Simon Frith (review date 23 January 1987)

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SOURCE: “A Fortunate Man,” in New Statesman, January 23, 1987, pp. 28–29.

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[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 Notes on Berger, an admirable crib for future generations of cultural studies students. In this respect, Dyer is lucid, modest and wise (he has none of the hectoring tone of a Peter Fuller, for example) but he's certainly no sycophant—he describes and tries to explain, for example, Berger's failures (though one such ‘failure,’ the novel Corker's Freedom, was what made me a Berger devotee in the first place) and follows Berger's critics in finding muddled positions in his art commentary, a lack of humour in his righteousness. Ways of Telling sent me back to the originals to test Dyer's arguments for myself and I'm grateful just for that.

A good book, then; but is it really necessary? There is something rather odd about such a friendly exposition of work that is mostly in print (or readily available in libraries), of a still prolific author whose gift, as Dyer makes clear, is to write in such a way that ‘lay’ readers can engage with him. Why should people read Dyer when they can easily enough read Berger?

Dyer's answers, I guess, is that people don't read him, or not enough people, or not enough people with sufficient respect, and this takes us back to the problem of recognition. I'm not as convinced as Dyer that Berger is ‘neglected.’ There's no reason why he should play a middlebrow media role and I'd guess that Berger appears on far more reading lists than Burgess already. It's not as if Berger has ever had much difficulty finding a ‘respectable’ outlet—in the last month alone I've read new articles by him in New Society and Harpers—and he did, after all, win the Booker prize. More interestingly, over the years he's had more TV time than any other left-wing intellectual I can think of. The issue here, then, is not that Berger can't make his voice heard but that not enough account is taken of it.

And this is to raise another sort of question. I entirely agree with Dyer's assessment of Berger's achievements but I'm less clear about what we should be learning from them. When I first struggled to make theoretical sense of rock, I was most inspired by three writers who had no obvious interest in popular music at all—C. L. R. James, Harold Rosenberg and John Berger—and, of the three, Berger had written the books that affected my attitude to cultural analysis most deeply. But I'd be hard pressed to explain how this influence worked (or, alas, to point to any evidence of it at all in my own work). The point being that Berger does not lay out positions which we can then develop; he doesn't hand down a Bergerian method for simple application. (Dyer points out that Ways of Seeing made many people see paintings differently, but hardly stood up to close reading as a theory of art). He is, rather, an example; for me an example of an extraordinarily committed hard reader (his influence here being oddly like Leavis’), someone who has always refused to follow cultural fashion—in sharp contrast to academic left intellectuals, the most determined followers of fashion of all.

On my first read through Ways of Telling I thought that my slight dissatisfaction—a feeling that what was here was admirable but that there was something more meaty missing—was due to the problems of treating properly someone with so wide a range of interests and skills. To place Berger properly as an art critic and historian, as a novelist and poet, a theorist of photography and a sociologist of peasantry, would mean having the knowledge it's taken Berger a lifetime to accrue. But re-reading Dyer after re-reading Berger I realised that what I missed was something else: gossip, biography, Dyer's sense of Berger the man to balance against Berger's own strong account of himself.

If, as Dyer suggests, Berger is to be an example, if ‘his work is important, finally, not for what it reveals of him but for what it enables us to glimpse of ourselves, of what we might become,’ then I'd still like to know how Berger became such a fortunate man, how his achievements relate to his family and education, his place in 1950s left culture, to his subsequent liaisons. What is it like in his peasant village? How does he organise his writing? What affect has ‘exile’ had on his language? His sense of audience? In his very modesty, Geoff Dyer leaves more questions about John Berger unanswered than I had before I started reading him.

Peter Campbell (review date 19 March 1987)

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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 from 1956—‘I am a political propagandist … But my heart and eye have remained those of a painter’—could apply equally well to the later work at the other end of the book.

I began reading Berger's reviews in New Zealand thirty years ago. They were a revelation. It did not really matter that you could not see the exhibitions he was writing about (airmail copies of the New Statesman arrived months before anything with illustrations): the discovery that a Bratby was not quite what you had imagined did not make his writing less significant. The sense that painting was important, and the questions he raised about what it could and should do, were what mattered. He demystified art, and made allies and enemies—partly because people found him so easy to understand. When he wrote about the entries to the competition for a monument to ‘The Unknown Political Prisoner,’ readers’ letters filled pages. While other critics valued art as free expression, Berger suggested that freedom might be destructive. While others wrote about what it was like to look at a painting, he wrote about what it was like to try to be a painter.

I did not then know how much he had learnt from Marxist critics like Frederick Antal, Ernst Fischer and Walter Benjamin, but it was clear that for Berger the difficulties of a painter of our time involved more than lack of technique or talent. It was a matter of how art meshed with the other cogs in the machine of history. Picasso could be a genius without being a great painter, if the possibility of greatness was precluded by the nature of the world he had been born into. Dyer writes that ‘Berger in the Fifties played a vital part in transforming public discussions of art from a marginal discussion of form—of something separate from the political life of society—into something which not only had a vital connection with but was an essential part of the content of that society.’ In the Fifties it was possible to believe that visual art could become significant, not just to individuals, but to all of us collectively—as significant as science or politics. The loss of that belief is something Berger feels strongly, and the thesis that painting is now almost impossible is nailed firmly to the door in a new preface to Permanent Red:

I now believe that there is an absolute incompatibility between art and private property, or between art and state property—unless the state is a plebeian democracy. Property must be destroyed before imagination can develop further. Thus today I would find the function of regular art criticism—a function which, whatever the critic's opinions, serves to uphold the art market—impossible to accept. And thus today I am more tolerant of those artists who are reduced to being largely destructive.

Dyer's book is a reason for those who have been enthusiasts to ask if Berger's analysis of the place of picture production in a capitalist society, and his attempt to reconcile a theory of socially-determined art with a belief in the original and autonomous individual genius, are still convincing. The most robust statement of his case against capitalist picture production is to be found in the television series Ways of Seeing and the book derived from it. Here he riffles through packs of images and makes provocative comparisons—between advertisements and 17th-century oil paintings, pin-ups and Titian nudes. These comparisons were offensive to many—in particular, to art historians. Berger seemed to discount aesthetic experience: he explained, but did not appreciate or discriminate, and, by implication, he disparaged the disciplines of connoisseurship. They cried foul. Later Berger confessed a difficulty and offered it, like a problem in physics, to the critical community:’ The immense theoretical weakness of Ways of Seeing is that I do not make clear what relation exists between what I call “the exception (the genius) and the normative tradition. It is at this point that work needs to be done. It could well be the theme of a conference.’

Even if one softens the deterministic edge, if one thinks of society as providing a climate—affecting survival but not the mutations which precede sudden changes in the history of painting—it is hard to reconcile Berger's mechanistic models with his idealistic aesthetics. Nor does he penetrate historically. The barricade he helped to throw up against the ordered troops of the old art history has had to be manned by others. Moreover his psychology of aesthetics makes him unhappy when faced with a thoroughgoing example of the new art history.

In an essay on Nicos Hadjinicolaou's Art History and Class Struggle, Berger argues that the book is flawed because ‘the experience of looking at paintings has been eliminated,’ and that ‘the refusal of comparative judgements about art ultimately derives from a lack of belief in the purpose of art.’ He also asserts that ‘the culture of capitalism has reduced paintings, as it reduces everything which is alive, to market commodities and to advertisements for other commodities. The new reductionism of revolutionary theory which we are considering is in danger of doing something similar.’ The lack Berger finds in Hadjinicolaou directs one to his own passionate identification with the acts of painting and looking. Ways of Seeing was seminal (for at least early on the scene) when new arenas of art criticism were being marked out. For example, the role of politics in the promotion and marketing of art, and of sexual politics in the making of art, were themes he developed. His writing about migrant workers and peasant communities appeals to analogous analyses of society. But he still believes that there are values which are independent of any analysis—that good societies and good painting are seen to be such are absolutely, not relatively, valuable. He is uninterested in the anxious examination of shifting responses. He would not with Thomas McEvilley, say the critic's job is to ‘elucidate very clearly one's reasons for liking art,’ not in order to define taste or ‘quality with a capital Q,’ but to ‘teach an approach to the question of quality which is constantly critical, constantly analytical,’ for the strength of Berger's identifications—with places, people, works of art—is that he asserts the capital letter every time.

Berger started out to be a painter, and became a writer, who explained why painting is now difficult, perhaps impossible. In order to make the problems of the painter in history clear, he had to explain how it felt to work as a painter in the 20th century. His first novel, A Painter of Our Time, did this. Much of it is in the form of a journal kept by a Hungarian émigré, Janos Lavin. ‘If the book had consisted solely of the journal,’ Dyer writes, ‘and if Lavin had been an actual artist, then it would have to be considered as one of the vital source documents of 20th-century art.’ The voices in the novel represent the first revolutionary generation, that of Janos, who knew what it was to be interrogated, hungry, and smuggled over a frontier, and that of the narrator. John, who will move in different world—one in which according to Berger nothing changes since the Fifties in the new preface to Permanent Red, ‘revolutionary examples and possibilities’ will have multiplied, and ‘the raison d'etre of polarised dogmatism’ will have collapsed.

