Paris Trance, by Geoff Dyer

dyer1Paris Trance is the first book by Geoff Dyer that I have read; it certainly will not by the last.  I feel somewhat guilty that two months ago, I had not even heard of Dyer — an enthusiastic review by John Self on Asylum of The Missing of the Somme convinced me that this was an author I needed to read.  That book, incidentally, shows as sold out on Chapters in Canada and Amazon in the U.S. and Canada — so somebody has obviously been reading Dyer.

He’s also won an amazing range of prizes for what his publisher describes as “genre defying titles”:  But Beautiful (about jazz) won the 1992 Somerset Maugham Prize, Out of Sheer Rage (about D. H. Lawrence) was short-listed for a National Book Critics Circle Award and The Ongoing Moment won the International Center of Photography award for writing on photography.  I’d certainly be willing to bet none of those three juries had a member in common (I’d even give odds no jury member  had read any of the other books) so the man obviously has a way with words, whatever the subject.  If you are wondering, the fourth genre-defying title is Yoga For People Who Can’t Be Bothered To Do It.

Paris Trance, one of three Dyer novels to date, confirms that impression.  It opens with the arrival of 26-year-old Luke Barnes in Paris, there mainly not to be in England.  He sees himself  “in exile” and given that it is August and most of Paris is not in Paris he quickly becomes very lonely.  The fact that he speaks no French and can’t be bothered to try to learn is a contributing factor.  He has also taken a very smelly apartment near the Tuileries, mainly because it is the only area has heard of, and then discovers that he is surrounded by tourist sites (which he makes no attempt to visit) and very little else.

Luke’s loneliness eventually ends when he finds a warehouse job and meets up with Alex, another Brit from Brixton who is also in Paris mainly not to be in England.  Dyer moves the book at a quick pace — Luke soon finds a girlfriend in Nicole (she’s from Belgrade), Alex hooks up with Sahra (who is American).

So we have four twenty-something foreigners in the City of Lights.  Excitement?  No.  As Nicole describes it:

 “Luke is so lazy.  He claims he came to Paris intending to write a book.  I think he wrote about half a page.  If that.  And he has this idea of doing some stupid film about the 29 bus but he never will, I’m sure.  He has learned some French but basically as long as he can play footbal, sleep with me, get stoned, go for drinks at the Petit Centre with Alex and go dancing at the weekend with the three of us he’s perfectly happy.”

That’s a pretty fair summary of the action of the book —  it could happen in just about any metropolitan center anywhere.  The four never go to a museum, gallery or concert; have virtually no conversations, except with each other; and confine their reading to the cinema listings in Pariscope (okay, Dyer does have this thing about obvious puns).

That is not a put down of the book because action is not what it is about.  First and foremost, it is about the nature of friendship, how that strengthens us and then how it evolves into something less important.  At the start of their friendship, Luke and Alex each fill in the other’s weakness, to the point where they very much need each other.  When they hook up with Nicole and Sahra, the foursome all support each other without really trying.  But as the couples become more like couples, and the individuals start to mature, the friendship starts to wither like a slowly dying flower.  Dyer does a wonderful job of capturing this process.

On a second level, this is emphatically not a coming of age novel — rather it is a novel that captures that indefinite period after someone has come of age but not yet made the choices which will define the mature life.  Dyer describes Somme as “an essay in mediation; research notes for a Great War novel”.  Paris Trance could also be described as an “essay in mediation”, this time about how, after coming of age, we need to make some choices about what mature life will be — and that if we don’t make those choices consciously, they get made for us.

And finally there is a gentle satire to this book.  All novel readers have their own idea about the creative nature of Paris, the city where Hemmingway, Fitzgerald, Baldwin, you name it, went as a foreign exile and produced amazing literature.  Must be something in the water, eh, that turns a youth into an author?  Obviously, that is not Dyer’s Paris — and it isn’t hard to conclude that there are more foreign Lukes in the city than there are Ernests, Scotts and James’.  I also have to wonder about Barnes as his choice for Luke’s last name, given Julian Barnes’ well-known Francophilia and books set in France.  There definitely might be a shot there — I don’t know enough about Barnes’ work to be able to see it clearly.

