The Ecstatic Life
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 glory in 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, middle ã 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?
I couldn't have hoped for a more accurate analysis of what's going on in the book, really.
One of the things I like about the book is that you've managed to describe happiness in a very convincing way. Is that what you set out to do?
Absolutely. There's a line by a poet, I can never remember who said it, which is that happiness writes white, i.e., invisibly. But it seems to me not at all true. I've always liked scenes depicting happiness in films, for example, and I think also I was formed as a reader, and therefore as a writer, by reading Wordsworth. When people ask me my influences, I tend to say rather pretentiously Don DeLillo, Theodor Adorno, etc., forgetting people who are absolutely part of my bloodstream, and Wordsworth would be one of those. There are all these moments of shadowy exultation in Wordsworth I could quote you, and the times in my life I want to preserve or feel inspired by have nearly all been, if you like, happy moments. And I like your point about the drug thing. It's a book about the ecstatic lifestyle rather than Ecstasy the drug, but coming up on E or being in love are similar sorts of feelings. There's that lovely glow.
Have you taken a lot of Ecstasy?
I've taken less than many of my friends. By the time I got into it there was enough evidence of the negative consequences to make me much more cautious, let's say, than people who'd started on it earlier.
Another thing I like about Paris Trance is that you don't belabor the descriptions. The writing seems very unselfconscious, whereas in your first novel, The Colour of Memory, there's a slight sense of strain. What did you learn about novel writing during the intervening years?
In terms of learning things, I wouldn't just concentrate on the three novels, because I feel there's more imagination and daring in the three nonfiction books than in any number of straightforward novels. All six of the books contributed to the confidence I had in writing this. When you write your first book, you want to put everything in it. And in between my first book and Paris Trance, well, I've had my say about all sorts of stuff, so I was able to ration things and keep it down to what's essential. I also waited a long time to write this book, feeling it would be the first novel of my maturity, though the waiting came out of laziness more than anything else.
Laziness, not getting it together, not going out and getting a good job, etc., does seem to be a big theme in your work. In Paris Trance, Luke seems to be the very opposite of what a worker in the new global economy is supposed to be -- i.e., someone who's constantly updating his skills and developing new ones to fit the job market. The only skill Luke develops is memorizing the movie listings in Pariscope. How did you see him when you started writing the book?
Luke's is a good life. If you want to be a writer, you do have to settle down and do it, but it's not as if the only way to validate your life is to transcribe it, to write it. Who would have a career if they could have a life? Most of us want to have both in a way, because having some sort of career enhances your life. You could say that writing is a way of living without having a career, but still having some sort of purpose. Luke's great achievement is to be able to live totally without purpose.
Paris Trance seems to have received some fairly negative reviews in the States.
A lot of people have felt that the failure of the book is related to Luke's not being the great charismatic figure that he needs to be for the book to succeed. But the crucial thing about the book is that it's not Luke who's important, it's his relationship with Alex, it's what Alex thinks of him. And I'm always keen to draw attention to the parallels with Tender Is the Night. After Tender Is the Night came out, Fitzgerald wrote to Sara Murphy to explain that the character of Nicole Diver wasn't supposed to be a depiction of her, it was a depiction of the effect she had on men. So you see the parallel there. It's about what Luke means to Alex, not what Luke is in himself. I'm sorry to drag Nietzsche into this, because it sounds so pretentious, but Luke really does achieve the Nietzschean condition of amor fati, this thing where you're willing to relive the two or three happy moments in your life, to say, yeah, I'll take the whole package, I'll have the whole of my life over and over again.
Do critics in England lump you together with any other writers?
Not really, because all the books are so different. Lately I've reinvented myself as a chemical novelist, but when the jazz book came out, I was a jazz writer for a while, then briefly a military historian, then I wrote a Calvino-like novel (The Search), then the Lawrence book . . . What's been most commented on is my unusual tendency to write such different books.
What are you working on right now?
In November a book comes out in England that's a selection of my journalism from the last 15 years. The range of these essays is really . . . wide-ranging! Photographers, artists, jazz -- it's all over the place. I feel this is a nice expression in miniature of the whole career, really.
PARIS TRANCE: A Romance | By GEOFF DYER | Farrar, Straus & Giroux | 271 pages | $23 hardcover
Get the Theater
Your weekly guide to local culture with calendar listings and theater, dance, and comedy reviews.