Geoff Dyer 1958-
English novelist, nonfiction writer, biographer, and essayist.
The following entry presents an overview of Dyer's career through 2000.
A self-styled novelist and author of diverse nonfiction works on subjects including jazz, World War I, and British writer John Berger, Dyer is known for his unconventional subjective approach and impressionistic, often highly expressive prose. While his novels The Colour of Memory (1989) and Paris Trance (1998) focus on the dissolute, transient lives and friendships of young Britons, Out of Sheer Rage (1998) is a mixture of memoir, travelogue, and criticism that relates Dyer's failed attempt to write a scholarly study of D. H. Lawrence. Dyer has evinced an interest in the process of artistic creation and authorial self-reflexivity that, despite his disdain for the vacuity of contemporary literary theory, lends much of his writing a postmodern quality.
Born in Cheltenham, England, to working-class parents, Dyer received a scholarship to attend Corpus Christi College, Oxford, where he received a B.A. with honors in 1980. But Beautiful (1991), a book that explores Dyer's passion for jazz music, won the Somerset Maugham Prize in 1992 and was short-listed for the John Llewellyn Rhys Memorial Prize. Out of Sheer Rage was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award in literary criticism in 1998. Dyer is a regular contributor to various periodicals, including New Statesman and New Society.
Dyer's first published book, Ways of Telling (1986), is a critical study of John Berger, the English art critic and Booker prize-winning novelist who served as Dyer's model and mentor. Arguing that Berger is among the most important British intellectuals of the mid-twentieth century, Dyer laments that Berger's work has not received the scholarly appreciation that he believes it deserves. Dyer's homage to Berger, an iconoclastic stylist with Marxist convictions, also reflects Dyer's own affinity for literary experimentation and rejection of traditional narrative conventions. Dyer's first novel, The Colour of Memory, describes the aimless lives of a group of young people in Brixton—a depressed, crime-ridden area of South London. The text consists primarily of plotless scenes in which the close-knit friends, including a painter, an aspiring novelist, and other bohemian twenty-somethings, attend parties, drink beer, and expound on art and literature. The Search (1993), a novel influenced by Italian novelist Italo Calvino, is a mix of genres—a philosophical detective thriller crossed with medieval romance, specifically borrowing elements from the legend of the Holy Grail. The novel is laden with arresting images and makes the suggestion that people can only know one another through their physical reflections. Paris Trance surveys a year in the lives of four people: two young Englishmen, Luke and Alex, and their respective girlfriends, Nicole, a Serb, and Sahra, a North African. Their year of hedonism—including excessive drug use, visits to nightclubs, and sexual adventures—leads to a conventional life for three of them. Alex and Sahra marry and have a child, while Nicole remains in Paris as a single mother. Only the anti-hero Luke, who originally goes to Paris to write a novel, is unable to settle down. But Beautiful consists of a series of vignettes about various jazz musicians, including Chet Baker, Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk, Art Pepper, Bud Powell, Ben Webster, and Lester Young. Dyer argues that the hardships of their respective personal circumstances—poverty, drug and alcohol addiction, and racism—are inseparable from the music they produced. In The Missing of the Somme (1994), Dyer considers the lingering cultural legacy of World War I in the British national consciousness. As Dyer notes, ten percent of all English males under the age of forty-five died on the Western Front between 1914 and 1918. This unprecedented loss continues to be commemorated in diverse ways, from ceremonies on Remembrance Day, to stone monuments, to nonfiction accounts of the war. Dyer's descriptions of these memorials serve as a buffer against indifference and obscurity, drawing attention to the veterans of the war and the heroic events that took place. Out of Sheer Rage, which was originally intended to be a serious critical study of the works of D. H. Lawrence, is instead an account of Dyer's struggle to overcome writer's block. Though Dyer admired Lawrence's novels, he becomes more interested in Lawrence's letters and travel writing, and is stalled by the temptation to write a novel instead. The resulting book chronicles the procrastination, relocations, and self-delusions that helped perpetuate Dyer's inability to write. The work also provides some commentary on Lawrence's works and Dyer's own Lawrentian diatribes against a host of personal grievances, including academic literary criticism and the English people. Anglo-English Attitudes (1999), a compilation of essays written between 1984 and 1999, also includes book reviews, prose pieces on photographers, musicians, and painters, and reminiscences of Dyer's various misadventures.
