Paris Trance by Geoff Dyer

I was introduced tothe work of Geoff Dyer by Kevin From Canada and John Self at The Asylum. Kevin From Canada reviewed this particular book. While Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi would have been a more timely choice, serendipity led me to Paris Trance instead.

Dyer explains the concept he followed with this book using a quote from D.H. Lawrence:

The usual plan is to take two couples and develop their relationship. Most of George Eliot’s are on that plan. Anyhow, I don’t want a plot, I should be bored with it. I shall try two couples for a start.

The book is concerned primarily with four characers: Luke, Alex, Nicole, and Sahra. Luke and Alex are Englishmen living in Paris where they meet, separately, Nicole and Sahra. Luke is the focal point of the story and his meeting Nicole is well-told, engaging, and romantic. Dyer writes efficiently and with humor. A key description of Luke comes fairly early:

He [Luke] had the handshake of a thin person who has learned how to make a good impression by shaking hands firmly even though that strength always feels as if it is made up of bones and nerves. he knew there was a way of getting an intensity of feeling into shaking hands but he had not learned how to do it. He was one of those people who have to learn everything….When I met him that day — or so it seems to me now — he was poised on the brink of becoming himself, as I came to know him.

This quote brings up an important issue of technique. Dyer writes the story partly in the first person and partly in the third person, always told by the same character. A weird thing, and somewhat creepy to me, is that the narrator stays the same, but talks about himself in the third person. Unless there are giveaways earlier than I noticed, the reader is a fair way through the book before the narrator is identifiable. I think this point is important, because the narrator knows extremely intimate details of the sex lives of the four, details that really could not be known by any one of the four, unless they have very frank conversations.

It could be that this is imagination on the part of the narrator who tells us on the first page:

[B]y recounting this part of my friend’s [Luke's] life I am trying to account for my own, for my need to believe that while something in Luke tugged him away from all that he most loved, from all that made him happiest, it is his life — and not mine — which is exemplary, admirable, even enviable.

The narrator, we learn, does idolize Luke and may not see him accurately. To delve into this too much farther would spoil one mystery of the book.

It is an important mystery because it is one of the few that Dyer does not spoil himself before it gathers any steam. Dyer reveals what would seem to be important plot points well in advance, presumably to keep the focus on the dynamics in the group of friends and lovers.

That first quote is important to the story itself because it says something about Luke, how he is dissatisfied, trying to find himself, perhaps trying to become someone else. Luke wants much out of life, but does not always know how to achieve his goals. Sometimes his efforts, like the handshake, betray his ineptness rather than disguise it.

There are other aspects of the novel besides Luke and the story of the friends that are interesting from a literary aspect. Dyer is obviously a fan of The Sun Also Rises and quotes from it extensively. I did not discover this from the text. I abandoned The Sun Also rises part way through in utter boredom and have never returned. The back of the hard cover edition I have read includes Dyer’s own list of borrowed quotes from Hemingway’s (and a couple of Camus’) work. With that revelation, the two did seem very similar. There is lots of banter over alcohol and boys being boys. If you do not go in for that sort of thing, be wary.

I enjoyed this book, so perhaps I should revisit that particular Hemingway. However, my delight may have come from the fact that this is, in some ways, Dyer’s retelling of Gide’s The Immoralist. Luke’s motto is “Yes, always, yes.” The women, talking about Luke and Alex, discuss how the men’s preferred mode of existence: “No though, only sensation.” And, as a final example, the narrator muses:

Nothing in the past has any value. You cannot store up happiness. The past is useless. You can dwell on it but not in it. What good does it do anyone, knowing that they once sat with friends in a car and called out the names of cinemas and films, that they ate lunch in a town whose name they have forgotten?

This are only small bites. And, besides, as shown from the earlier quote, the narrator must find some value in the past. He wrote the book in an effort to explain and understand. Dyer tells us early that the relationship between the four friends is unstable. They cannot remain forever in the idyllic year the novel relates. The reason why is important to these philosophical questions, to answering whether the narrator is correct that Luke’s life was “exemplary, admirable, even enviable.”

I have my doubts.

Dyer stays true to his stated mission of examining the relationships of his characters. He deflates plot-driven tension at almost every opportunity, maintaining the reader’s focus on Dyer’s subject. Dyer writes well and, as I stated earlier, with humor. This is not one of my favorites, but it is an excellent book. There are many things to like about this book and you only have to like some of them to find the book worthwhile. I enjoyed it and must thank John and Kevin for making me aware of this author. I will read more of his work.

[I will update this post in the future with a cover photo - Kerry]

6 Responses to Paris Trance by Geoff Dyer

  1. You don’t like The Sun Also Rises? I’m very fond of it, though oddly that puts me off this. Dyer comes across a bit as a clever writer, which I’m not sure is a compliment.

    It also sounds a bit derivative, and perhaps drawing too much on a knowledge of literary in jokes and references (which I’d probably get, but that’s not really the issue).

    Am I being a bit unfair do you think? Obviously you liked it, as did Kevin as I recall, but I’m concerned that the technique may annoy. Did you get more comfortable with the unusual narrative voice?

  2. This is a very nice reminder, Kerry — Paris Trance was one of the three original posts when I started my blog. While I certainly liked the book, it has tended to fade with time — I think Dyer in general is more a writer of the moment than one for long term memories. I didn’t find the narrator issue significant, I guess because I thought it was a reflection of the whole pell-mell nature of the foursome. I did think the portrayal of the transitory nature of the foursome was quite well done. I do think Dyer deserves to be read as he is a keen observor of various aspects of modern culture — in some ways it is true that he is more a journalist than a novelist. All of his books (whatever they are labelled) seem to be a mix of fiction and non-fiction.

  3. Kerry says:

    Max,

    I did not like The Sun Also Rises. I very well might now, but I am not sure I will try, especially now. I think you are probably right to be a little put off Paris Trance given your fondness for The Sun Also Rises. I suspect Dyer is probably too clever by half.

    I suspect the work is derivative. I did like it, but I agree with Kevin that I doubt it is a work that will stand the test of time. The unusual narrative voice was creepy. I am always weirded out by people who refer to themselves in the third person, so maybe it is personal to me. But the longer it went on, the more annoying I found it.

    I probably will read more Dyer and I think you would probably find him worthwhile too. But you should probably start with another given your comment.

  4. Kerry says:

    Kevin,

    I absolutely agree that this book, at least, is more a book of the moment than one for the long term. The pell-mell nature of the foursome, as you excellently put it, was quite well done.

    However, the more I reflect on the narrator issue, the less I like it. I think Dyer needed to tell parts in the third person because Alex was not there, but he wanted the intimacy that Alex provided as a narrator. Unless the narrator is extremely creepy and supposed to be, the method just does not work because Dyer is forced to give this character omniscience. Otherwise, the narrator is making up key parts of the story and some of these key parts are intimate sex scenes the narrator really ought not be imagining.

    Anyway, I find the narrator issue to be either key or a major flaw. Perhaps both. I know I did not like it so much.

    Thanks so much for the comment.

  5. Kerry,

    James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime, which I wrote up over on mine, plays some interesting games with narrator accuracy and what the narrator could actually have seen. There it is key, it’s clear the narrator must be making some bits up, and at times he admits to doing so, but as you read it it’s easy to forget that making the reminders discomforting. It’s a fascinating, and marvellous book, in the light of this it might interest you.

    Plus, James Salter can’t write a bad sentence.

  6. Kerry says:

    Max,

    Thanks for the pointer to your Salter review. I do see parallels. A Sport and a Pastime will go on the TBR list.

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