In Geoff Dyer’s debut novel The Colour of Memory (1989), the characters go out to play soccer in the park. Midway through the match:
I looked around. The trees around the park were perfectly still as if time had stopped, as if every second of the afternoon were held in a single moment: [...] players jumping for the ball, their feet suspended in mid-air, the goalkeeper’s hands rising above their floating hair; the ball hanging over them like a perfect moon. And everything around us: the crease of the corner flag, the wind-sculpted trees, the child’s swing at the top of its arc, the water from the drinking fountain bubbling towards the lips of the woman bent down to drink, the cyclist leaning into the curve of the path, a plane stalled in the sky, someone’s thrown tennis ball a small yellow planet in the distance.
Geoff Dyer, The Colour of Memory (London: Abacus, 1997 ), p.91. (Further quotations from this text unless otherwise stated.)
This is the most extreme instance in the novel of attempting to stop time, to freeze its flow into a moment. Geoff Dyer is surely a writer of the moment: of ecstatic moments as in Paris Trance (1998); of the ‘ongoing moment’ of photography. His first novel has the distinction of being about the moment in two senses at once. It’s a book about a historical moment – understanding the word as a more circumscribed, specified, punctual version of historical period or conjuncture. But it conveys that historical moment through a sequence of moments, in the more miniature sense of the word. One of the novel’s epigraphs reads: ‘There are happy moments but no happy periods in history’. We may paraphrase that to say that the historical moment of the novel is not happy, but the local, transitory moments it snatches from time can be.
I came across The Colour of Memory at the beginning of this century, 2000: actually when I was trying to put together a course on UK fiction of 1980s and 1990s. There were some more famous names and titles lined up or available. But I wanted something to go very early in the course, to represent something that was hard to find precisely represented in fiction – an alternative view of the 1980s in Britain, one that wasn’t about success and money, even in a satirical way. There were fictions of postindustrial Britain and people struggling to survive – James Kelman, Pat Barker. Those have their own value. But I was looking for something else, which would speak more of an everyday experience of the alternative 1980s; a 1980s that I myself could remember from childhood in London, an age of GLC festivals and CND posters. And in The Colour of Memory, I just about found it – a novel in which characters go to the Country Fair in Brockwell Park in 1987 and walk around stalls for the Nicaraguan Solidarity Campaign, the Anti-Apartheid group and the El Salvador support group, ‘all selling T-shirts and pamphlets, badges and books’ (217-8). The green, black and gold flag of the ANC flutters above Brixton Town Hall (178).
Here was a novel that talked of things I clearly recognized, though at the time the book was set (around 1986-7) I had been too young to experience the era as its characters do, with late nights, drugs and alcohol. I was thrilled, for instance, to discover a novel in which, 200 pages in, characters are discussing what they would have liked to do with their lives, and the narrator explains:
‘What I’d really like to have been is a third division footballer, a fairly solid player for a team that tended to end up in the middle of the table each season without ever being close to getting promoted or relegated. That would have suited me nicely. Maybe one lucky cup run that climaxed with a goalless draw at home to Everton before getting hammered 6-0 in the replay at Goodison Park, just something to tell the kids about’. (206)
It wasn’t the general use of a sport as a resource that struck me – sport here a way of describing afresh the narrator’s limited horizons, his perhaps very Dyeresque desire for uneventfulness – but the specificity of the imagined vignette. Everton? I could still recite you most of that Everton team, who were at their quite brief peak in the period in which the novel takes place. Quite likely a few years later, when the first Howard Kendall era was past, Dyer wouldn’t have mentioned them in this role. Sport too has its temporary conjunctures.
Then again the time of the novel, at the turn of the millennium, still felt recent: much of what it described didn’t seem to have passed on. Even now, that is extensively the case: partly because the life described in the novel is more one that tries to stand aside from history, to get out of the way of the steamroller of time, than to chase it into the changes of the future.
I think that this novel, as long as it retains people’s interest, will invoke a sense of time, in a concrete rather than an abstract sense: a time, that time, the time of your life, a lifetime: the experience of time filled with content, matter, or memory. Until one day, perhaps beyond all our lifetimes, when this experience of London, or youth, is no longer recognizable, it will finally be historical in another sense: its Brixton exotically distant like the Austin Friars of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall (2009).
