Paris 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.