Dyer puts a high value on Berger's work. He thinks that G, and the trilogy of which Pig Earth was the first part, are among the great workers of the century. But he also identifies the sources of the reservations of more moderate admirers. Reading a lot of Berger brings on a kind of literary allergy, to which Dyer himself is not immune. The irritation arises less from contact with the ideas than from a reaction to the medium which carries them. Dyer speaks of Berger's moralising as a feature of his work closely related to what is just as ‘distinctly absent from it: ‘humour … The problem of humourlessness is not just the plea of a reader eager for a laugh: it compromises the imaginative identification with others that Berger sets such store by.’ His writing sometimes reads like a translation, and must translate easily. There are no jokes, no mimicry. No meanings are doubled, no asides are sly. If his writing were conversation, it would be the kind where parties will not agree to disagree. ‘He speaks of the reader accompanying him,’ Dyer writes, ‘but we sometimes go along on condition that we wear a collar and lead.’ Sometimes he not only takes over the reader, but the subject of an essay as well. There is a piece collected in The White Bird about a nude by Frans Hals. No nude by Hals exists, and the essay constructs one. Berger describes details (‘the slewed sheet, its folds like grey twigs woven together to make a nest, and its highlights like falling water.’) The same kind of language is used in passages about real paintings, such as one which Dyer singles out for special praise: ‘The light in a Constable masterpiece is like water dripping off the gunwale of a boat as it drives through the sea. It suggests the way the whole scene is surging through the day, dipping through sun and cloud.’ The Constable description is wonderfully good, because it enhances your memory of real paintings. The Hals description is an irritation because it confuses by asking you to invent a new one. The argument against it is the same as the argument against forgery: that it confuses the understanding one painting gives you of another by blurring the record. Berger's take-over of Hals is like his take-over of the reader. Over the years one has learnt to fight back. If his work does not, as Dyer hopes, become an example which leads to the breaking-down of barriers between literary genres, the reason will, partly at least, lie in something in his manner which leaves the reader feeling that he is not being allowed to disagree.

Lynne Cooke (review date 24 April 1987)

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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 real limitations that result from writing for a vast but very general audience. Ways of Seeing, which is among Berger's most seminal books, has arguably proved most fruitful in the more detailed and in-depth studies it has stimulated in various of the areas which it addresses. G, Berger's most successful novel and winner of the Booker Prize in 1972, has not worn well and notwithstanding Dyer's claims to the contrary, feels clumsy and strained in its structure and characterization when compared to the nouveau roman with which it has certain affinities. Dismissing out of hand as a point of comparison references to Sarraute, Sollers or Butor, Dyer (typically) invokes instead Benjamin, Marx, Cubism and Godard, but only the last seems truly apposite. In citing Cubism rather than Rauschenberg, Dyer once again reveals the very limited understanding of the visual arts that permeates his whole account; in citing Benjamin and Marx he introduces two giants from an intellectual tradition which Berger has wished to make his own, irrespective of their suitability to the occasion.

As Dyer points out, Berger's characteristic method entails writing in short declarative sentences, and peppering his account with polemical assertions rather than arguing in detail or by means of a process of description, analysis and deduction. Since Berger's theoretical position substantially predetermines his response to individual artists and works of art, he is rarely flexible enough in his criticism to deal persuasively with all aspects of a situation or exemplar. Thus his celebrated account of Picasso, for example, contains some perceptive insights, but finally founders because his theoretical position is too constrained and rigid to deal adequately with the shifts and convolutions in the painter's later career; a blanket dismissal ensues.

Geoff Dyer himself seems to have learnt much from his subject, and mentor, in that his vigorous writing contains similar terse assertions, bald arguments and polemical pronouncements. Whatever qualifications or reservations he voices are virtually drowned out in his enthusiastic exposition of Berger's case as a whole. The result is a lively introduction but not a definitive critical study.

Mark Ford (review date 2–8 June 1989)

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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 glad not to know any of these fictional characters in real life.

Dyer writes crisp Martin Amis-inflected prose, full of acute perceptions and neat phrases; he works hard to maintain a neutral, dispassionate voice, but also to put spin on his locutions. The book abounds in colourful descriptions of familiar aspects of London life, from racist taxi drivers to pub knifings. A death-burger van is described as “a belch in 3D” and inside it the chef is “toiling away in a tropical drizzle of grease and onions.” Less happily, Dyer is prone to lurch into a rich, purple prose full of lyrical impressionism that gets very dull after a while. It's also a shame that he tries to introduce a little post-modern reader-writer intrigue in his epilogue. The writer, Freddie, is always banging on about Calvino when he gets the chance, and, in an effort to suggest avant-garde credentials, Dyer includes at the end of the book Waste Land-style footnotes referring the reader to Adorno, Benjamin, Baudrillard, Barthes and so on. (Philip Larkin's “An Arundel Tomb” is wrongly attributed here to his High Windows collection; it was in fact published in The Whitsun Weddings.) There must be some heavy-handed joke in this, as in essence this competently written book is about as experimental as a Hollywood teen movie.

Nicholas Lezard (review date 2 September 1989)

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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 impoverishment is rather like vanity and humility, in that the more one has of each the less one thinks one actually has, and Dyer thinks he is awfully clever indeed. If this is an unfair thing to say, then it is only because he has asked for it, his text liberally, but fruitlessly, sown with allusions (Nietzsche, Calvino, Barthes, conartiste Baudrillard, etc; they are listed at the end), along with acknowledgements of popular culture (e.g. ‘I listened to Maria Callas and then watched Tyson thump the shit out of someone’), to show what catholic tastes he has. As someone once said of Kerouac, this isn't writing, but typing, and it would not be worth mentioning if it was an uncommon problem. But it is a common problem, especially in this country.

Adam Lively (review date 7 June 1991)

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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 sheer intensity of his own creative fires, is one that has been very popular, particularly among white writers. Dyer's is a much more sophisticated book than Clellon Holmes's melodramatic Beat novel, The Horn for example; but his conclusion is not very different:

How could an art form have developed so rapidly and at such a pitch of excitement without exacting a huge human toll? If jazz has a vital connection with “the universal struggle of modern man,” how could the men who create it not bear the scars of that struggle?

The trouble with this is not that it isn't true but that it is too vague. The case would have been made more convincing if Dyer had shown the many ways in which jazz, as a black music, strained against the barriers put up by American society. The confrontations he does evoke (Monk refused a hotel room, Bud Powell beaten by police) are too clear-cut to do this convincingly. Black musicians frequently had to cater to the demands of all-white audiences or acquiesce in white commercial exploitation. Had Dyer paid more attention to this routine aspect of injustice, he might have been more alive to the hard irony and wit in so much of the music. As it is, his picture of jazz collapses in on the characters, even as the characters, themselves seem to collapse inwards into drugs, drink or loneliness. These abstracted, restless figures are drawn with a powerful feeling both for their music and their individuality. What they share is a core of tenderness, and it is tenderness—sometimes a bit too close to the autumnal—that sets the mood for the book. All Dyer's heroes are in some sense losers with all the romantic appeal that losers have.

Interspersed with the portraits are striking pictures of Duke Ellington travelling across America. (“The car was like a snow-plough shoving darkness to one side, clearing a path of light … trees wait like thin cattle on the horizon.”) But it is interesting that Dyer's characterization of Ellington is thinner than the others. Ellington was a man not with the swaggering, gun-toting toughness of a Ben Webster, but the kind of toughness that enabled him to get about as far as American society would allow a black man to get.

If this impressive book has a fault, it is that Geoff Dyer is too close to the subject-matter. He describes it as an exercise in “imaginative criticism,” but his own involvement, crucial as it is for the immediacy with which he conjures up his jazz heroes, has perhaps outweighed the “stepping back” that is essential to criticism. A deeper feeling for the social and historical context of the individual agonies would have toughened that streak of romanticism, even sentimentality, that runs through the book.

David Widgery (review date 21 June 1991)

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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 been growling like Cootie.”

So far, so bad. But Dyer makes a genuine contribution to the literature of jazz by the skill with which he selects his vignettes, and the descriptive intensity and empathy he directs on them. He takes major figures in the music, most of them composers, and locates them in crises that are central to the development of their music. Lester Young, the most successful portrait, is seen through his court martial and subsequent brutal mistreatment in an army jail. No writer on Young has so successfully described the permanent impact on his sensibility, and conveyed so movingly his empathy with Billie Holiday.

Ellington, the superb professional, is caught again and again at angles as he tours America, steeping himself in its natural sounds, a great 20th-century popular composer. Charlie Mingus’ imperious and barnstorming drive is encapsulated in the famous incident when he was fired from the Ellington band for chopping Juan Tizol's band-chair in half with a fire axe. There is a marvelously joyful fantasy about Ben Webster soloing round the trains of Europe to a captivated audience, and a loving homage to Thelonious Monk, which succeeds in getting somewhere near the withdrawn, complex process of re-arranging by which he wrote.

The less successful chapter on Bud Powell commences with the brutal beating that may have permanently affected his sanity, but is unrevealing about the evolution of his utterly original right hand and the musical sources of his rhapsodic composition. Dyer falls full length for the Bruce Weber version of the Chet Baker myth, going on about Baker's sumptuously self-pitying trumpet producing “a dream guide to the heart.” But, once separated from the narcissistic world of opiate addiction, Baker's later playing, and worse still singing, was not a patch on his early work with Gerry Mulligan and Charlie Parker. Whereas Art Pepper, who played better and better throughout his life, is portrayed, patronisingly, as little more than a psychopath with a good lip.

It is an oddly conventional storyline: sex and drugs and behop, all ending in incomprehending dialogues in psychiatrists’ offices. The narrative form Dyer uses ducks difficult aesthetic judgments in a deluge of artiness, which deflects attention from what the musicians actually play. He certainly communicates a passion about the music that makes you want to listen again, and listen harder. But, like Parker impersonators, he too often spirals off into decorative doodling. And the book is surprisingly apolitical. The disintegration of free music in the 1970s can't really be understood without looking at the successful suppression of the black movements that had underwritten jazz's advances for 30 years. It's beautiful, alright, but it still begs a lot of questions.

Erica Wagner (review date 20 November 1993)

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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 depression settles on him and threatens to smother him. In another, unnamed, town all the inhabitants are frozen in motion, mid-gesture, and Walker moves through them like a tourist in Pompeii.

Dyer's first novel, The Colour of Memory, is an arrangement of scenes out of a life, spread out before us like photographs, the only connection between them the presence of the narrator and narrator's friends. It is ‘plotless’ by design, a section of life, with no easy fictional curve from A to B and back again. In The Search Dyer takes the idea that plots are only something found in TV drama one step further: he injects an almost magical randomness into what ought to be the most conventional of tales, and gives us Surrealism where we might have expected Dirty Realism.