I invoked the phrase counting backwards because I’m trying to reach back towards the text and its time. But also because that’s the central structural action of the novel itself. It is formed of 60 segments, starting 060, ending 000 – with an italicized coda that falls outside the countdown, and an italicized introductory line that is taken from that coda. The count has actually subtly shifted lately: revising the 2012 Canongate reissue, Dyer stripped out an entire long chapter, 030, meaning that the remainder are now each one number higher than they were, and the book ends with 001 not 000. We don’t reach zero hour in the new edition, then, but otherwise the principle is the same. What does it mean? Why is the novel shaped this way?
The book gives us its own gloss on the principle. The narrator thinks back to an afternoon in Paris, with his friend Freddie.
Outside the Pompidou Centre there was a huge electronic row of numbers. When we started watching the number was about three hundred and seventy million. Then with every second that went by the last digit went down one. Neither of us could work out what the point of it was. Then somebody explained that it was counting down the number of seconds to the year 2000. Freddie thought it was terrific and made a note of the exact number of seconds left: 376, 345, 060. It didn’t seem that long at all – in fact it seemed quite possible that you could just sit there and watch the digits click their way back to a long line of noughts. I liked the idea of time getting denuded like that instead of simply piling up – a countdown to nothing, to an apocalypse that would last only for a second. A new kind of time. It was both awe-inspiring and, at the same time, absolutely pointless: pure anticipation. (207)
The narrator has been explaining to this to a woman, Monica:
‘And what would happen after it worked its way down to zero zero nothing?’ asked Monica. ‘What would happen then?’
‘I don’t know. Maybe nothing. Or maybe the whole process would begin all over again. The funny thing about it though was that it actually seemed like a reasonably rewarding way of spending your time, standing there watching the seconds clicking away and waiting to see what happened.’ (207)
A few observations on this.
1: the whole image of the Pompidou clock is a memory – it’s introduced with the words ‘I thought back to an afternoon [...] a couple of years ago’. This is quite a characteristic maneouvre in this novel which is so explicitly about memory: an act of remembering that gives the author an extra, earlier space in which to spread events and ideas. As the memory is specifically about time, it also has a self-referring or self-interfering character: the clock will have counted down an awful lot more seconds since the last time the narrator looked at it.
2: plainly this vignette is a commentary on the novel itself. It is as though the narrator is describing the novel, while not admitting it; as though he doesn’t realize that he exists within a textual structure that is analogous to the clock he is describing. It’s logically possible to think that the narrator is aware of the parallel, as the novel is presented as a discovered manuscript in a notebook. But if so, he isn’t going to point it out to us: he can let it stand in its own obviousness. It seems pointed that the Pompidou clock at the moment the characters witness it ends with the digits 060: surely a reference to the novel’s own starting point of section 060, but a curiously discreet one, tucked away in the official, neutral- looking realm of number. I doubt that many readers, first time through this novel, have seen its structure encoded in those three digits.
3: the narrator sees a ‘new kind of time’ in the fact of counting down, not piling up. Reduction, not addition, is the preferred model of temporal organization that the clock reveals. This countdown to nothing, he says, is empty, yet it also means ‘pure anticipation’ – which sounds powerful, a principle of narrative compulsion or at least of readerly attention. Transfer this to the novel. Why count down, 060 to 000, rather than up from 000 or 001? Well, if we counted up, we wouldn’t know how far it was going. Once 060 has reached 059 and 058, it seems likely that we are heading down to zero. It’s hard to explain this, but it would seem counterintuitive, a wilful frustration, to organize such a countdown and stop it at 033 or 014. The countdown thus implies a certain knowable form, a scale that quietly communicates itself to the reader from an early stage: which Dyer may have wanted precisely to counteract the otherwise relatively non-narrative, apparently formless quality of the book. As a principle of order, the countdown is arbitrary and abstract. It scarcely contains any meaning or value judgement. It amounts, as the narrator says, to pure anticipation.
