book's structure is something I invest a lot of energy in.
Paris Trance does have a very interesting structure. It has a beginning, middleã and end, but the beginning barely takes up 20 pages, and the end consists of one brief scene two-thirds of the way through where you flash-forward to Luke's unhappy future. Otherwise it's all middle. To use a drug analogy, it seems to me that you've described a kind of yearlong high while only briefly indicating that, yes, it's going to end. And because we know it's going to end, our perception of the good times is colored by our knowledge of the coming bad times without your having to describe them or our having to read about them. By focusing on happiness while warning us that unhappiness is coming, you've managed to make happiness intensely moving and sad. Does that make sense to you?