In doing so he reveals a kinship between two genres: the thriller and the mediaeval quest; Rachel has much in common with the Green Knight's seductive wife. It is surely no coincidence that Rachel's husband is called Malory, and Dyer makes explicit his hero's resemblance to Lancelot. But Walker lacks the moral certainty of a Holy Grail, and it might be just this that is missing from this intriguing book. There is a hollowness at the centre: a great emptiness is being revealed, but to what purpose? Possibly to show that there is no purpose, and that the emptiness hides another emptiness behind. In the stilled city, Walker sees that in such a state there is an absence of narrative, or

a new kind of narrative, one that ran across time rather than through it. We seek explanation in terms of casuality, in terms of one event succeeding another. Here simultaneity, the way every action and person in the city was linked to every other, was the only explanation. Either there was no such thing as coincidence or—and it amounted to the same thing—there was only coincidence.

In this coincidental world, the main characters are the blurred faces found on the edges of photographs, the strangers with their backs to us, walking away. It isn't a comfortable place to be, but like the world of Italo Calvino, it is a vivid and puzzling alternative to the everyday, and its after-image is hard to erase.

Peter Jukes (review date 26 November 1993)

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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 film-maker has chosen to collect every image taken of the city.

Though hardly the first writer to do it. Dyer unpicks the fascination of detective fiction: the way we try to construct truth, motive, character from fading forensic traces. With a hero called Walker, a missing husband called Malory, a rival called Carver, even the names read like clues. The novel sets out to be the Big Sleep, reimagined as an Arthurian quest for photographic truth and delivered in the spare voice of American dirty realism.

That's how it sets out. But as soon as Walker disappears into cities of suspended time, of nostalgia, of déjà vu, it becomes clear whose footsteps we're really following. The true guiding spirit is Italo Calvino, especially the author of the brilliant Invisible Cities.

If any British writer can try on the mantle of Calvino, Dyer can. He has a poet's gift with metaphor as well as an ability to grasp ideas, hold them up to the light, pass them on.

But where Calvino studied folktales for years and was intensely solicitous of the forms he recycled. Dyer's choice has not been quite so happy. Perhaps his prose is just too open for the blind compulsions of film noir, but at times (especially in spoken dialogue and some rushed action sequences), Dyer seems simply uncomfortable with the form. The central dynamics—the hero's unfulfilled quest for Malory, his infatuation with Malory's wife—are structural cliches Dyer would never allow himself on the scale of a sentence or a paragraph.

A wonderful procession of observations, hitched to a two-stroke narrative engine: this is the danger for nearly half the book. But as soon as Dyer drops the thriller, pace returns and he is free to return to his real concerns—strangers and strange encounters in cities, the effects of travel, the impossibility of knowing others except through their images.

At times, The Search achieves for our current image-saturated indifference what Camus could do with an earlier era of boredom: isolate the condition without reproducing the effect. And as if to prove me wrong about his abilities with noir, Dyer pulls off some impressive filmic sequences. His hero escapes from his rival with scaffolding poles, is torn between a departing train and a developing photo, comes within yards of his quarry in a surging crowd.

All of which intimately compounds one's fears about the conventional novel. Perhaps we are going through an era when only nonfiction can accommodate the most restless talents, and when strong voices such as Dyer's need to speak in the first person rather than the third. Certainly, it's both the greatest strength and salient weakness of The Search that none of its fictional characters is as vocal, powerful or interesting as their author.

Alex Clark (review date 3 December 1993)

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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 more than ironic nonchalance.

From the bricolage of styles, a dominant motif emerges. The medieval romance, with its central figure cast adrift in an alien world, prone to senseless challenges, physical attack, mental breakdown and moral decay, provides the background for Dyer's exploration of human identity. At the outset, we believe ourselves to be in familiar territory. Our hero, Walker, falls for a glamorous and suitably mysterious woman, and, motivated by sexual desire, agrees to track down her husband and obtain his signature on some legal documents. The task is insignificant in itself, and the symbolic implications are clear. Completion of the task will bring sexual gratification and admission to a higher echelon of society. Walker sets off like the typical courtly knight: obedient, brave and faintly ridiculous. His absurdity is nearly derived from his updated, twentieth-century private eye's toughness. But as with Gawain, we just know he'll mess it up somehow. In case we haven't got the joke, Dyer names the absentee husband Malory and causes Walker to be nicknamed Lancelot.

Having set the scene, Dyer propels Walker through a quest landscape which draws on sources as diverse as David Lynch's small-town American paranoia and the psychological metaphors of Calvino's Invisible Cities and the Pilgrim's Progress. We pass through ghost towns, cities filled with the canned music of birds and trees, streets frozen in a split second, citadels which consist only of interiors, all with names like Ascension, Horizon, Despond and finally, Nemesis. For the most part, we believe ourselves to be in America, for the descriptions are punctuated with diners, motels and railroad tracks; as we move on, we feel equally at home in Italy or Eastern Europe. It is a landscape peppered with scattered clues, signs that point at once in the direction of closure—the journey must surely end—and to a state of continually deferred arrival. Ciphers, in the shape of tarot cards, maps that don't correspond to reality, messengers and mirrors, are used as much to make us aware of the outward constructedness of the novel as of the internal mechanism that pushes it on.

This has the makings of a clever trick, but with so much build-up, it is one that is necessarily difficult to pull off. It doesn't help that the homages which the author appears to pay to his influences—Calvino, Amis, Auster, Carver, Chandler—fall so far short of the originals. Drawing heavily on a fund of deadpan surrealism, Dyer's credit often appears to be dangerously low. This is perhaps because he fails to establish a successful imaginative bond between reader and protagonist. As Walker becomes more deeply involved in the fragile structure of the search, we become less involved with him. No authorial presence guides us through the complexities of the construction with humour or irony; the irony implicit in the juxtaposition of styles and the devil-may-care eclecticism demands too great an interpretive effort on the part of the reader. A fumbled resolution is only brought about by the introduction of film as an infallible narrator, as Malory is discovered, in image only, in the background of a still and Dyer tells us “the camera was a god, nothing escaped it.” He seems to feel that this is adequate comment on his view of the limited potential of novels. Walker finally finds himself unable to maintain the momentum required by the search and abandons it; it is at this point that one has most sympathy for him.

Martin Chalmers (review date 28 October 1994)

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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. All the rest were now “missing.” After the moments, minutes, of silence, the Last Post was played by a bugler in the playground outside.

It was impossible not to be moved by the solemnity of the occasion, and I don't recollect anyone joking about it or expressing any resentment. But who invented such ceremonies, who wrote the scripts?

Dyer doesn't pay much attention to these less material aspects of remembrance, except in the context of the building and unveiling of the Cenotaph in Whitehall. Nor does his essay contain much that is original on the war poets or the novelists and memoir writers. What The Missing of the Somme does best is to draw the reader's eyes back to the memorials themselves, rescuing them from present-day indifference.

At their simplest, in the village, in the town hall—in the school—the war memorials are crosses or slabs, collective headstones on which names could be carved “forever.” Even the more elaborate are often like chunky three-dimensional slabs, anchored stubbornly in streets and squares. While the historicist fancies of Victorian monuments were no longer possible, a combination of plainness and solidity indicated a muted, a virtually secular appeal to tradition.

On a large scale, the monuments can be quite oppressive (and here I differ from Dyer in my response). A case in point is the Royal Artillery Memorial at Hyde Park Corner in London. It does little to inspire a mood of melancholy thoughtfulness in me—Dyer points to the figures eternally weighed down by their equipment as examples of “a great flowering of British public sculpture.” I experience it as brutally intimidating, uncomfortably close to other monumental styles of the interwar years.

In truth, however, the more typical memorial is the statue of the ordinary—anonymous—soldier, posed as sacrifice or, less often, in combat. They are representatives of a citizen army, and no longer the imperial explorers and generals whose effigies proliferated in public places in the late Victorian and Edwardian years. As such, the statues of soldiers not only commemorate the dead of the Great War, but they mark that war as an irrevocable break with the past.

These figures in stone and metal also stand for the beginning of a slow erosion of the old hierarchies of authority and command. The process will only reach some kind of belated conclusion with the abolition of the hereditary elements of parliament and the redefinition—or removal—of the monarchy.

David Horspool (review date 11 November 1994)

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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 War. Dyer attempts to uncover as much meaning in the figurative sources as the literary. He “reads” photographs, interpreting them iconographically.” Ernest Brook's 1917 photograph of a soldier standing over a war grave, for example, is described as a “photograph of the future, of the future's view of the past.”

On a solitary visit to Caterpillar Valley cemetery on the Somme, which comes at the beginning of the book, Dyer describes the scene in hushed, almost elegiac tones. His words seem a conscious echo of descriptions of eerie dawns over the trenches: “Mist lies over the fields of the Somme. Trees are smudged shapes. Nothing moves.” There is an impression, whenever he writes about these visits, that Dyer's thoughts are linked to those of long-dead soldiers. As one of a laddish threesome travelling to Flanders graves, the tone of personal tranquillity disappears, but the connection with the War is reinforced. Dyer and his friends refer to their hire car as “the tank”; Dyer's “leadership” is questioned; they talk about “the big push” and sing “the Old Battalion.”

Dyer believes that the War's tragi-comic resonances have not died away for his generation. But back in London, on a drunken late-night visit to Charles Jagger's Royal Artillery Memorial at Hyde Park Corner, he admits that, apart from him, “no one else in the car even knew the memorial was there.” Through a conscious effort, Dyer's and later generations can reflect on the legacy of the First World War, but it no longer invades the subconscious as it once did.

If Dyer's cemetery visits are more personal than representative of a generation, it seems doubtful that his other reflections are even that. He has immersed himself in the literature of the First World War, but his loose, “meditative” approach, and the absence of structure in his book make it difficult for him to float free of it—in particular, the shadow of Paul Fussell's The Great War and Modern Memory hangs over him. Paradoxically, considering the small scale of Dyer's book as compared with Fussell's, The Missing of the Somme has a wider focus. Where Fussell concentrated chiefly on the literary aspect, Dyer touches as well on such things as family history and even his association of the Great War with the Gulf War. Dyer acknowledges the influence of Fussell's book, but he can not establish his independence from it. From his opening reflection on Laurence Binyon's “For the Fallen,” with its implication of “the anticipation of remembrance” (which reflects Fussell's discussion of Hardy's ironically forward-looking “Channel Firing”), to his discussion of football in the Great War as the “embodiment of fraternisation,” Dyer sends the reader back to his book's predecessor.