Critics have often been divided in their assessment of Dyer's work. Ways of Telling was generally appreciated as a welcome study of an important intellectual figure, and Dyer's sensitive, lyrical descriptions of jazz music in But Beautiful attracted several favorable comments. The Missing of the Somme also garnered positive reviews, though some found shortcomings in Dyer's lack of focus and over-reliance on Paul Fussell's own study of the cultural impact of World War I, The Great War and Modern Memory. While some reviewers have commended Dyer's quirky, difficult-to-classify books for their evocative meditations, other critics have found narcissistic tendencies in Dyer's writing and have criticized his sometimes overly emotional descriptions. As a result, several critics have noted that Dyer's ambitious ideas are not followed through to the level of excellence they expected. Dyer's first novel, The Colour of Memory was faulted for its lack of feeling and character development, which may be attributed to Dyer's disavowal of novelistic conventions. However, The Search was regarded by reviewers as an interesting epistemological thriller, and Paris Trance was praised for its engaging story and shifting perspectives.
Ways of Telling: The Work of John Berger (biography) 1986
The Colour of Memory (novel) 1989
But Beautiful: A Book about Jazz (nonfiction) 1991
The Search (novel) 1993
The Missing of the Somme (nonfiction) 1994
Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D. H. Lawrence (nonfiction) 1998
Paris Trance: A Romance (novel) 1998
Anglo-English Attitudes (essays) 1999
(The entire section is 48 words.)
SOURCE: “A Fortunate Man,” in New Statesman, January 23, 1987, pp. 28–29.
[In the following review of Ways of Telling, Frith commends Dyer's homage to John Berger, but finds that the book raises more questions than it answers.]
This is in every sense a good book [Ways of Telling], an affectionate introduction to John Berger's life's work, covering the criticism and essays from 1950s New Statesman days to 1985's The White Bird. It takes in all his fiction and poetry along the way, examining his collaborations with photographer Jean Mohr, TV producer director Mike Dibb and, in an added interview with Berger himself, film maker Alain Tanner. Dyer wants to honour Berger (the book was meant to coincide with his 60th birthday last November but got delayed by Pluto's troubles), to get him new readers and, perhaps most importantly, to compel proper public recognition of him as ‘one of our greatest writers,’ ‘the brightest figure in English intellectual life,’ ‘the first great English imaginative artist of the post-war era whom socialists can claim as their own.’
Recognition in these terms means either some sort of media fame (Dyer bemoans the fact that Berger hasn't got the cultural status of an Anthony Burgess or Bernard Levin) or, more likely, a place on the academic curriculum, and Ways of Telling could be read as a sort of Coles...
(The entire section is 985 words.)
SOURCE: “Agreeing with Berger,” in London Review of Books, March 19, 1987, pp. 9–10.
[In the following review of Ways of Telling, Campbell discusses the career and influence of John Berger.]
John Berger is 60. He is not forgotten. Permanent Red, his criticism from the Fifties, is in print. Ways of Seeing is the antidote put in the hands of students who have drunk too deeply of Courtauld art history. His novels, too, have created a stir. His first, A Painter of Our Time, had such vitriolic reviews that the publishers withdrew it, and G won the Booker Prize: Berger's hard swallow on that sugarplum made him briefly notorious. His behaviour was un-English—but that was to be expected, for his work had never fitted English pigeonholes. In A Fortunate Man he and Jean Mohr produced a report from rural England which, like Let us now praise famous men, Agee's report from the American Dust Bowl, imposed a solemn simplicity on its subject (Mass-Observation would have been nosier). G is an un-English mix of fiction and essay-like elements. His fiction has been didactic and his criticism passionate. He is also adaptable: as well as half a dozen novels and volumes of essays there have been television programmes and films. This varied body of work hangs together. The epigraph to the first chapter of Geoff Dyer's book [Ways of Telling], a quotation...
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SOURCE: “Under Constraints,” in Times Literary Supplement, April 24, 1987, p. 449.
[In the following review of Ways of Telling, Cooke concludes that Dyer's account of John Berger's life is “a lively introduction but not a definitive critical study.”]
Geoff Dyer's claim [in Ways of Telling] that John Berger has been “the brightest figure in British intellectual life” over the past twenty-five years has the effect of bringing the reader up short. Intrigued, incredulous, provoked, one waits to see how the author will plead his case—but in vain. Rather than arguing closely, and with reference to British cultural life of the past quarter-century, Dyer merely surveys Berger's career, discussing in detail and chronological sequence each of his major works. Ultimately, Dyer's case seems to rest as much on the diversity of Berger's activity—as art critic, novelist, poet, film-maker—as on the originality or profundity of his thought.
In consequence, the reader's doubts begin to multiply. For unlike, say, Raymond Williams or E. P. Thompson, Berger is neither a (first-rate) theorist nor a scholar; he is essentially a populist. And it is as a populist that he has made his greatest impact. Whereas for Dyer the fact that his subject has always remained “outside the security of the academy” is in itself a sign of virtue, this surely needs to be set against the very...