4: I wonder now, venturing a long shot, whether Frank Kermode was anywhere in the author’s thoughts in writing the passage. Probably not. But I am thinking of Kermode’s classic work The Sense of an Ending (1966), which like Dyer invokes the idea of ‘apocalypse’ as characteristic of modern thinking about time, and which in a quite celebrated passage posits the ticking of a clock as a model for narrative. We provide a ‘fictional difference between the two sounds’, he says: ‘tick is our word for a physical beginning, tock our word for an end’. Kermode goes on:
The clock’s tick-tock I take to be a model of what we call a plot, an organization that humanizes time by giving it form; and the interval between tock and tick represents purely successive, disorganized time of the sort that we need to humanize. Later I shall be asking whether, when tick-tock seems altogether too easily fictional, we do not produce plots containing a good deal of tock-tick; such a plot is that of Ulysses.
Frank Kermode, The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1966), p.45.
Kermode seems to say that to break from reassuring tick-tock into the comparatively disorientating movement tock-tick is analogous to a break from conventional narrative into modernism: ‘purely successive, disorganized time’. That last phrase might not be a bad description of the time of The Colour of Memory – though I take it that the Parisian clock invoked by Dyer’s narrator doesn’t go tick-tock or tock-tick but just tick ... tick ... tick. Or indeed click ... click ... click. Which may be to the point: in this novel, the countdown marks time, grants a modicum of purely abstract structure, but doesn’t correspond to the narrative back & forth, up & down, implied by Kermode’s clock.
The countdown, I have said, ends at 000, or now 001, in the autumn of 1987, about 15 months after the book began. Two characters are in a park witnessing the aftermath of the great storm of that October, making this one of, and quite likely the first of, a select group of novels to take on that meteorological event and make it a narrative event too. (One example: the storm is the primary literal source of the title of Tim Lott’s Rumours of a Hurricane , a novel much more explicitly about Thatcherism.) The last line of the last section reads: ‘We walked back through the waste ground, fires dying all around us’ (250).
The book could have ended there. But as I’ve indicated, there is a coda, in italics, that takes us – to borrow a phrase from Thomas Pynchon – beyond the zero. In offering an italicized coda that is in some sense slightly exterior to the main narrative, The Colour of Memory echoes another novel that is a more plausible candidate than Pynchon as an influence upon it: Martin Amis’s Money (1984). In that earlier novel, the coda ties up loose ends as the narrator finds himself back on the outside of the moneyed world from which he’s just been ejected. In The Colour of Memory, something different happens in the italics. A narrator describes entering an abandoned apartment belonging to one of the characters, Freddie. Here he finds the notebook in which, supposedly, the whole of the novel we have just read is written. The handwriting, he says, ‘was still unmistakably Freddie’s’ (253). The sentences that follow are those that started the book, 250 pages earlier:
The pages were bathed in the yellow light of the reading lamp. I read a few phrases at random, flicked through some more pages and then turned back to the beginning and read the first sentence:
‘In August it rained all the time ...’
Skipping here and there, impatient to get to the end, I read all the way through, remembering incidents that I had totally forgotten, recognising many episodes despite the distortions and dislocations. (253)
This coda may have an unnerving effect on the reader of The Colour of Memory. It takes the whole novel that we have just read – savouring descriptions, observations and jokes – and places it at one remove. The novel of Brixton is a text within a text: an allegedly found manuscript like that of numerous eighteenth-century novels, or Flann O’Brien’s The Poor Mouth (1941), or many others. It is customary enough to bracket this bracketing – to experience the text within a text primarily as just a text, to forget the factitious framing that started the book with a fictional Editor’s Introduction or the like. In this case, the effect is slightly different as the framing really only emerges at the end. A wrench is involved in having the main narrative thus distanced from us at the last.
But more than this, Dyer spreads confusion. We are now to think of the whole narrative as written by Freddie – who has repeatedly and often appeared as a main character within it. Freddie was writing Freddie, as a figure in the third person: something of a figure of fun, in fact, who tends to wisecrack his way through scrapes and disappointments. But he is also emotionally acclaimed within the novel, shortly after he has been mugged, as the friend whom the narrator has known the longest, the one whose friendship, with unique benevolence, exerts no pressure (165). So, the logic goes, he has written a manuscript notionally narrated by a friend of his, in which he himself emerges as a benign alter ego. This narrator, we might think, is supposed to be based on the very person, the friend of Freddie, who narrates the italicized coda and discovers the manuscript. This last voice, perhaps, is the person who has been fictionalized into Freddie’s narrator – which means, in effect, that the same figure narrates the whole book, first as Freddie’s creation, then briefly under his own steam.