Dyer's inclusion of his reading of more recent novels about the War, such as Susan Hill's Strange Meeting and Sebastian Faulks's Birdsong, promises something more original. But even here, he adopts Fussell's approach, comparing the novels with the war memoirs on which they are based, and arguing how the successful ones can seem more real than their sources, which are often self-consciously literary.

Dyer's unwillingness to confine himself to writing about his own travels to the war graves, and his inability to free himself from the secondary literature when taking a wider view, shows how non-fiction writing about the War has reached the point where it has begun to turn in on itself. One can only take a reflective approach, as Dyer tries to, with a subject that still has a direct resonance. The volume of writing about the Great War, and of writing about writing, makes the only successful approach a historical or an imaginative one. The missing are no longer even in our collective memory; they are only part of our remembrance.

John Litweiler (review date 7 April 1996)

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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 while still young. It was an article of faith among them that the beauty of lyric art redeemed the personal tragedies of its artists.

Getz was almost unique in lasting as long as he did. Like too many of his contemporaries, he became a masterly musician, an alcoholic and a drug addict in his teens. In 1947, when Getz was 20, his solo in Woody Herman's “Early Autumn” made him a star. Shortly thereafter he set on the course he would follow the rest of his career, as a famous soloist and leader of his own combos; at the same time, he was living in squalor with his heroin-addicted wife and their neglected children.

The handsome Getz played beautiful, charming music, and in the right mood he was personally charming, able to manipulate people, especially young ladies, whenever he wanted something from them. Alcohol and dope had a vivid effect on him. Loaded, which he was most of the time, he veered from charming to arrogant and insulting, to violent or to sickeningly maudlin. It says a great deal about Monica, Getz's second wife, that she fell in love with him while he was in a hospital following a heroin overdose, and that even before they were married she was inventing lies to explain the bruises and injuries he inflicted on her. At the height of his popularity in the 1960s and '70s, he was regularly bingeing, beating Monica and his kids, threatening them with guns and trashing his house.

Instead of leaving him to his boozy misery, she made excuses for him, refused to press charges whenever she called the police for protection and flew to his side when he was on tour and wanted rescuing. She conned him into hospitalizations and therapy, none of which worked, before coming up with a supremely lunatic way to manage him. Monica's grand idea was to grind up Antabuse pills, a drug that causes severe reactions in alcoholics who persist in drinking, and sneak the stuff into Stan's food, which made him violently ill.

Inevitably, he learned about her attempts to control him and, after a few parting rampages, left Monica. That he sobered up in his last years, and even achieved a measure of emotional maturity while living with younger women, seemed to infuriate her: In 1990, the year before he died, she tried without success to fight his divorce from her all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The one consistency in Getz's life was his dedication to music. Maggin thoughtfully describes the changes in jazz during Getz's career and recounts all of his many recordings, often in detail with full credit to the gifted musicians who played in his bands. Some may criticize Stan Getz for lacking a discography, but even a bare-bones discography of this prolific artist would have made the book intolerably long. Altogether, it is one of the best of all jazz biographies.

Like 20th Century American poets and visual artists, jazz musicians have suffered a fearful toll in terms of early death and devastated lives. The causes ought to be obvious—most important among them virulent racism in American society and the unnatural circumstances jazz artists have had to endure just to survive. There still are some jazz lovers, most gray-haired by now, who sentimentalize the disabilities of their favorites, and Englishman Geoff Dyer wrote But Beautiful for just those fans. It contains portraits of seven jazzmen—most of them major figures, all of them leading emotionally crippled lives—that demonstrate his thesis that their deaths resulted from something inherent in the art form.

The book is an exercise in endless mopery. Dyer maintains that it's necessary to know the musicians’ lives to appreciate their music. It's true that jazz artists’ creations tend to reflect, probably unconsciously, their awareness of life; witness the terrific tension and brittle phrasing of dope fiend Art Pepper's alto saxophone solos, or the similar tension and extreme, perilous, linear developments in the mentally ill Bud Powell's piano works. Pepper's autobiography certainly reflects that tension better than Dyer's “poetic” prose.

As for Dyer's chapter on Powell, he addresses the pianist: “Your music encloses you, seals you off from me. … Somehow you made it to the piano stool, fingers drooling over the keyboard, dripping from it, like booze from a spilled glass, the tune falling to the floor in puddles. … Are you tired of me talking at you like this?” As the Bud Powell character said to the fawning jazz fan in a Terry Southern short story, “You're too hip, man.”

Lonely men dying in dark rooms fill the book; Dyer rubs your nose in gloom. His “insights” were cliches decades ago: The fiery Charles Mingus and the fiery music he composed and conducted; a sodden Lester Young staring out the window of his hotel room at Birdland, across the street; his description of Thelonious Monk: “He was a funny man, his music was funny …” (Would someone please point out what was so funny about the music of this immensely earnest artist?)

It's not that Dyer's portraits are wholly untrue, it's that he's just so darned maudlin, and his invented dialogue is absurd. For instance, he has Monk cussing like a '90s rock star. He devotes 34 pages to reflections on jazz history, especially his jazz-is-death thesis. There is a well-organized, if unoriginal, discussion of the music's social relevance, rising to the familiar “jazz today is too sophisticated to articulate the lived experience of the ghetto; hip-hop does that better.” Dyer's dying musicians to the contrary, there's still plenty of vital jazz being played today as well as a terrific wealth of historic jazz available, and there are plenty of people listening.

Phil Baker (review date 28 March 1997)

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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, Dyer comes dangerously close to actually doing some work; but he doesn't have the books he needs. And this is a blessing, because it enables him to leaf through his collection of Lawrence photographs instead, accumulated in those carefree days “before I got down to the serious business of putting off writing my study of him.”

Photographs of Lawrence play an important role, and Dyer's approach is idiosyncratically biographical. Out of Sheer Rage is another document of the contemporary turning away from the novel as a privileged form, and the increasing fascination of the para-textual. As time goes by, says Dyer, we drift away from the great texts to “journals, diaries, manuscripts, jottings,” and his book aspires to the condition of notes, “because for me Lawrence's prose was best when it came close to notes.” Dyer's Lawrence is not the Lawrence of the novels but the letters (subject to the usual conditions: these are “letters which I had longed to go on reading but which, now that I had to go on reading them, I longed to be shot of”).

No less characteristic is Dyer's feeling for Lawrence as “perhaps the first great DIYer in English literature.” “Lawrence the prophet of sexual revolution means almost nothing to us, to me, today: what I love is Lawrence the handyman.” Dyer also values Lawrence for his temper, which makes him not just an unwittingly comic writer but finally a lovable comic figure, and this perception lies at the heart of a book which becomes one of the most beautifully eccentric meditations on a major author since Parker Tyler's study of Proust and Charlie Chaplin.

Given this eccentricity, and the impressionistic nature of Dyer's criticism—for which he finds sanction and precedent in Lawrence—he inevitably finds himself at odds with the criticism produced in higher education. It isn't just John Carey's travesty of Nietzsche that disappoints him, or the point-missing pieties of Raymond Williams, but the whole contemporary scene represented by Peter Widdowson's Longman Critical Reader on Lawrence, with its commodification of Theory. Essays on “Alternatives to Logocentrism in D. H. Lawrence” and “Radical Indeterminacy: a post-modern Lawrence” drive Dyer into a Lawrentian rage: “How could these people with no feeling for literature have ended up teaching it?” he demands, “… this group of wankers huddled in a circle with their backs to the world” (and it would surely enrage him further to know that Widdowson is also the author of the modishly bracketed W(h)ither Literature). Finally he looks for the means to destroy Widdowson's “vile, filthy book” (which, incidentally, he has only borrowed): “it took a whole box of matches and some risk of personal injury before I succeeded in deconstructing it.”

Dyer's book is not all intellectually laddish comedy (although the account of his underprepared Scandinavian lecture on Lawrence is a small comic masterpiece: “So, um, we have three terms: English, Writer, and Man …”). Elsewhere he writes sensitively about the elusiveness of willed nostalgia, and varieties of presence and absence. Standing before a great author's house and trying to summon up nonexistent feelings, for example, or revisiting our own former houses: “We want houses to reciprocate our feelings of loss but, like the rectangle of unfaded paint where a favourite mirror once hung, they give us nothing to reflect upon … we want houses to be haunted. They never are.” There are the more conventional pleasures of travel writing, too, with evocative observations on living abroad, sharp pictures of the English and reportage from the Lawrence heritage industry. Above all, this is a beguiling and deceptively light autobiographical text of considerable acuteness and insight about the reader's relationship with the author and with literature itself, and about the compulsive byways of reading, writing and not-writing.

William Scammell (review date 19 April 1997)

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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 insights might congeal or the trail land him safely in some impenetrable maze or cul de sac. He smashes himself up on a moped. He reads all eight volumes of the monumental Cambridge edition of the letters in haphazard order, and decides against re-reading the canonical novels. He studies the photographs of DHL for clues, and launches into rhapsodic evocations of the master sitting under a bho tree, ‘happy as a cicada.’ He ruminates on the conditions necessary for him to undertake his research, finding catch-22s at every turn. ‘The ideal conditions for working were actually the worst possible conditions for working.’ He paraphrases Yeats, slightly inaccurately, and ransacks Rilke:

All the great men have let their lives get overgrown like an old path and have carried everything into their art. Their life is stunted like an organ they no longer use.

He goes on to reflect, quite rightly, that the Holmseian school of biography, which lays such stress on being there, recreating the subject's alleged thoughts and feelings, is pretentious, sub-Romantic nonsense. He lays into academic literary criticism in general, and post-modernist theory in particular, with hilarious savagery—a ‘group of wankers huddled in a circle, backs turned to the world so that no one would see them pulling each other off.’