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SOURCE: “Idleness en Masse,” in Times Literary Supplement, June 2–8, 1989, p. 619.
[In the following excerpt, Ford offers an unfavorable assessment of The Colour of Memory.]
Everyone hates having the toad work squat on their lives, but doing nothing all day, every day, can be even worse. Both The Colour of Memory and When the Monster Dies [by Kate Pullinger] describe the aimless “alternative” lives of South London scroungers, in squats or on the dole, and doggedly chronicle the pleasures and vexations of drifting, purposeless days.
The Colour of Memory is the more successful. It is set in Brixton and celebrates in unsparing detail the good times shared by the narrator with his gang of arty South London friends; these include Steranko the painter, who is compared favourably with de Chirico, Freddie, a would-be novelist, Foomie and Belinda who briefly form a rap group, and so on. The novel is really a series of set-pieces that accumulate to form a nostalgic record of the group's wonderful spirit of camaraderie. They go to parties, play football, sign on, sunbathe, go to the pub, get mugged, get stoned, go to a fair, go swimming, all more or less en masse, and Geoff Dyer is good at suggesting how boring and yet addictive continually hanging around with the same people can be, with the result that by the end of the novel the reader feels extraordinarily...
(The entire section is 449 words.)
SOURCE: “A Lesson from America,” in Spectator, September 2, 1989, pp. 31–32.
[In the following excerpt, Lezard offers an unfavorable assessment of The Colour of Memory.]
When publishers wake up, as they periodically do, to the fact that young people look good on dust-jackets, the results can be pretty inspiring. Geoff Dyer's first novel, The Colour of Memory, has inspired me to leave the country. It is a plotless novel, not so much written as observed, where youngish people on the dole in Brixton with mildly precious names like Foomie and Sternako sit on roofs, drink beer, go to parties, name-drop a lot and smoke loads of grass. It is a pleasant existence, based more on the continuous capitulation to desire rather than the life of the mind, at times poignantly evoked. There is a great deal of the elegy in Dyer's book: he describes everyone with all Heathcote Williams’ tenderness for the whale, but with a little less irony or detachment. To tell the truth, his relentless humanism can get a bit much. Driving a bus, for example, is
an affirmation of human potential of the same order as that glimpsed in a work of art or in the performance of any kind of sport, or in the playing of a musical instrument.
That is about the level the book operates on, managing to be both self-obsessed and deluded at the same time. Mental...
(The entire section is 364 words.)
SOURCE: “Romantic Heroes of Jazz,” in Times Literary Supplement, June 7, 1991, p. 23.
[In the following excerpt, Lively commends Dyer's study of jazz music in But Beautiful, but notes that his interpretation lacks adequate social and historical perspective.]
But Beautiful is unclassifiable, and all the better for that. Geoff Dyer tells us in the preface that when he began writing, he was unsure of the form the book should take. His improvisatory method has led to a series of semi-fictional portraits of some of the tortured geniuses of jazz—men like Lester Young, Monk, Art Pepper, Ben Webster and Bud Powell. Chet Baker is beaten up by his heroin dealer; Lester Young is picked on in the army. The familiar anecdotes of jazz lore are vividly retold, much as a good sax player will bring to life an old standard. Behind it all is the music, which Dyer evokes in some remarkable descriptive passages; there can be very few books on jazz written with such tenderness and care. Sitting rather incongruously alongside these romantic renditions is a long critical essay that makes some good points about the role of tradition in the history of jazz. One is left with an appropriate sense of the author still feeling for ways to express his love of the music.
The idea of the jazz musician as romantic hero, as an artist alienated from society and doomed in self-destruction through the...
(The entire section is 700 words.)
SOURCE: “Lullaby of Birdland,” in New Statesman and Society, June 21, 1991, p. 44.
[In the following review of But Beautiful, Widgery commends Dyer's ability to convey his passion for jazz, but finds shortcomings in his conventional interpretations and apolitical stance.]
There has been “little first-rate writing on jazz,” thinks Geoff Dyer (sorry, Hentoff, Russell and Balliet, Wilmer, Case and Fordham). Until, it is implied, now. Well, some of these jazz fictions are superb, but others are an infuriating mixture of the pretentious and the vacuous. The lovely lines are offset by bits of young love in Paris and jazz-loving-cops-suddenly-horrified-by-life.
If Dyer's literary background yields nothing more profound than calling Chet Baker “the pale Shelley of bebop” and dropping the odd Adorno tag, it hasn't helped us a lot. Nor do conceits such as “Good photographs are there to be listened to as well as looked at.” But Beautiful's promise, the application of a European literary sensibility to American genius, is exciting. But the reality is more modest: the evocation, sometimes also using photographs, of the mood suggested by musicians as heard by Dyer. To achieve this sleight, he uses the technique, common in American biography, of reconstituting dialogue. This leads, for instance, to Duke Ellington commenting implausibly to Harry Carney, “My stomach's...
