Reviews

Geoff Dyer Is an Incredible Portraitist

Geoff Dyer has a knack for compelling the reader to stay with him, even when his characters are unlikeable.


Paris Trance: A Romance

Publisher: Picador
Author: Geoff Dyer
Format: e-book
Publication date: 2014-06
Amazon

But Beautiful

Publisher: Picador
Author: Geoff Dyer
Format: e-book
Publication date: 2014-06
Amazon

Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D. H. Lawrence

Publisher: Picador
Author: Geoff Dyer
Format: e-book
Publication date: 2014-06
Amazon

Paris Trance, But Beautiful and Out of Sheer Rage (respectively published in 1998, 1991 and 1997) do not form a trilogy, even though they are re-published simultaneously as eBooks by Picador. But it nonetheless makes sense to include them in the same review. Not only are they united around a common theme – the tension between life and work (in particular, artistic creation) – but also reading them one after another allows one to understand how much Geoff Dyer is a portraitist. He writes stories around and for his characters, and cares about what happens to them. I would venture that he cares for his characters depending on their choice about life or work. Let us illustrate this hypothesis with a sample of his work.

Paris Trance is a novel but, the narrator, Alex, warns us at the beginning of the book, it's not a story because 'whatever makes the events into a story is entirely missing.' Even the plot – Luke comes to Paris to write a book – is not much of a plot. And it doesn't lead to the dramatic end that seems promised from the outset. Had it been more dramatic, it would have contributed to the point of the novel. Luke fails to write his book because of how he, along with Alex, his friend and the narrator, their girlfriends, Nicole and Sahra, and a few others, choose to live. Sex, drugs and alcohol and food and bicycling and soccer and more sex and more drugs and more alcohol. It could have been fun and hot. But it's artificial and uninteresting.

However, Dyer perfectly succeeds as a portraitist. The young, hot, sexy, Luke, Alex, Sahra and Nicole are full of themselves. They're not funny, they're childish, and behave as teenagers, even though they're all more than 25 years old. Indeed, these characters are exasperating. Dyer conveys such a sense of emptiness and inutility that you end up not liking these young people, especially Luke. And not caring for them. And you loose interest in the conversations, dinners, meal preparations, parties, soccer games, fucking parties – even the fucking parties, that are really hot – around which the story is built. Yet you feel compelled to read on. Paris Trance is a paradoxical success, indeed.

But Beautiful invokes the opposite effect. Again, but less surprisingly, this is not a story. This is what Dyer calls (cf. his website) a 'genre-defying title' and is in fact a set of short-stories featuring Charlie Mingus, Theolonius Monk, Bud Powell, Art Pepper, that form a personal and very poetic history of jazz music.

In particularly stark contrast to Paris Trance, But Beautiful is an ode to people who have chosen to live through their art. And this changes everything. But Beautiful is full of life and melancholy, violence, pain and emotion. Monk, Powell, Mingus and Pepper drink, but it isn't off-putting in the way of Luke and his friends in Paris Trance, is. You accept the characters' flaws in But Beautiful and understand their maladjustment; it's the price they pay for higher achievements. You care for these characters because Dyer draws their portraits so beautifully. The characters are extraordinarily human and humble. After reading But Beautiful, you want to hear the actual musicians' music. Indeed, this book could turn everyone into a jazz fan.

In Out of Sheer Rage the narrator, a writer, lives in Paris and plans to write a book. He seems very close to the Luke character in Paris Trance, and is roughly as irritating as him, if in a different way. This time, it's because of a total incapacity to make a choice – whether or not to write an essay or a novel, to stay in the apartment he is sub-subletting or not, to move to Rome or not, to love Laura or not. Once again, this story could be fun. Once again it is not.

The character's ability to laugh at himself doesn't help make him likable, to say the least. And once again, you do not care for him and you are on the verge of loosing all interest. But this time you are hooked because the narrator is trying to write an essay on D. H. Lawrence. And when he shares with us some of the pages he writes about Lawrence, when he no longer speaks of himself, of his hesitations and doubts, everything changes. As in But Beautiful the style changes, becoming simpler in its telling. And here the story becomes luminous, bright, and full of emotion. You follow the narrator – and you read the book – because you want to read more about Lawrence. And it becomes fascinating.

This is Dyer's gift.

8

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