In the midst of all this nay-saying, navel-gazing and strenuous inaction Dyer actually says many acute things about Lawrence's genius [in his novel Out of Sheer Rage], and recreates beautifully the mixture of excitement and tedium that attends the act of reading and appreciation. The Rainbow, for example,

remained a book which I had no desire to re-read; as soon as I had finished re-reading The Rainbow it reverted to being what it was before I re-read it: a book which I had read and which I had no desire to re-read. It was a closed book: even when it was open and being re-read it was somehow still a closed book. As for Women in Love, I read it in my teens and, as far as I am concerned, it can stay read.

He's also very funny about the whole idea of literary pilgrimages, and the way in which Heritage now dogs our every step:

I had driven there, to the Lawrence country—north of Shakespeare's country, south of the Bronte country, bang in the middle of motorway country—from Gloucestershire (Dyer country) in December. Two hours of motorway weather: Contratlow Showers, Lanes Merge Squall, Delays Possible Drizzle. For several miles, just south of Birmingham, signs warned that there was ‘No Hard Shoulder.’ This seemed inaccurate: there were six lanes of hard shoulder but no motorway. Cars were triple-parked in both directions. I'd hoped there might be time to stop off at Ikea … but with the traffic jammed solid that looked increasingly unlikely. Probably the hold-up was caused by people heading to and from Ikea. Ikea had become so successful that, while still functioning as a retail outlet, it was also a museum. People visited these furniture hypermarkets as theme parks devoted to the Ikea Experience just as they would sample the Industrial Experience at Ironbridge, or anything else from the Experiential repertory of Heritage Britain. The difference was that at Ikea you could buy the experience as it was happening, before it became history: you could experience history as it was being made, take it home in flatpacks and install it yourself. Faced with the choice I was half-tempted to abandon the Lawrence Experience in favour of the Ikea Experience.

At one point in his peregrinations he buys a flat in Oxford, ‘the one place on earth where … it is physically impossible to write a book about Lawrence.’ At others he has breakdowns, erotic fantasies, a pertinent digression—since Lawrence did both—on painting versus writing, a riff on bodily ailments, à la Martin Amis, and a long-running battle, like his hero, with

my own, my native land … Ah yes, hating England from abroad was one thing but it didn't compare with the real thing, hating it while you were there. It was worth coming home for.

Nothing could be less like the ponderous three-decker Lawrence biography now in progress, whose second volume I reviewed in these pages not long ago. I enjoyed this uncategorisable minor masterpiece so much that I swallowed it in two or three hours and wanted to send the author a telegram saying Hooray! when I'd finished it. Telegrams are no longer with us, and a fax wouldn't be the same thing at all, so I had to content myself, like the Cheshire cat, with my own invisible smiles.

Various precedents and contemporaries come to mind as one reads—Nicholson Baker, Joseph Heller, Bruce Chatwin, Flaubert's Parrot, Enemies of Promise, among others—but the resemblances are fleeting and assimilated into a wholly original book. There's just one slip in an otherwise immaculate performance, and that's Dyer's inexplicable liking for a patch of purple prose Lawrence wrote in a letter to Ottoline Morell about England and nature. He finds Blake, Turner and Constable in this self-conscious piece of My-Englandry. I find it absolutely phoney, sopping wet with aestheticism and self-love, like the worst of early Joyce, and intolerably high-falutin.’

Still, Lawrence inspires nothing if not love, loathing, and interminable quarrels among his readers about What Precisely and If and Perhaps and But.

Andy Beckett (review date 6 June 1997)

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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. Forgetting about perfect residences. Dyer flits off with his “almost wife,” Laura, to a friend's house on a Greek island. He gets no work done on Lawrence—indecision about whether to take a heavy volume of the Complete Poems quite exhausts him—but he does race a moped through the hot, bright air. Then he and Laura smack into a wall. Grazed and battered, they retreat to her flat in Rome. It is even hotter; Dyer flops around with his bad back, thinking vivid writer's thoughts about their tap water: “warm, as the pipes climbed down the walls into the apartment, hot as they moved over the sun-baked roof … [then] as they descended on the other side, in shadow, becoming cooler, and then cold, lovely black-cold, as they disappeared below ground …”

Dyer adores Italy, next to “the ruination that is contemporary England.” From his reading of Lawrence's letters, which he is now, erratically, beginning, he fancies that his notional subject did, too. Dyer has finally found a way to write the biography: as his own autobiography.

Narcissism opens up some new angles. Dyer's fretful search for the perfect spot to be restless in leads him to Lawrence's own impatience with, and simultaneous desire for perfect domesticity. Dyer picks out a few grand Lawrence sentences about meeting a “tired Englishman from Streatham” in the Alps, about to return to his clerk's job and suburb. “Thank God I need not go home,” declares Lawrence; Dyer has already revealed the author's expertise at carpentry.

Dyer's choice of Lawrence's best writings is also sly. He ignores the melodramatic cascades of Lady Chatterley and the like, in favour of Sea and Sardinia, a few weeks’ travel writing of “note-like immediacy.” That impressionistic quality is also sought here by Dyer—with all its attendant conveniences, such as not having to do much research—but he makes a good case, producing authorial scraps of skeletal potency. “The land is here,” Lawrence wrote on arriving in Australia. “Sky high and blue and new, as if no one had ever taken a breath from it; and the air is new, strong, fresh as silver …”

In homage, Dyer begins to venture outdoors. He trails Lawrence to his coal-dark house in the Midlands, then Italy, Mexico and New Mexico. Dyer's back still hurts, his knees are weak and his note-taking unreliable, but the momentum of a more muscular quest develops. There are long drives, some drugs, and wind-whipped infinities of American desert. You can imagine Dyer writing for GQ between books. For a few pages he even rails against the airlessness he sees in modern literary criticism, his own earlier trickery apparently quite forgotten. Near the end he and Laura settle for a moment on Lawrence's creaking porch in Taos, pretending to be the author and his wife, Frieda. The small epiphany is lovely, unforced. It makes you wonder about a proper Dyer biography.

Candia McWilliam (review date 17 April 1998)

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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 something to do with the literalness of his prose. You don't worry that a metaphor or a euphemism or a spurt of fine writing is going to interpose itself between ourselves and the two lucid privacies he exposes in his descriptions of sex, of which there is a great deal is this new book.

Luke lives in Paris, lonely in a scuzzy flat. He makes friends with Alex, whose perspective the book explicitly invites us to share. The two are English, homesick and seeking love, which they find with, respectively, Nicole and Sara (or Sahra, as she turns out to be). The irresistible quality of the book steals up, like sun through a plain curtain, as the two couples learn about one another through work, domesticity, habits, jokes and a rather nicely low-key discriminating use of drugs.

France and Paris itself are as much givens as the youth that irradiates the four. The effect is a lightness that gives to Dyer's novel a blessed untouristic quality, so that the reader feels France just as he feels what it was to be young. The note of elegy in each case would not, I think, be lost on a reader very much younger than I am.

Dyer has taken two risks: he wishes to evoke almost utter virtue, which he invests very considerably in Nicole, and he riddles the book with deadpan jokes (from the men, notably Luke) and a certain ditsiness (peculiar to Nicole, who has, for example, broken the lid of her record player by making cheese in it). The crucial scene concerns the wounding of a stag in the snow, an emblem daringly theological. It comes off, emphasising in its almost heraldic schematicness the wonderful foolish categorical nature of youth.

The jokes work too, even, or perhaps especially, the feeble ones:

“‘What about you, Nicole?’ said Sara. ‘What are some of the thousands of unattractive qualities in a man?’

‘Men with hubbies.’

Hubbies?’

‘Have I got the word wrong?’

‘Possibly. It depends.’

‘You know, like something he does all the time. Like making aeroplanes or collecting stamps, or—’”

We do say such things all the time, and it takes a writer as clear as this to show us what we are up to and as charming as this to make us able to sit still and face the mischief we make.

David Irvine (review date 25 April 1998)

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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 named Spunk. And fun and larks were had by all.

Until, that is, we are given a glimpse of Luke eight years after these halcyon days. When Luke had arrived in Paris, it had been with the intention of writing a novel about his time there. This ambition quickly disappears as a hedonistic striving for some unknown goal takes over. ‘He fell for the easy part of the Rimbaud myth,’ Alex tells us, ‘the prolonged and systematic derangement of the senses, but—like many before him—he had none of the discipline or drive of the genuine artist and ended up with nothing to show for it, except what he'd done to himself.’ Eight years on, Luke ‘was still aching after a possible future, some yet-to-be-achieved ideal, some crowning moment of happiness.’ The novel is at its most interesting as it examines the character of the modern nihilist, an intelligent man who fails to discover his purpose or ideal.

The reader may experience some difficulty with the narrative voice. We learn early on that Alex is the narrator. Having noted Luke's failure to write the story, Alex writes, ‘it's fallen to me to tell his story, or at least the part of it with which I am familiar.’ Yet the narrator soon becomes omniscient. At times, however, the narrative voice reverts to Alex. It becomes unclear whether we are to attribute certain passages of philosophical reverie to Alex or to the author. Perhaps our perspective is supposed to be blurred, but it is difficult to discern the purpose of this confusion.

Whoever is doing the narrating, the narrative suffers from a lack of ironic distance. The story is related with a straight face, almost earnestly. The reader is expected to empathise with the concerns, the japes, the buoyant dialogue, the fashion of the world of these couples, unreflectingly. The lack of narratorial detachment may jar with the reader, and hinders the author in the effort to shift from the individual to the general and to elucidate fully his themes: love, friendship, hedonism, nihilism.

Nonetheless Dyer is a deft storyteller. Despite Alex's early claim that his novel is not a story, that ‘whatever makes events into a story is entirely missing from what follows,’ Dyer has written a rattling good tale which will retain the reader's interest and curiosity throughout.

Richard Eder (review date 6 May 1998)

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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.” He kept switching back and forth between two computer files, both of which were empty.

Finally, he decided to concentrate on not writing about Lawrence. Immediately, he shifted the locus of indecision to deciding where he was going not to write it. We get a succession of moves and a close reasoning on why they were necessary and impossible.