(The entire section is 655 words.)
SOURCE: “Make That Thy Quest, and Go Rot,” in Spectator, November 20, 1993, p. 45.
[In the following review, Wagner offers a positive assessment of The Search.]
[In The Search] Rachel meets Walker at a party and sends him off to find her vanished husband. Straightforward: Walker's a tracker, a retriever of the disappeared, and Rachel sends him on his way with a promise of big money and a wad of papers in his pocket that the missing man must sign and fingerprint. It goes without saying that Walker is half in love with the lovely and mysterious Rachel. This is familiar territory.
Not for long. Walker sets out into a nameless but familiar landscape, wide American spaces and freight trains and freeways. But Walker's method, or lack of it, is disturbing: he drifts from town to town following a trail so vague it could be of his own invention. The conventions of the thriller occasionally intrude: a phone call to Rachel, a threat from another tracker; but this is no thriller and these are not the hinges that mark the swift turn of a plot. What kind of a search is this? Where are we?
We are in Usfret, a town of Dantesque squalor and menace. We are in Avlona, an ordinary town in all respects but one: it is completely empty of people. Walker fills his pockets with cash from untended tills and takes clean new clothes from the vacant shops. In Despond, an inexplicable...
(The entire section is 623 words.)
SOURCE: “Track Events,” in New Statesman and Society, November 26, 1993, pp. 46–47.
[In the following review, Jukes offers a generally positive assessment of The Search, but finds shortcomings in the novel's film noir style.]
Three factors weight very heavily in Geoff Dyer's favour. His first book, a critical biography of John Berger, showed him to be one of the few younger writers taking on Berger's tradition of experiment. His second, The Colour of Memory, was effectively a critical biography of a generation. Of all the hyped novels about 1980s London it remains one of the most genuine. And his third, But Beautiful: eight improvisations on jazz, a genre-defying book. With Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch, it shows a way out of the dead ends of conventional fiction.
The only problem with such a persistently inventive list is how to add to it, and The Search strikes out in yet another new direction: the philosophical detective novel. Our hero is a “tracker,” a professional tracer of missing persons commissioned by a beautiful woman to locate her absconded husband.
Unfortunately, no photo of the man exists and the tracker has to piece together a picture of his subject while being pursued in turn by a murderous rival gumshoe. Finally, all the fragments of the missing man come together in the city of Nemesis on a day an experimental...
(The entire section is 685 words.)
SOURCE: “Gratification Deferred,” in Times Literary Supplement, December 3, 1993, p. 20.
[In the following review of The Search, Clark finds shortcomings in the novel's muddled eclecticism and lack of “authorial presence.”]
In his first novel, The Colour of Memory, Geoff Dyer set snapshots of his narrator's life against the structure of the minutes of an hour ticking away. Unsure of what was important and what was trivial, why these details have been selected and others excluded, the reader could only observe. The point was to disturb the story, to tell by showing, to mix it a little. One of the characters, a writer, expresses his contempt for conventional narrative: “I hate plots. Plots are what get people killed. Generally the plots are the worst things about books. … Plots are what you get on television. There's no need for them these days.”
Dyer warms to this theme in his second novel [The Search], and chooses to explore it in an even more complex and self-referential context. The number of genres and influences invoked, held up to the light and variously accommodated or dismissed, demands our constant vigilance, our readerly knowingness. This particular brand of postmodern patchwork, the collapsing of boundaries served up with apparent unconcern, may well contain the seeds of its own downfall; a novel may not need a plot, but it needs something...
(The entire section is 800 words.)
SOURCE: “The Lost Boys,” in New Statesman and Society, October 28, 1994, p. 41.
[In the following review of The Missing of the Somme, Chalmers discusses the legacy of the First World War in Britain and Dyer's treatment of the subject.]
By the end of the first world war—or Great War, as Geoff Dyer still prefers to call it—10 per cent of the males of Great Britain under 45 had simply disappeared. The country, however, to which the survivors returned from that “zone of obliteration” called the Western Front was virtually untouched by war, unlike in 1945. “The problem,” notes Dyer, “was to find a way of making manifest the memory of those who were missing … since there was to be no repatriation of bodies [often no bodies to repatriate] … how to make visible this invisible loss … How to inscribe the story of what had happened on a death-haunted landscape which was apparently untouched by the greatest tragedy to have affected the nation?”