Dyer has another novel coming out this spring, Jeff In Venice, Death In Varanisi, which shows an April publication date in both Canada and the United Kingdom.  (I did warn about the puns.)  I’ll be reading it — I would heartily recommend Paris Trance as a first course.

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15 Responses to “Paris Trance, by Geoff Dyer”

  1. John Self Says:

    How lovely to be reminded of this book in such an eloquent review, Kevin. I knew there were similarities between this and Jeff in Venice…, and the new novel also contains (in part) a character who wants to achieve happiness through attachment to nothing but the transient present (or do I mean the ongoing moment)? I might observe that these characters are thinly disguised Dyers, who in his non-fiction makes no attempt to hide his lazy ways when it comes to actually sitting down and writing his books. He might be considered a George Best of literature – a man with a phenomenal natural gift which he does not always make the effort to use to its full.

    I do believe his non-fiction is better than his fiction, and when I read one of his two earlier novels – The Search I think, which was blurbed as a Calvinoesque quest – it assured me of nothing more than that I didn’t need to read his other early novel. I have now also read and written my review of Jeff in Venice (though it won’t go up until closer to publication date) and I can say no more about it for now.

    Of his non-fiction I would strongly recommend his DH Lawrence book Out of Sheer Rage and his collection of essays Anglo-English Attitudes. I have, but haven’t read, But Beautiful, and I enjoyed Yoga very much though it’s largely a lighter confection than the others.

    I am delighted to have been instrumental in your discovery of this fine writer.

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I’m very thankful you introduced me — and look forward to your thoughts on Jeff in Venice, which I will be buying. I am intrigued at what I have read about his “non-fiction” (since it seems to be somewhere between fiction and non-fiction). I’m not particularly interested in Lawrence because I’ve never been a fan of his writing, but But Beautiful has hit my radar. I do like jazz, seem to have stuff by most of the artists he writes about (certainly a lot of Ellington). And I didn’t find Paris Trance to be unworthy at all — indeed, it was a very satisfying read.

    Dyer does seem to be particularly ill-served by his North American publishers who seem to produce very small press runs (a lot of trolling is required to find something in stock) of books with terrible covers. I see from the Book Depository that some of these are new editions there — may add them in to my next UK order. Incidentally, when doing that trolling I was struck by how similiar the North American cover of Jeff in Venice was to Tim Parks’ recent novel. I suspect they diverge more in real life, but it does look like the same artist, working from the same palette.

  3. CaroleJ Says:

    Many congratulations on the blog Kevin. I had looked for you, having enjoyed your comments on DGR and Asylum – and also the ManBooker site (well, some of them) – so here’s to much future debate. I’m hoping your enterprise will serve as inspiration to me – I keep meaning to set up my own blog, but my middle name is Procrastination … Meanwhile, I’m off to find ‘The House of Mirth’ so as to post without referring to characters as ‘Mrs Thingummy’ etc.
    PS What is the name of the Lawren Harris abstract that you use for your logo? I cannot find it on any sites searched so far.

  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Thanks for logging in Carole and your comments are certainly welcome — especially those that point out where I am wrong and offtrack.

    The Lawren Harris detail in my logo comes from one of his many paintings titled Abstract (he didn’t give a lot of his abstract paintings titles). The story behind it is that it came up for auction in Canada a few years ago with an estimate of $10-15,000. While we knew that estimate was low, my wife and I figured that this would be our first and last chance to won a Harris. We dropped out of the bidding at $50,000 — it eventually sold for $112,500. Oh well, hopes raised, hopes dashed. I’ll email you an image of the full painting.

  5. John Self Says:

    Carole, you can see a larger version of Kevin’s logo painting here. They call it Abstraction (Panel No. 63).