Paris, for instance, was right as long as it seemed he would have to leave; once it seemed he could stay, it was wrong. A Greek island, whose peacefulness made it a perfect place to write, was, for that reason, an impossible place to write; accordingly, he raced around on a moped with his long-suffering girlfriend, Laura, riding behind and smashed them both into a wall. He bought a place in Oxford because in Rome he had hankered for British telly; once installed, he not only did not watch it but hankered for Rome.

At this point in a review that Dyer has all but spooked me into not writing, the reader may suspect that Out of Sheer Rage is about something other than Lawrence or Not Lawrence. (In fact, we get a fair amount of Lawrence, particularly his nervous irritability.)

Its real point is Dyer's round-about, tricky, discursive and often witty ramblings on what it means to make a work of art or even an artistic statement in a postmodern culture. The artist “I” of the aborted novel, and even the essayist “I” of the perpetually distracted Lawrence study, are subverted by a twitchy, self-absorbed mini-ego for whom the production of art and scholarship, like jogging, figures as an exercise that arrives nowhere but may make you feel better.

In the last of a succession of riffs and asides, he suggests, for example, that it is advisable to attempt something like the Lawrence project because it makes slacking off—in this case listening to CDs—guiltily enjoyable. Otherwise they cloy. Frequently, he says, he was tempted to give up the project but asked himself what he would do afterward.

Dyer arranges such thought around an amiable series of travels, encounters and reflections, each of which more or less sabotages itself. He does, indeed, admire Lawrence, though he doesn't much care for his fiction; it is his letters, notebooks and travel pieces that he most admires. He wanted to touch not the art but the artist—a highbrow version of the celebrity cult—and he travels to track him. In Taos, he finds a broom on the porch of the house where Lawrence lived; he grabs it and sweeps. For him, sweeping is better than reading “Women in Love” and “The Rainbow” combined.

Dyer is a fine writer, and sometimes the writing digresses from his paradoxes. He invokes the stagnant griminess of Lawrence's Midlands, where outdoors feels as cramped as indoors. In the shouted conversations between marketplace stalls in Sicily, he notes the roots of opera (addressing at a distance) and its contemporary version in the addiction to the cell phone. Envying painters their greater exposure to physical reality, he remarks that “the writer's office or study will increasingly resemble the customer service desk of an ailing business. The artist's studio, though, is what it has always been: an erotic space.”

As for the paradoxes, they flutter bravely for a while and lose altitude. A book about the impossibility of writing a book has a perilous quality, rather like sawing at the branch on which you are—or the reader is—sitting; especially when it grows out too long.

David Thomson (review date 14 June 1998)

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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 white-trash Dorian Gray air to him, and I'd guess that that was the allure many Downbeat readers voted for. And Baker's music, long before heroin or the loss of his teeth, was restricted, plodding, slow and like the last gasp of a consumptive. Still, the playing was dainty, terse and lyrical next to his stunned singing. There, above all, you heard his empty mind.

Writing about jazz, or music of any kind, may be as difficult as writing gets, but it's an entertaining problem. Here's Bart Schneider on the comeback of that fabled trumpeter of yesteryear, his main character in Blue Bossa, Ronnie Reboulet: “Ronnie walks tentatively through the theme. The trumpet is a thin man strolling up a trail with a trusty stick. He stumbles here, goes up the wrong fork there, and has to back his way down. No fancy stops yet, no switchbacks. Just a walking man telling a warm story with enough quick, pop laughs to punctuate the tale so that any dumb fool, wondering if he's pissed away his life, feels he has a compatriot on the stage, walking a deceptively simple trumpet line up the trail.”

And here's Geoff Dyer, in But Beautiful, imagining, inventing the feeling of one of the lovers of that great sorrowful beauty, Baker, his brow like a cloud, who also played trumpet:

It was listening to him like this, lying with her legs apart … that she understood, quite suddenly and for no reason the source of the tenderness in his playing: he could only play with tenderness in his playing: he could only play with tenderness because he'd never known real tenderness in his life. Everything he played was a guess. And lying here now, noticing the valleys and the dunes formed in the creased sheets, damp with a light dew of sweat, she realized how wrong she had been to think that he played for no one but himself: he didn't even play for himself—he just played.

This isn't a contest. I admire both passages, and yet neither quite settles for me the unique, perilous sound of Baker, somewhere between arty self-pity and halting seduction. Baker played like a child reading Hemingway aloud—but how do we find any metaphor that contains Clifford Brown?

Schneider has skills enough to write more novels—and I'm sure he'll take more risks, and look deeper, as he gains confidence. As for Dyer, an Englishman, he is already a author, too little known in this country. He is a novelist, the author of a book about John Berger and a very comic, yet entirely serious lament about the difficulty of writing a book about D. H. Lawrence. All that and But Beautiful, which may be the best book ever written about jazz, the most humane and refined response to a music that famously supports incoherence and platitude.

Dyer's collection of essays is altogether larger, more penetrating and very brave. He admits he's writing about Chet Baker, though he claims very little in the way of research or encounter and he tells us early on that what he's writing is more imaginative criticism or fiction than reportage. He doesn't delve deeply into the lives of the jazz men he writes about. He wants to express what they mean to him, and he has worked from records and from photographs; indeed, he says he “relied more on photographs than on written sources.” His piece on Baker is only 15 pages, and it's shorter than other ruminations on Lester Young, Bud Powell, Charlie Mingus, Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk.

Whereas Ronnie Reboulet found something akin to peace in a comeback and in Montreal, Dyer's Baker is much closer to some insoluble abyss. Very near death, in a bathroom in an Amsterdam hotel, he looks in the mirror and sees only the snowy expanse of towels, which is some sort of metaphor for heroin and the bleak blank heartbeat of his music. But both Dyer and Schneider sense a man ready to vanish or erase himself—they know the message in “Let's Get Lost,” the title of Bruce Weber's cult-making and morbidly erotic documentary movie on Baker and the work that enshrined the guy as much as the photographs and the music.

Yet his plaintive look and his whiteness brought him sympathy and praise beyond his due. Dyer says that Baker “never played the blues. Even if he played blues, it wasn't really the blues because he had no need of the fellowship, the religion, the blues implied. The blues was a promise he could never keep.”

At first, I wasn't quite sure what Dyer meant by that—for, in fact, Baker cast a bluesy attitude over just about everything he played. But the blues are cultural, racial to a degree; they bespeak a total sense of history and politics. And Baker was too resolutely solitary to partake of it—his blues fade to white, the pallor of heroin.

Dyer appreciates not just the melancholy but the unwholesomeness of the attitude—whereas Schneider is merely loyal to it. He doesn't have the point of view to let us feel the damage Reboulet does in life, just as he fails to admit the self-pity or the monotony in Baker's music. A jazz man, for Schneider, is a holy figure.

Of course, it's a cliche securely founded in the realities of the road, of one-night stands for not much money, of the need to get “free” enough to improvise, that the jazz man lives near the edge—that he cracks up, dies young, looking so much more than his true age, leaving chaos behind him. He can be treated as the classic outcast or outlaw type, stepping out of disarray for the beautiful clarity of this or that solo. So wasn't he entitled to be bluesy?

Well, sure, but if you listen to, say, Parker, there's hardly a tremor of self-pity. He was so energized, so exuberant, so fast, so proud, happy and as torrential as Mozart. Dying young and being a mess are no defense, they do not intrude upon the intricacy, the passion and the many moods of great music. The trumpet in Baker's time included the dynamism, the gaiety, the restless, driving force and exhilaration of Lee Morgan, Fats Navarro, Clifford Brown and Kenny Dorham, among others, whose music dwarfs Baker's. In other words, it was part of the community of the blues, or of the great classical orchestra, that you played fast and slow, blue and hot, night by night. It did not detract from the blues, or blue as a feeling, to note that jazz is not just the deathly glow of Chet Baker (or Ronnie Reboulet), it is the thoroughly organized profusion of Parker, Ellington, Armstrong, Coltrane, Tatum and Bud Powell.

Steven G. Kellman (review date Summer 1998)

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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 a solidity and continuity that the innovative novelist withheld from her own fictional creations. Readers of popular lives continue to turn pages with undiminished faith in the integrity of the essential self. And scholars continue to amass and arrange information undeterred by the taint of subjectivity. Most life-writing throughout the century has ignored the Gnostic revelation, from Marcel Proust and Franz Kafka, that character is fluid and elusive—that the quest to know another is always sabotaged by the slipperiness of the other and the clumsiness of the quester.

In Jean-Paul Sartre's first novel, Nausea (1938), Antoine Roquentin spends three abstemious years researching the life of the obscure nineteenth-century Marquis de Rollebon. His problem is not a dearth of data. “On the contrary,” he complains, “I almost have too much of them. What is missing in all this testimony is stability, consistency.” Abandoning his biographical project, Roquentin resolves at the end to compose a novel, probably one that, precisely because of its stability and consistency, no modernist would write.

But design is deadly in nonfiction; we murder to biographize. In Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire (1962), Charles Kinbote quite likely kills John Shade, the poet whose life he appropriates as subject for his prose, and Nabokov's biographical fiction The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941) concedes that no real life is ever captured—real or alive—in a book. Even after the death of Orson Welle's Charles Foster Kane, “Rosebud” frustrates Jerry Thompson, the magazine reporter, in his attempt to assemble all the pieces of the enigmatic tycoon's jigsaw puzzle. “I don't think any word can explain a man's life,” concludes Thomson.