Making visible the invisible led to an unprecedented surge, not only of memorial building, but also of invented ceremony. In the 1960s, at the boys’ school I attended in Glasgow, the assembly closest to armistice day was still the most important in the school year. Towards the end of the service, while the teachers and pupils remained standing, the senior staff filed from the stage, leaving only the deputy rector seated....
(The entire section is 639 words.)
SOURCE: “At the Going Down of the Sun,” in Times Literary Supplement, November 11, 1994, p. 22.
[In the following review of The Missing of the Somme, Horspool finds shortcomings in Dyer's overreliance on existing sources, particularly Paul Fussell's The Great War and Modern Memory, and Dyer's scattered meditative approach to the subject.]
The rituals of Remembrance Day are intended to commemorate the dead of both World Wars, but Geoff Dyer, though he has lived through neither, is not alone in identifying those rituals—and the act of remembrance itself—overwhelmingly with the First World War. The Great War is still for him, in Wyndham Lewis's phrase, “the turning-point in the history of the earth.” The Missing of the Somme is projected as a meditation on remembering the War, and on its literary and artistic legacy, which lasts even to today (though Dyer has what he recognizes as a recurring fear for each generation, that the “memory of the war will perish with the generation after mine”).
Dyer approaches his subject haphazardly, intuitively. Some of his reflections are prompted by visits to cemeteries and war memorials, both in France (where Edwin Lutyens's massive edifice at Thiepval gives him the title for his book) and England. Others spring from his reading and an examination of photographs, archive film and other cinematic representations of the...
(The entire section is 841 words.)
SOURCE: “Life in the Jazz Lane: The Misery of Stan Getz, the Loneliness of Dark Rooms and the State of the Music,” in Chicago Tribune Books, April 7, 1996, p. 5.
[In the following excerpt, Litweiler offers an unfavorable assessment of But Beautiful.]
Beauty of melody, purity of sound—these are the obvious qualities of tenor saxophonist Stan Getz's music at the beginning of his 49–year career, at the end when he was wracked with cancer, and usually in between.
Indeed, throughout the bop era and into postmodern times, has any other jazz artist been so thoroughly identified with romance? Yet Stan Getz, by Donald L. Maggin, is the most sordid book about jazz since the Miles Davis and Art Pepper autobiographies appeared in the 1980s. Because Getz lacked the self-awareness and humor of Davis or Pepper, his life was almost unrelievedly sordid, until near the end. Maggin has done an outstanding job of research and writing, he grinds no axes, and he makes a complicated story thoroughly clear and absorbing. But reading it, you keep wanting to take a bath.
“All that cocaine you take is messing you up,” a music lover once admonished a leading jazz saxophonist. The musician only looked at her and replied, “How was the music?” The Lost Generation of jazz was Getz's generation, the bop-era musicians of the '40s and '50s who flamed early and burned out or died...
(The entire section is 1184 words.)
SOURCE: “Blocked Down Memory Lane,” in Times Literary Supplement, March 28, 1997, p. 32.
[In the following review, Baker offers a positive assessment of Out of Sheer Rage.]
“It will be about anything but Thomas Hardy I am afraid,” D. H. Lawrence wrote of his book on Hardy: “queer stuff—but not bad.” Geoff Dyer takes this as his epigraph for Out of Sheer Rage, a book which often seems to be about anything but D. H. Lawrence, and begins as a confession about the painful business of not-writing.
Dyer builds up an impressive stack of notes: notes which, “it is obvious to me now, actually served not to prepare for and facilitate the writing of a book about Lawrence but to defer and postpone doing so.” The Lawrence book is itself a way of putting off another book, and Dyer's shunting between the two projects results in no work being done on either of them. He is locked in a desperate comedy of obsessionality, and obsessional mechanisms grip the whole book: stressful procrastination, inability to make choices and the attraction of alternative task X instead of task-in-hand Y. Until, of course, X itself becomes imperative, at which time Y suddenly seems strangely irresistible. Similarly, living on a small island promises the perfect base for writing; until Dyer achieves it, when it soon becomes intolerable.
At one stage, convalescing after an accident,...
(The entire section is 854 words.)
SOURCE: “Look! He Has Come Through!,” in Spectator, April 19, 1997, p. 44.
[In the following review, Scammell offers a positive assessment of Out of Sheer Rage.]
To everyone else on the island it looked like I was in deep thought, wrestling with philosophical problems, when all I was doing was trying to bear the awful weight of my head—which, on reflection is what all philosophical thought comes down to anyway: how to bear the awful weight of your head.