  6. William Rycroft Says:

    Sorry to have taken so long to get here on the comments page Kevin. My timing couldn’t be better having just finished Dyer’s ‘The Missing Of The Somme’ after Mr Self’s strong recommendation. It’s a fantastic book well worth a read if you can find a copy. In the spirit of Dyer, John has left a pun in his comments on my review. I look forward to looking through more of your reviews…

  7. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Thanks for dropping by William. I’d read your review of The Missing of the Somme before coming here and it definitely is on my list for the future (although I admit I am in a bit of Great War reading hangover right now). And I remember well my first visit to the memorial on the bluff at Vimy Ridge (which was 33 years ago) and the tremendous impact that had on me. Given the importance of the Somme in Canada’s coming of age as an independent nation (which it wasn’t then), I want to be in the right mood when I approach this book. If you are up to a fictional look at how the Great War involved the Dominions (mainly as fodder, frankly), consider Joseph Boyden’s Three Day Road, the story of two indigenous natives from Moose Factory who went to war.

  8. William Rycroft Says:

    Thanks for the tip Kevin. I’m a little shell-shocked myself (Yes, I can do puns too), Great-War-reading-wise, but it’s going into my virtual shoping basket for the future.

  9. Eugenius Says:

    Hi Kevin,

    I enjoyed reading the reviews on your blog. You have inspired me to read more this year and I believe I will start with the Dyer, is I ever manage to finish Love in the Time of Cholera. Meanwhile I will continue to check your blog on a regular basis to see where I might be headed next. Thank you.

  10. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Interesting review, it sounds quite fun, I definitely suspect Paris has more Lukes than Ernests.

    I’ve read a fair bit of Barnes, though nothing recently, Barnes has generally been quite a productive writer so it wouldn’t seem on point to him, but I could well be wrong and it does sound like Dyer’s the sort of man to make that kind of joke.

    On a prosaic note, is it a long novel? I ask as it sounds quite enjoyable, but I’m not sure I’d be up for 400 pages of twentysomethings not doing a lot. That said, the transmutation of a group of friends to a pair of couples is a subtle thing to capture, and that element really does appeal. Few books even go near issues of changing friendships with any success (Roddy Doyle’s The Van springs to mind) but it is something most of us experience at one time or another.

  11. blithespirit Says:

    I’m a big fan of Geoff Dyer – one never knows what to expect next from him and I look forward to the new novel. My favourite so far of his work is Out of Sheer Rage which is just so funny and apt for all those procrastinators out there (my hand’s up). It’s all about his reasons for not writing a biography of D.H. Lawrence while telling us more interesting things about Lawrence than a traditional biography would – just brilliant. The Missing of the Somme is also very acute on war and memory and how society memorializes.

  12. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Good news, Max — the edition of Paris Trance that I read clocked in at 272 not very tightly packed pages. I would also characterize Dyer’s prose style (this is his only book that I have read) as very reader friendly. The book moves very quickly — I am one of those readers who often gets to a stretch where I think “c’mon, get on with it” and that never occured in this book. blithespirit’s description of <Out of Sheer Rage seems consistent with that impression — the excerpts I have read from The Missing of the Somme suggest that it is written in a much more contemplative style, which would be entirely appropriate. Once I’ve read more of Dyer, I fully expect that one of the things I will like about him most is his ability to adjust his style to his subject — that may be the ex-journalist in my talking, but from what I have seen it seems to be one of his strengths.

  13. Max Cairnduff Says:

    That is good news Kevin, on to my TBR pile it goes.

  14. Charles Lambert Says:

    Absolutely, blithespirit, Out of Sheer Rage is one of the best books I’ve ever read about a writer. And I also agree with John Self (Hi, John!) that Dyer’s early fiction, in particular The Search, is not a patch on his non-fiction. And I’m slightly jealous that John has read the new one and I haven’t, despite my hinting that I’d like a copy to someone who might have been able to help…

  15. Geoff Dyer Interview « Asylum Says:

    […] that – and I get closer to succumbing to it with every passing year – I would sink into depression. Paris Trance was ultimately about the siren call of that. In a way I would like to have acquired the habits and […]

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