That a person's life cannot be reduced to any word—or, rather, to any words, even several hundred thousand of them—is the burden of much recent biography. Acknowledging the impossibility of life-writing, several metabiographies have adopted the futility of the biographical project as their very theme. In 1934, frustrated in his efforts to track down the echt Frederick Rolfe—the late-Victorian eccentric known as Baron Corvo—A. J. A. Symons produced The Quest for Corvo, a book that is as much about his unsuccessful venture as it is about its subject; the subtitle, An Experiment in Biography, foregrounds the book's failure. In 1988, after a court injunction denied Ian Hamilton use of unpublished texts by the Greta Garbo of American novelists, he changed the title of his work in progress—which is largely about why the work made so little progress—from J. D. Salinger: A Writing Life to In Search of J. D. Salinger. In 1983, when Maximilian Schell attempted to make a documentary about Marlene Dietrich, the octogenarian actress refused to cooperate. “I've been photographed to death,” she tells Schell, through the door she slammed in his face. Marlene is an obstructed documentary, a film that records its director's failure to catch his subject on camera and in film. “The truth about Marlene will not be found,” Schell confesses, echoing the exasperation common to many recent metabiographers, for whom the definite article in the title of Boswell's portrait of Johnson is hopelessly naive. …

By contrast, Geoff Dyer's Out of Sheer Rage is a categorical tease and a manic meditation on the nature of biography and on human nature, blithely razzing readers who seek a conventional reconstruction of the life of D. H. Lawrence. Dyer derives his title from comments Lawrence made about a book he wrote on Thomas Hardy in 1936: “Out of sheer rage I've begun my book on Thomas Hardy I am afraid—queer stuff—but not bad.” In Thomas Hardy, Lawrence strays far from the madding crowd of sober Hardy scholars, and Dyer's Out of Sheer Rage is most Laurentian when most tendentious. Dyer's subtitle promises that he will be Wrestling with D. H. Lawrence, but neither is pinned.

Dyer explains that he intended to produce “a sober academic study of D. H. Lawrence” as homage to the writer who inspired him to write. But Out of Sheer Rage is to a sober academic study what Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is to a scholarly treatise on the tourist and convention industry in Nevada. Dyer's petulant persona expresses fear and loathing for academic writing (“it kills everything it touches”), as well as for much else, including seafood, children, and Greeks. About the illustrious university town in which he perversely chooses to reside, Dyer rants that “Oxford has the highest concentration of dull-witted, stupid, narrow-minded people anywhere in the British Isles.” Eastwood, Lawrence's birthplace, “is an ugly little town in an ugly little country,” and about his New Mexican resting place, Dyer declares, “There were more terrible artists living in Taos than anywhere else on earth.” Other locations that the author visits, sometimes in a desultory effort to retrace Lawrence's footsteps, include Paris, Rome, Greece, Taormina, and Oaxaca.

The question of where to live perplexes Dyer, but the question of how to live animates his prose, which is less about Lawrence than about Dyer, and less about either than about living life deliberately. Out of Sheer Rage bears a family resemblance to other deflected biographies, including Saul Bellow, Drumlin Woodchuck, Mark Harris's comic account of his anxious attempts to befriend and biographize Saul Bellow, and U and I: A True Story, Nicholson Baker's record of his obsession with John Updike. But in its passions and piques, Dyer's volume of impertinencies—which “aspires to the condition of notes” because, he explains, “Lawrence's prose is at its best when it comes closest to notes”—is more faithful to the Laurentian spirit than a methodical report on the novelist's life could ever have been.

In analogy with Stanislavskyan actors’ immersion in their stage roles, Dyer coins the term “method criticism” to describe his manner of conjuring up Lawrence. He admits, even boasts, that he has not read all of Lawrence's novels and has no desire to reread those he has—not merely because he much prefers the letters and the nonfictional Sea and Sardinia, Studies in Classic American Literature, and Twilight in Italy. In his passionate irascibility, the itinerant Dyer aspires not merely to study Lawrence but to stimulate him. Out of Sheer Rage is worthy of its subject precisely because it is so sassy.

Ultimately, though, the target of this bitter-sweet mock-biography that mocks both biographer and biographee is something even larger than D. H. Lawrence. In its final pages, Dyer confides that “the real subject of this book, the one that writing it was an attempt to evade, is despair.” Beneath the frantic bluster is utter despondency. Suffering from severe depression, from what he calls “this rheumatism of the will, this inability to see anything through,” Dyer sees his Lawrence project as a reason and a means to keep living. And like the Sisyphus of Albert Camus, whom Dyer seems to admire as much as he does Lawrence, each of us must push a boulder, take up cheerfully a pointless task that reconciles us to the absurd. “One way or another we all have to write our studies of D. H. Lawrence,” writes Dyer at the end of his book. “Even if they will never be published, even if we will never complete them, even if all we are left with after years and years of effort is an unfinished, unfinishable record of how we failed to live up to our own earlier ambitions, still we all have to try to make some progress with our books about D. H. Lawrence.”

“The intellect of man is forced to choose,” wrote Yeats, “Perfection of the life, or of the work.” In truth, neither is possible. The lessons of the masters, of those who write or pose for biography, is that life-writing is as flawed as life, but just as compelling.

Rosellen Brown (review date 14–28 June 1999)

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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, Out of Sheer Rage is nothing if not idiosyncratic, a rant in homage to a ranter, to a writer who shares with Dyer and with a few others like Thomas Bernhard “the same wild misanthropy, the same loathing of their country and countrymen … the same abrupt surges and reversals of intent. …” The adjectives he uses for Lawrence describe his own perpetual state of petty aggravation: “self-generating exasperation,” “spiteful,” “in a hell of a temper,” and onward in a march of choler that he licks and strokes with the complacency of a cat cleaning itself in the sun. “I'm currently in a hyper-volatile condition, but at some point there must come an exhaustion which is very like peace,” he says. “I'll be serene as a windless afternoon—and I got this idea, sort of, from Lawrence.”

Dyer finds justification for this self-indulgence in his reading of the relationship between the man and his writing, “the gravitational pull of his work, which is always … away from the work, back toward the circumstances of its composition, toward the man and his sensations.” Maybe yes, maybe no, but his belief that the “truth” about his idol resides elsewhere than in the writing generates an effective and amusing volume whose criticism and analysis are rendered indirectly, with only the kindest intent. Lawrence's books themselves have so ceased to interest Dyer that he dithers around for pages trying to decide whether he ought to pack the inconveniently heavy Collected Poems when, in search of concentration, he and his girlfriend go off to Greece where yet again—surprise—he fails to come to grips with his subject. Ditto for his voyages to Taormina and Rome and Oxford and Taos.

But Dyer's own words send up a warning sign. He's lazy, he admits right off. What better fate than “to live in England and watch telly?” (Corroborating testimony from Lawrence is cited, minus the telly.) He's overflowing with opinions delivered with great brio and certainty. One of them is that although “good, even great, novels continue to be written … the moment of the form's historical urgency has passed.” The feeling Lawrence gives of “expanded” potentialities “is now wholly absent from our reading of contemporary novels.” “One gets so weary watching authors’ sensations and thoughts get novelized, set into the concrete of fiction, that perhaps it is best to avoid the novel as a medium of expression.” Milan Kundera manages to remain interesting—note the contradiction here—because he utilizes the “freedom of composition” of pre-19th-century realism to create “work in which the bridges and the filler have no reason to be and in which the novelist would never be forced—for the sake of form and its dictates—to stray by even a single line from what he cares about, what fascinates him.”

Dyer refers to “character and situation” as “distractions.” Sounds to me like the author's sensations novelized right before our eyes, but okay, let that be. His sensations floated a whole book of delightfully honest eccentricity. (Out of Sheer Rage was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award.)

Having thus prepared us for a somewhat cynical, even narcissistic, view of the form, Dyer now sets before us his third novel, Paris Trance. (The first two are unavailable in this country.) He succeeded in merrily breaking the rules in his unclassifiable grapple with Lawrence; this time he challenges the expectations we bring to the novel, adhering to some, trashing others, and, like an actor who always plays himself no matter the demands of his role, not bothering to transform his voice.

The opinionated first person of Rage appears here sometimes as the narrator Alex, a friend of quasi-protagonist Luke, and sometimes simply as an omniscient voice (though since Alex seems to know more than a friend actually could, it's hard to find a rationale for the switch). Dyer appears to disdain conventions like consistency of point of view until they serve his purposes, when he reinstates them. Characters deliver or consider diverting set pieces on films, male female relations and English television, whether they would realistically think such things or not.

A young woman seated in an executive's office, for example, eyes the photograph on his desk and is “surprised by how intensely she disliked this picture. It wasn't the people in the photo she disliked, it was the executive convention of having such a picture on your desk. The daily presence of the photograph, its sheer obviousness, probably meant that the executive-husband became oblivious to it. Pictures like that didn't help you to remember people, they helped you to forget them, and having one on your desk like this was a conventionally coded declaration of status: I am in a position to have framed snaps of my wife and children on my desk. And this advertisement, she suspected, was also a come-on. I have a wife and kids, the picture declared, therefore I do not try to sleep with my secretary or colleagues. But that statement somehow enhanced the chances of his being able to contradict it, to prove it wrong. By comparison the torn centerfolds, the oil-smeared nudes that mechanics stuck up on their workshop walls were images of felicity and integrity, faithfulness.”

The whole scene is self-serving: The author speaks, the character moves her lips. Her personality hardly lends itself to the thoughts she expresses. Dyer's lack of narrative discipline is a refusal to abide by what he has called an irritating and outdated game. This reader, who happens to like novels—who even likes some that play fast and loose with certain givens—found it less charming than infuriating to encounter laxness and a contempt for craft tacitly erected into principle.

The story, such as it is, begins with the arrival in Paris of Luke, a young Englishman whose intention is to write a book, specifically a novel he just can't seem to get into (sound familiar?). Initially miserable, with neither work nor friends to secure him, he quickly finds his little circle; he bobs like a cork on the tides, will-less, without ambition or motivation but in urgent touch with the esthetic of his generation: Endless finely observed shticks on movie and TV conventions substitute for Luke's psychological center. The bulk of the book, his love affair with a young woman from Belgrade, Nicole, parallels sometime-narrator Alex's affair with a multilingual interpreter, Sahra.

For those readers who could not get enough Geoff Dyer in his Desperately Seeking Lawrence phase (check out amazon.com and you'll find quite a few), here he is, as contrarian and curmudgeonly as ever—only, in inconsistent fictional guise, made a bit more vulnerable by his love for Nicole. She and Luke each possess some characteristics the other regrets, but they conduct a passionate and satisfying affair. While Luke casually leads Nicole and Sahra into drugs as a sport, sex is their true recreation—some of its particulars lifted straight from Out of Sheer Rage. Aimless as ever, Luke is happier than he has ever been. He doesn't even have to think about that damn book he isn't writing.