What Geoff Dyer was doing on this idyllic Greek island, apart from nursing an injury and having a thoroughly bad time, was reading Lawrence, notionally in order to write the book about him that he had been planning for years, actually to put off writing it for as long as possible. He's with his girlfriend Laura, who
has a good attitude to life and that, even more than her ability to pick up languages by watching soap operas, is why I love her. I, by contrast, have a very bad attitude to life, an attitude to life that began badly and is getting worse with every passing year.
Dyer has much better ways of not writing his critical magnum opus than stumbling over the pram in the hall or writing weekly reviews for the Sunday broadsheets. He moves around instead, from Paris to Rome to Greece to England to Taormina, where...
(The entire section is 1120 words.)
SOURCE: “Off His Moped,” in New Statesman, June 6, 1997, pp. 47–48.
[In the following review, Beckett offers a positive assessment of Out of Sheer Rage.]
Readers will do well to get past [Out of Sheer Rage]'s first sentence. It is eight lines long, its wheels spin in a swamp of commas, and its gist is as follows: Geoff Dyer has attempted a biography of D. H. Lawrence to make himself feel better. Over the next 20 pages the implications of this become haltingly, horribly clear. Lawrence barely surfaces. Instead, Dyer's neuroses reveal themselves: he wants to write a novel but cannot face starting it: he has resolved to write a biography instead: but he cannot start that until he decides where to live—and he cannot decide where to live.
He considers Paris. He considers Rome. It is all too difficult, he lengthily implies, for such a sensitive and exotic soul. Amid the forest of “I”s, only the odd shaft of wit keeps the book covers open: “I thought I had settled in Paris … really I had just been passing through, extremely slowly.”
Dyer seems determined to use the plainest possible words to form the knottiest possible paradoxes, a trick he has learnt, you suspect, from reading a lot of philosophers in translation.
But then his effort at some sort of Death of the Biographer shifts shape, quite unexpectedly, into a travel book....
(The entire section is 715 words.)
SOURCE: “A Glorious Elegy to Youth and Paris,” in New Statesman, April 17, 1998, p. 49.
[In the following review, McWilliam offers a positive assessment of Paris Trance.]
Charm is a tricky quality. We like to feel it but where we identify it we often feel compelled to condemn. Charming books tend to wither as fashion moves on or as we grow older. The Catcher in the Rye, and maybe Ginger and Pickles seem to be exceptions. Then there are books, such as The Great Gatsby, whose callowness is itself profound, whose charm is persistingly, enduringly, transient.
Geoff Dyer has written such a book [Paris Trance]. His career has been satisfying to observe, progressing exponentially from his first novel, The Colour of Memory, which suffered from being part of a funky batch promotion, through non-fiction works that deployed his particular cool and retentive intelligence and sparkling bolshiness, and fiction that mined his European preoccupations and grasp of the philosophy of aesthetics (he is the author of a work on John Berger). But now Dyer has written a book about being thoughtless, young and in love, as it were another—and far better—first novel.
Paris Trance is sadder but less careworn than his actual first novel, which also touched on these themes. He has always been a writer who could write well about physical love: it's...
(The entire section is 615 words.)
SOURCE: “The Famous Five at a Loss,” in Spectator, April 25, 1998, pp. 40–41.
[In the following review, Irvine offers a positive assessment of Paris Trance.]
There is an initial fear that a book called Paris Trance may join the ranks of the increasingly hackneyed ‘ecstasy generation’ literature. Geoff Dyer has achieved far more with his compelling third novel.
The novel charts a year in the lives of two couples in a place called Paris, Trance, which ‘bears only an approximate or incidental resemblance to the city of that name in France.’ Luke and Alex are two Englishmen who become close friends whilst working in a factory in Paris. Luke becomes involved with a Serbian beauty called Nicole and Alex falls for the North-African Sahra. What follows is an in-depth analysis of the two relationships (Luke's is more violent, difficult, Alex's is homely and loving) and their interaction. We see the couples in intimate moments, at parties and in the wild clubland (‘The dance floor was crowded, the music pumping’) of Paris, Trance.
On two occasions the couples sojourn in country houses. At these times especially, one begins to see the protagonists as a New Age Famous Five. Gone are the picnics and lashings of ginger beer—cocaine and rough sex have taken their place. Towards the end they even get a dog to make up the fivesome—but Timmy's cousin is...
(The entire section is 618 words.)
SOURCE: “In This Case, Writer's Block Became a Conduit for Creativity,” in Los Angeles Times, May 6, 1998, p. E6.
[In the following review, Eder offers a positive assessment of Out of Sheer Rage, though he notes that Dyer's approach to the subject matter is somewhat self-defeating.]