These textual tangles can get more tangled still, with echoes and references between the two narrative zones. But I have always had a feeling that we should not take the novel’s coda too literally, or fixate too hard on whatever logic it implies – as I have just begun to do. My sense remains that the coda’s role is just to destabilize the status of the narrative, and to make the narrator’s identity float even more uncertainly than it has already done through his anonymity. The role of the narrator, the coda reminds us, is a convenience, a construction: he’s not a figure solid enough for us to lean safely upon him. I think that in forging his metafictional frame, Dyer was gesturing towards something he discusses in the more recent preface to the book: the border between fact and fiction, which he wished to trouble and render more marshily obscure. Dyer recounts that the novel started – in the magazines New Society and New Statesman – as a journalistic text:
It was commissioned as something loosely termed ‘The Brixton Diaries’ in the hope that the life my friends and I were leading in a particular area of south London at a particular time (the mid-to late-1980s) might have an interest that was more than local and personal. Gradually I saw a way of using and shaping the material in a slightly different way, in a form that would deploy it to better, more personal ends (I invented a sister for myself, or for my narrator, rather) and, hopefully, more lasting effect. A couple of years ago I said somewhere that ‘I like to write stuff that is only an inch from life – but all the art is in that inch’. The importance of that inch – and the fun to be had within it – first made itself apparent in these pages.
Geoff Dyer, ‘Note on revised edition’, The Colour of Memory (Edinburgh: Canongate, 2012), n.p.
Note that here, looking back after over 20 years, Dyer doesn’t draw much distinction between ‘myself’ and ‘my narrator’: he has to remind himself to do it. That is an indication that the ‘Freddie’s manuscript’ conceit is less a deep structural clue to the narrator’s true self, more a piece of deliberate narrative interference aimed at making things less straightforward than they seem.
The other function of this conceit, finally, may be to pluralize and collectivize narration. The notion of the narrator’s identity is blurred, spread between the first person of the novel and the figure of Freddie with his odd intimacy with that narrator – but then, even another major character, Steranko, is described as uncannily like the narrator, sharing his tastes and appearance. We may sense that Dyer, moving from ‘The Brixton Diaries’ to a more deliberately literary experiment, tried to diffuse himself. Even while writing a book that seems as though it reflects himself, his life, his attitudes, he has taken the precaution of spreading himself across characters, creating decoys – and the effect may in part be to suggest that the protagonist is less one individual than a whole community or group. I am reminded of Jonathan Lethem’s insistence, when discussing his own fictional urban reverie The Fortress of Solitude (2003), that the novel had not in fact been drawn just from personal memories but from the anecdotes of a whole community of witnesses:
[The characters] are receptacles for urban lore. No one of them maps to any other one person; rather there are dozens of people who rightly feel a claim on those characters, because they see parts of themselves and their experiences reflected in those characters.
Jonathan Lethem (2005), in Interviews with Jonathan Lethem ed. by Jaime Clarke (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2011), p.91.
Dyer dedicated the book to my south London friends, and in the novel he writes of a time in life ‘when you do not form friendships but are formed by them, when there is no difference between having good friends and being a good friend’ (165). Perhaps in writing a novel that seemed to express himself, he also wanted to smudge the boundaries of self. To name one last precursor: Virginia Woolf was a London writer of co-consciousness, of the invisible threads between people, and the mystery of what she called ‘living in one another’. In a Woolfian gesture, The Colour of Memory suggest that sometimes, which might be the best times, we live through each other.
Joseph Brooker is Reader in Modern Literature at Birkbeck, University of London, where he is also Director of the Centre for Contemporary Literature. He is the author of Joyce’s Critics: Transitions in Reading and Culture (Wisconsin University Press, 2004), Flann O’Brien (Northcote House, 2005) and Literature of the 1980s: After the Watershed (Edinburgh University Press, 2010). He has edited and co-edited special issues of New Formations, the Journal of Law and Society, Textual Practice and Critical Quarterly.