There was not particular reason to include these 3 books in the same review, except that published some time ago (respectively in 1998, 1991 and 1997) are re-published as eBooks by Picador, and are by the same author which gives them a certain consistency. And I could not noticed it have I not read these 3 books in a row. First, there is a common theme that unites this book – the unresolved tension between life and work (in particular artistic creation). Second, Geoff Dyer, a successful and clever writer, is a portraitist. He does not so much seem interested in the stories than in the people who live in them and cares about what happens to them because of them, not the other way around. And I would venture that he cares for his characters depending on their choice about life or work. This implies that, as a reader, you are also interested in what happens to the characters that populate Dyer's books because (if) you care about them. Otherwise … But this is an hypothesis. To demonstrate it would require to go thoroughly though all his writings. In the meantime, let us illustrate it with a non-representative sample of his work.
Paris Trance is a novel but not a 'story'. Alex, the narrator, is clear about that at the very beginning of the book: the events and situations he recounts are not sufficiently woven into a narrative to make a 'story'. Even the 'plot' – Luke comes to Paris to write a book –, one may add, is not a plot. And the dramatic end that seems promised should have been more dramatic. It would have contributed to make the point of the novel – life or work – clearer: Luke fails to write his book because he, along with Alex, Luke's friend and the narrator, their girlfriends, Nicole and Sahra, and a few others, chooses to live: sex, drugs and alcohol and some food and bicycling and soccer and more sex and more drugs and more alcohol. This is what Paris Trance is about. It could have been fun, young and sexy. It is boringly repetitive and artificial and uninteresting. Dyer so perfectly succeeds to convey this sense of emptiness, of inutility that you paradoxically do not care to what happens to the characters. Unless you care for the characters themselves. If you do, you will enjoy it. But, young, hot, sexy, Luke, Alex, Sahra and Nicole are also full of themselves, not funny, childish, but not vain because they are childish, behaving as teenagers at more than 25 years old, exasperating. Dyer is so successful in making them unlikable that you end up by not liking them and you do not even want to care for them – especially for Luke. Paris Trance is a novel without a central figure for whom to care. As a result, I must confess, I lost interest in the conversations, dinners, meal preparations, parties, soccer games, fucking parties – even the fucking parties, that are really hot – around which the book is built. Another paradoxical failure, now due to the success of Dyer as a portraitist.
This is exactly the reverse with But Beautiful, in which, again, 'whatever makes the events into a story is entirely missing' (Dyer, in Paris Trance). This is about people. But, in that case, this is not a problem. The book – not a novel but a set of poetic short-stories – features Charlie Mingus, Theolonius Monk, Bud Powell, Art Pepper. It proposes beautiful portraits of these great jazzmen – that eventually forms a humanistic history of jazz. And, obviously, Dyer feels a lot of sympathy for them. He cares for them, loves them – their music? He writes with passion and gentleness. Everything is beautifully tense, flabbergasting, full of life and also full of melancholy, of violence – the violence these great artists had to suffer in their lives – and of emotion. Is it because they chose to live through their art, to live as artist and, to some extent, to sacrifice their lives to their art? It is hard to tell. But the contrast is so stark with Paris Trance that it is also hard not to think about this explanation. While Paris Trance is a hymn to emptiness, a book about life-without-purpose, But Beautiful is an ode to life-as-art. The alcohol Monk, Powell, Mingus or Pepper drink does not taste as bad as the one Luke and his friends drink. Dyer is successful in making his characters beautiful that you accept their flaws and understand their maladjustment – a price to pay for higher achievements. You accept that because you care for them. And you care for them because Dyer draws so beautiful portraits. And you end up reading these 'stories', following these jazzmen in what they live, because you care about them. The only thing that one wants to do after having read the book is to listen to their music, with tears in the eyes thinking to what you have read in this book. A book that could turn everyone into a jazz fan.
Out of Sheer Rage – a title that is borrowed from a quotation by D. H. Lawrence – stands in between Paris Trance and But Beautiful, sharing features with both of these two other books. The narrator – Dyer himself? – lives in Paris, is trying to write a book, like Luke in Paris Trance, and roughly is as irritating as Luke in Paris Trance. The book starts with confessions about his incapacity to decide anything – whether or not to write an essay or a novel, to stay in the apartment he is sub-subletting or not, to move to Rome or not, to love Laura or not … It is life and trivial. But, trivial or not, all this is told in such a flourished style and self-deprecating tone that, as in Paris Trance, one looses interest in what happens to him. It is probably meant to be funny and to make these (in)decisions bearable. The insistence to laugh about himself proves exactly the reverse of what it is supposed to prove and what actually is an incredible lack of humility; if one had missed it, the narrator puts himself on the same footing as Lawrence, Rilke, Nietzsche or Barthes. So, once again, a character whose adventures are not much exciting. And once again we don't really care. But this time we are hooked because the narrator is trying to write an essay on D. H. Lawrence. Will he write it? You have to read the book to know. But the narrator shares with us some of the pages he writes about Lawrence. And then, everything changes. Like in But Beautiful, the narrator no longer speaks of himself and the book becomes luminous, bright, right, full of emotion. The style is simpler. The tone less look-how-I-am-funny like. You follow the narrator – and you read the book – because you want to read more about Lawrence. And you keep on reading the book, a fascinating book.
“Il faut travailler, que travailler”, wrote Rilke as quoted by Dyer in Our of Sheer Rage. The tension between work (as creation) and life is at the core of these three books. Interestingly, Dyer does not seem to take sides. But his style clearly indicates what is his choice. The consequence is that what he writes about creators, artists is much more interesting than the rest. And this is simply beautiful.
Paris Trance, Out of Sheer Rage, But Beautiful, by Geoff Dyer
published by Picador (eBooks)
Alain Marciano lives in southern France, teaches economics at University of Montpellier, but also writes poems and short-stories and draws. He has published short stories and poems in Pif Magazine, Bohemian Pupil, Ink, sweat and tears, The Rampallian, Collective exile, Shelf life magazine, Unlikely stories IV, Animal Farm, Death of a ScenesterDown in the Dirt magazine, Forge magazine, Eclectic Eel, and Circa. A literary Magazine.