No Longer Handsome

William Skidelsky

  • Yoga for People who Can't Be Bothered to Do It by Geoff Dyer
    Abacus, 238 pp, £10.99, April 2003, ISBN 0 316 72507 2

Geoff Dyer announced recently that he wasn’t ‘very interested in character and not remotely interested in story or plot’. For someone who writes novels (I hesitate to use the word ‘novelist’), this is a striking admission. Dyer, who was born in 1958, has so far written three. His first, The Colour of Memory (1989), is set in Brixton during the 1980s, and records the shambolic lives of a group of aspiring artists: a writer named Freddie, a painter called Steranko and an unnamed narrator, who is fired from his job at the start of the novel. ‘It was as though getting a job was a temporary illness from which I had now recovered,’ he says. The trio come into contact with a wider fraternity of creative types, most of whom have similarly relaxed attitudes to professional advancement. Afternoons are spent in the pub, or sunbathing on the communal roof terrace above the narrator’s flat. Structurally, the novel takes its cue from the free-wheeling, haphazard lifestyle it depicts. There are lots of enjoyable scenes involving different combinations of the same people, but little by way of plot development. The characters, too, are thinly drawn: although we get a sense of how they behave socially, their backgrounds and feelings are never revealed.

In Paris Trance (1998), Dyer’s third novel, two young Englishmen with artistic ambitions, Luke and Alex, move to the French capital. They take casual jobs at the same factory, and become friends. Both acquire girlfriends – one Serbian, the other American – and a close bond forms between the two couples. It all soon goes wrong, however. The quartet get increasingly into drugs (especially Ecstasy), and the behaviour of Luke, the more charismatic of the two men, becomes violent and irrational. As the characters’ bohemian idyll disintegrates, the action skips forward to a visit Alex pays Luke several years later. Luke is now a recluse who sits at home all day watching TV. But as the characters’ lives turn in on themselves it’s hard to stay interested. In a way, this is surprising: Dyer had successfully documented a similar milieu in The Colour of Memory. So what goes wrong with Paris Trance? Dyer wrote The Colour of Memory when he was around thirty. The characters were his contemporaries, and the world he was describing was one to which he belonged. He wrote (or at least completed) Paris Trance when he was nearly forty; yet his sights were fixed on the same target – the world of the twentysomething bohemian. There is something pretentious about Dyer’s attempt to capture the zeitgeist of the Ecstasy generation; he seems throughout to be finding more significance in his characters’ thoughts and behaviour than they deserve.

In an article in Granta, Dyer affectionately recalled the period he wrote about in The Colour of Memory. ‘Perhaps I suffer from some kind of arrested development, but my sense of perfect happiness has never progressed beyond a slightly archaic idea of bohemia. And it was in Brixton, in the 1980s, that this dream first came true.’ This fixation with a ‘slightly archaic idea of bohemia’ seems to have arrested his development as a novelist.

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