You just might wrestle a pig out of the mud, but it is quite as likely that the pig will wrestle you into the mud. Geoff Dyer, a writer of fine but jittery sensibility, found himself in a state of personal and literary breakdown. He was beyond blocked; he was splintered. Accordingly, in the hope of grounding his out-of-control fancifulness, he decided to attempt, or so he tells, us a sober academic study of D. H. Lawrence [in Out of Sheer Rage].
But, “conceived as a distraction, it immediately took on the distracted character of that from which it was intended to be a distraction, namely myself.” Dyer ended up applying himself “to pulling apart the thing, the book, that was intended to make me pull myself together.”
The Lawrence project was intended to rescue Dyer from the floating complexities of a novel he did not really want to write. For a while he juggled the two, but they canceled each other out. “I went from making notes on Lawrence to making notes for my novel, by which I mean I went from not working on my book on Lawrence to not working on my novel.”...
(The entire section is 829 words.)
SOURCE: “Solitary Man,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, June 14, 1998, p. 14.
[In the following excerpt, Thomson offers a positive assessment of But Beautiful.]
Chet Baker was a soft white kid who loved black music and wanted to imitate it but who never had the depth or energy to keep up. Born in Yale, Okla., in 1929, he moved to California when he was 11 and joined the Army five years later. He was by then a bugle boy increasingly drawn to jazz on the radio and sometimes in live performance. He left the Army in 1948, reentered in 1950—a strange move—and was deemed unfit for service in 1952. His professional jazz career took off soon after, with Charlie Parker for a while, and then in the famous piano-less quartet led by Gerry Mulligan. He won the Downbeat trumpet poll in 1954, beating Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and Clifford Brown, among others. Surely that was in large part because he could be mistaken for a movie star. (Baker himself said that the victory made no sense.)
With an exaggerated male jaw, pouty eyes, an almost pulpy look to his face and devilish black hair, Baker signaled so much promise. Women wanted to touch him. Gays must have been attracted. And he did look like a star, albeit more like Dewey Martin (a brief career from the '50s) than Montgomery Clift. Baker had a forlorn, uneducated face, insecure, unreliable, indolent and self-indulgent. He had a...
(The entire section is 1369 words.)
SOURCE: “Biographer: Get a Life!,” in American Scholar, Vol. 67, No. 3, Summer, 1998, pp. 140–42.
[In the following excerpt, Kellman discusses the problem of biographical writing and offers a positive assessment of Out of Sheer Rage.]
“You have but two subjects,” growled Samuel Johnson at James Boswell, “yourself and me. I am sick of both.” The first great modern biography, Boswell's The Life of Samuel Johnson reveals as much about its author as about its subject, and readers sick of both Johnson and Boswell are sick of life.
A human interest in the lives of other sustains the health of the publishing industry. Abraham Lincoln alone has sold enough books to put a smile on every copper penny he has fronted. Books about the lives of saints (and sinners) are endlessly fascinating, not so much because of the lives but because of the books—because, bound and stitched, experience is endowed with a shape and weight not found in life. Packaged with tidy beginnings, middles, and ends, the biographies, memoirs, and autobiographies of actors, athletes, politicians, royals, and tycoons that populate the best-seller lists are written and consumed in blithe disregard of Virginia Woolf's discovery that “in or about December, 1910, human character changed.” In fact, last year, in a biography that filled 893 pages (98 of them endnotes), Hermione Lee supplied Woolf herself with...
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SOURCE: “The Perils of Irreverence,” in New Leader, June 14–28, 1999, pp. 28–30.
[In the following review, Brown offers an unfavorable assessment of Paris Trance.]
It was D. H. Lawrence who cautioned readers not to trust the teller but to trust the tale. Perhaps, therefore, it isn't useful to hold a novelist's own words against him, or rather, to hold them up as his defining standard. Yet if they are in print, why not assume they were meant to be taken seriously?
A few years ago, British writer Geoff Dyer published a hybrid work that was neither biography nor criticism, and not quite a memoir, called Out of Sheer Rage. It chronicled his endlessly unsuccessful attempt to write a book about Lawrence, with whom he was nothing less than obsessed, and in the Lawrentian spirit he made some nervy assertions about a great many things, including the tediousness of the modern novel.
Of course the chronicle of his difficulties—a catalog of hesitations, divagations and irritations—in a good postmodern sleight-of-hand, turned out to be the book he couldn't manage to deliver in the conventional linear way.
It is a triumphantly impolite cousin to Julian Barnes Flaubert's Parrot and Nicholson Baker's U and I, which flickered around Updike with the devotion of a verbal mosquito.
Half aggrieved, half self-satisfied,...
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SOURCE: “Frozen in Time and Youth in City of Light,” in Los Angeles Times, June 17, 1999, p. E3.
[In the following review, Levi offers a positive assessment of Paris Trance.]