Then, with very little preparation or what might be called outdated character development, Alex leaps into the future to show Luke as a husk of his old self, living alone in London, depressed, reclusive, barely energetic enough to stare at the TV set in his apartment. Alex and Sahra have quite conventionally married and had a child; Nicole, still in Paris, also has a child. Only Luke is bereft, having self-destructed. The floating narrator explicates in a sudden paragraph of comprehension: “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.” And so on.

How Luke managed to turn present happiness into the unrememberable past, how he “ruined his whole life,” is never made clear, but Alex takes a stab at understanding: “In Luke's case, something took him away from the light, from what he most wanted and loved.” Are we in the parched existential atmosphere that lent mystery to The Stranger? (Dyer likes to quote Camus as a strand braided into his own prose, with quotation marks.) And what are we to make of the fact that parts of the book are direct quotes from Hemingway's Fiesta, a.k.a. The Sun Also Rises, or that Nicole is the name of Fitzgerald's creation in Tender Is the Night?

Whatever a reader wishes to make of all this paraphernalia, the desire to use it is a key to the problem with Paris Trance. Dyer is an intellectual passionately enamored of pop culture, a writer with ideas in love with an ideal of drift and a resistance to high seriousness. He is a working class bloke even while his Oxford education asserts itself on every page, a prose Nigel Kennedy. There is a complex philosophical principle at work in Luke, but Dyer has decided, perversely, to indicate its existence without taking the trouble to flesh it out and make it emotionally coherent. In fact—back to where we started—he disdains the very form of the novel for making such demands, however flexibly.

To be sure, Paris Trance has a certain hypnotic quality. The very dailiness and acutely observed detail of these lives has all the actuality of reality taken down by dictation. But neither that nor Dyer's clever diatribes is enough to make persuasive fiction. Dyer begs too much indulgence. Respect them or not, novels—as Lawrence, who struggled with them, could have told him—are harder than that.

Jonathan Levi (review date 17 June 1999)

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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 between the Bastille (once a prison, now an opera house) and Pere Lachaise (once a cemetery, now a memorial to Jim Morrison), where he finds a mindless job (in a warehouse), a best friend (another young Englishman, named Alex) and a stunning girlfriend (the Yugoslav Nicole).

Alex, as narrator, records Luke's wanderings with the faithfulness of a Sancho Panza, while Luke and Nicole connect with an insouciant mixture of romance and realism that is nothing if not Parisian. Less adept, Alex has more trouble finding companionship. But eventually he conjures up enough drunken courage to capture the American Sahra (smart beyond Alex's wildest dreams), by nudging colored magnetic letters on the fridge door into the scrabbled, “I WANTO GO BED WIV U.”

Parties, dinners, dancing, ecstasy (both Francophilic and pharmaceutical) follow. The couples drive into the French countryside, smoke pot, snort coke and walk out into the snow. Coming upon a deer caught in a trap, horror turns to hysterics. In response, the deer breaks free, abandoning its hoof in the trap, “leaving ghastly pink holes where it went—and that was the most terrible thing of all,” Alex contemplates, “to have it demonstrated so plainly that mutilation and pain were not the worst things that could be suffered, that it would endure these in order to evade whatever was represented by the four humans who watched it disappear.”

A year passes, then another. But time, like a steel trap, allows these two couples only a short trance of indecision between university and their 30s. And it is the impulsive Luke, as beautiful as Peter Pan, who finally hobbles away from the three other humans. “I think now that certain destinies are the opposite of manifest,” Alex muses, years later, thinking back on his lost friend, “ingrown, let's say. Hidden, rarely revealing themselves, probably not even felt as a force, they work like the process or instinct that urges a seed in the soil in the direction of the light: as strong, silent and invisible—as imperceptible—as that. … As if the seed's impulse toward the light becomes warped or damaged so that it takes itself deeper and deeper into the soil. … Eventually the urge toward the light withers because, as if through the workings of some last-ditch, built-in-fail-safe, only by ceasing to struggle can it hope to survive. At some very late stage it senses that it is its longings which have condemned it. And so it remains where it is, a faint pulse of life in the darkness, directionless, not moving.”

Beckett might have said it shorter, but hardly better.

James Sallis (review date 27 June 1999)

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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 center. Those who cannot create must live the life cut for them by others, like aliens slowly learning to pass as human but never quite getting it right.

Here are Luke and Nicole talking to each an:

“It's easy isn't it, happiness?’

“It's all in the lubrication.”

But of course it's not. Lying beside her early on in their affair, Luke muses: “There will come a time … when I will look back on this night, when I will lie in another bed, when happiness will have come to seem an impossibility, and I will remember this night, remember how happy I was, and I will remember how, even when I was in the midst of my happiness, I could feel a time when it would be gone.”

In many passages about Luke, waste is the key: “Life is there to be wasted,” “There is nothing in life more pleasurable than destroying things,” “the potential for wasting the talents we are given,” “he's a complete waster.” And so, with practice, comes Luke's fall, as friend and narrator Alex, and ourselves as readers, sadly look on.

Just as those aliens I conjured up earlier might have moved like hermit crabs into human shells, the characters of Paris Trance inhabit the shells of previous expatriate novels. The name Nicole, of course, directs us toward Fitzgerald's Tender Is the Night. A coda acknowledges Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, and anyone wondering at Luke Barnes's fall would do well to consider his near-namesake from that same novel.

It is, finally, the ache that's left here, an ache existing from the start for the book's narrator, waiting coiled for the reader, an ache that perhaps can't be defined, located, named—like Luke's vision of sky, sea and land fusing to a single plane at novel's end.

Jonathan Bolton (review date Spring 2000)

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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 the world so that no one would see them pulling each other off”), he opts for something far less masturbatory—a personal narrative of his own trivial ailments and misadventures as he struggles to make progress on a book about D. H. Lawrence that is only “intermittently about Lawrence.”

Dyer's search for Lawrence, then, comes to serve as a pretext for his own quest for self-knowledge. “One way or another,” he says, “we all have to write our studies of D. H. Lawrence.” His quest for selfhood takes the form of literacy pilgrimage, in Hunter S. Thompsonish manner, complete with recreational drug use, on-the-road recklessness, and paranoia. He dutifully visits the Lawrence sites—Eastwood, Italy, Sardinia, Oaxaca, Taos—often to postpone the writing of his book on Lawrence, and he frequently punctuates his personal narrative with anecdotes and facts about Lawrence's life and career. Having arrived at crucial Lawrentian sites, however, and at great cost and personal inconvenience, he often cannot be bothered to visit them, though to do so would require little effort. In fact, one is not likely to learn much about Lawrence from Dyer's book. There are occasional insights, particularly about how Lawrence's battle with tuberculosis affected his perspective on life, and Dyer includes a perceptive analysis of Lawrence photographs and the misrepresentations of photo-imagery (Lawrence's fair hair and red beard have always appeared black in photos). But such insights are few, and many observations have long been commonplace among Lawrentians. Rather, the real pleasure of the book derives from Dyer's self-deprecating accounts of various comic mishaps, reminiscent of the follies of Kingsley Amis or David Lodge anti-heroes, that take place during his pursuit of Lawrence. This convergence of author and subject effectively foregrounds the tangency of life and literature, what Dyer recognizes as a kind of Nietzschean eternal recurrence that becomes apparent as one examines one's life through the lens of Lawrence's life and writings. This motif is reflected cleverly in the book's cover art, which superimposes a photograph of Lawrence on the jacket over one of Dyer on the cloth cover, so that the eyes and curvature of the head match, the two faces melding together. Such points of intersection between his and Lawrence's life are the real subject of the book, and the author exhibits a passion for literature and authors that, although certainly a primary factor in “sober academic studies,” is rarely allowed to surface so powerfully and dramatically.

The interesting thing about Dyer's approach is that he continually reminds one, as he recounts the ordinariness of his own life, that authors are, in many respects, ordinary people, and his book effectively debunks the image of Lawrence as the priest of love. Dyer exposes the quotidian Lawrence, the fact that he went to the bathroom and suffered from flu. As Dyer sets up house in Oxford, he reflects how Lawrence was always engaged in some domestic project. He cooked, built kitchen cupboards, painted, prepared shopping lists, and kept his accounts meticulously in order. “Lawrence the prophet of the sexual revolution means almost nothing to us,” observes Dyer; “what I love is Lawrence the handyman.” He envisions him in the contemporary do-it-yourself world, installing an Ikea kitchen at the Taos Ranch. After Dyer's harrowing moped accident with his girlfriend in Greece, after which he is laid up in bed with bruised ribs, dreading the excruciating pain that a sneeze might bring, the day to day realities of Lawrence's weak lungs become more fully realized. As Dyer points out, it is only through the consideration of such ordinary events that one can reach a more complete understanding of authors and works. Dyer does belabor his point, and he could have spared readers lengthy accounts of his eczema and bum knee, but his point is forceful.

In preparing for his study. Dyer finds himself unable to re-read Lawrence's great novels and, in one moment of comic indecision, he packs and unpacks Lawrence's Collected Poems several times. He decides finally to leave the thick volume behind, only to arrive in Italy and find himself unable to begin work because he cannot consult the Collected Poems. Dyer concludes that what really interests him are Lawrence's letters and non-fiction (essays and travel books). Sea and Sardinia, a travelogue, Dyer ventures, may well have been Lawrence's greatest work (a dubious claim), and he muses that perhaps the novel, or at least the “novelisation of ideas,” is a dead genre. Dyer favors instead a more immediate mode of expression, the “essayistic” novel, and he cites Milan Kundera, Thomas Bernhard, and Fernando Pessoa (and Geoff Dyer?) as examples. Although amusing and provocative, Dyer's book does not measure up to such contemporary masters, and those seeking a keener understanding of Lawrence will be disappointed.

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