For sheer fun, few books published last year could beat the Englishman Geoff Dyer's Out of Sheer Rage. The most hilarious example of indecision since Waiting for Godot, Dyer's book told of a multi-year hegira while the author wandered between France, Italy, Greece and Mexico, trying to decide whether to write a novel or a big book on D. H. Lawrence, and ended up writing neither.
The novel, though, has finally seen the light of day in Paris Trance. And while indecision is the alternating current that drives the novel, there is a delicacy and a charm—and, of course, a humor—to Dyer's account of the love affairs of two pairs of golden youths in contemporary Paris, that brings the '20s and the '90s together in a decisive unison.
Like many an Englishman before him, the 26–year-old Luke has arrived in Paris with the vague intention of writing a novel—a project that quickly “assumed the status of a passport or travel visa: something which, by enabling him to leave one country and pass into another, had served its purpose and could be, if not discarded, then stored away and ignored.” The country he passes into is the 11th arrondissement, that newly chic faubourg...
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SOURCE: “Innocents Abroad,” in Washington Post Book World, June 27, 1999, pp. 8–9.
[In the following excerpt, Sallis offers a positive assessment of Paris Trance.]
When blurbs apologize for a book's offering up “escapism” and depicting “sad, unremarkable lives,” the reader takes caution. In the case of Paris Trance such caution, any caution, is unwarranted. The book, by the author of last year's Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D. H. Lawrence, is a fine novel, written with a light, sure touch, affecting far beyond its length and apparent (but only apparent) insubstantiality. Dyer's novel suggests that, just as once America gave to the world the blues, rock-and-roll and the romance as serious fiction, transforming that world's perception of itself, slackerdom is now a chief American export.
The four characters of Paris Trance, Alex and Sahra, Luke and Nicole, all have come to Paris with vague, high expectations that gradually slacken to the dailiness of dance, drugs, movies, work, sex. “Life is there to be wasted,” says Luke, who never began his novel. Dialogue among the four, in a hollow echo of witty repartee, often samples or resembles that of films. Sometimes the couples in fact cut and paste between life and film as they act out familiar scenes and situations, striving to fill hollows whose presence they barely perceive, the zeros at their...
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SOURCE: A review of Out of Sheer Rage, in Southern Humanities Review, Vol. 34, No. 2, Spring, 2000, pp. 181–84.
[In the following review, Bolton finds Out of Sheer Rage “amusing and provocative,” but concludes that “those seeking a keener understanding of Lawrence will be disappointed.”]
British novelist and freelance writer Geoff Dyer's entertaining book takes its title aptly from a phrase in D. H. Lawrence's correspondence regarding his Study of Thomas Hardy, lines which also serve as an epigraph to Dyer's study of Lawrence: “Out of sheer rage I've begun my book on Thomas Hardy. It will be about anything but Thomas Hardy I am afraid—queer stuff—but not bad.” Dyer's book [Out of Sheer Rage], likewise, begins and ends in a rage of sorts, is about anything but Lawrence, and is queer stuff, but not bad. It had long been Dyer's ambition, he tells his readers, to write a “sober academic study” of the writer who made him first want to become a writer. At the same time, Dyer is hoping to make progress on a new novel. The result is something of a compromise between these disparate impulses, an autobiography in which the author narrates how he came to terms with certain life crises while on the trail of D. H. Lawrence. Lacking the patience and organization required of typical scholars (a “group of wankers,” Dyer claims, “huddled in a circle, backs turned to...
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Bernstein, Richard. “Jazz's Dark Forces and the Artists Who Love Them.” New York Times (20 March 1996): C20.
Bernstein offers an overview of Dyer's inspirations for But Beautiful, and calls the book “marvelously literate.”
Eder, Richard. “Old Bliss, in a New Arrondissement.” New York Times (2 June 1999): E8.
Eder offers a mixed assessment of Paris Trance, giving praise to the novel's comedy, but criticizing the work's awkward narrative voice.
Kirn, Walter. “Lost Generation X.” New York (9 August 1999): 50–51.
Kirn offers a negative assessment of Paris Trance, stating that the novel is too derivative of the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Lehmann-Haupt, Christopher. Review of Out Of Sheer Rage, by Geoff Dyer. New York Times (20 April 1998): E8.
Lehmann-Haupt offers a positive assessment of Out of Sheer Rage.
MacFaul, Tom. “Pastoral Postures.” Times Literary Supplement (1 May 1998): 23.
MacFaul offers a mixed assessment of Paris Trance.
Mason, Kelly Murphy. “By Lawrence Obsessed.” Washington Post Book World (6 September 1998): 6.
Mason offers a positive assessment of Out of Sheer Rage....
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