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.

Fortunately for Dyer, his preoccupations have proved less of a hindrance to his non-fiction: the loosely structured, discursive essays he favours easily accommodate self-reflection and digression. This means that he has more of an opportunity to write about what really interests him – which, most of the time, is himself. Dyer’s last work of non-fiction was an autobiographical essay entitled Out of Sheer Rage, which is typically hard to categorise. He begins by telling us that, ever since he was a young man, he has wanted to write a critical study of D.H. Lawrence. But, as he demonstrates in the course of Out of Sheer Rage, this has never been possible; in spite of his best efforts, he has never been able to get down to serious work on the subject. Out of Sheer Rage, in other words, is the story of the writing of a book that has yet to be written.

In another sense, however, Out of Sheer Rage is the book that Dyer originally set out to write. For when he is not describing the problems he encountered when trying to write his study, he is telling us quite a lot about what drew him to D.H. Lawrence in the first place. And, in so doing, he makes it clear why a critical study of the type he wanted to write – which is to say, the conventional type – was beyond him. He is not very interested in Lawrence’s poems or novels. Rather, he is interested in those aspects of Lawrence’s work, especially his notes and letters, that shed most light on his life. In particular, Dyer is interested in those aspects of Lawrence’s life that correspond most closely with his own.

About halfway through Out of Sheer Rage, Dyer alights on the relationship between writers’ non-fiction and their fiction (or between their ‘notes and letters and their novels’). He cites a line spoken by Proust’s Comtesse d’Arpajon: ‘Have you noticed how often a writer’s letters are superior to the rest of his work?’ Dyer wonders whether ‘this remark might not be prophetic. Could my own preference for writers’ – not just Lawrence’s – notes and letters be part of a general, historical drift away from the novel?’ Given such a trend, he continues, might writers not be better off abandoning fiction altogether? He then quotes Milan Kundera, who, in his ‘Notes Inspired by The Sleepwalkers’, ‘demonstrated the need for “a new art of the specifically novelistic essay”’. According to Dyer, the finest example of this form in Kundera’s work is Testaments Betrayed, which, he says, ‘provided all the pleasures – i.e. all the distractions – of Kundera’s novels with, so to speak, none of the distractions of character and situation’. It is hard not to suspect, when reading this, that Dyer might have another book in mind that also fulfils his criteria for the ‘novelistic essay’.

In Yoga for People who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It, the line separating fact from fiction is even less clear-cut than in Out of Sheer Rage: one essay in the collection was originally published as a short story, and the whole book was nearly published as fiction in America. If the central preoccupation of Out of Sheer Rage is the problem of work, Dyer’s chief concern in Yoga for People who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It is how to have fun. He begins by quoting some lines of Auden’s:

Home, the centre where the three or four things
That happen to a man do happen.

He continues:

I think I have trouble getting my head round this idea of home because I can’t refine down the number of things that have happened to me to ‘three or four’ – or not yet I can’t anyway. Auden might turn out to be right, but for the moment, there are a lot of things that have happened, and they’ve happened in lots of different places. ‘Home’, by contrast, is the place where least has happened. For the last dozen or so years, in fact, the idea of home has felt peripheral and, as a consequence, more than a little blurred.

The book that follows describes some of the places Dyer has lived during the past 12 years. It consists of 11 essays, each of which deals with a period he has spent in a different part of the world. Work figures only in the background. One chapter, entitled ‘Decline and Fall’, begins: ‘In Rome I lived in the grand manner of writers. I basically did nothing all day.’

Dyer’s idea of fun is remarkably youthful and his behaviour throughout marks him as a ‘traveller’. (Travellers are typically in their late teens or early twenties.) He visits places on the travellers’ map: Amsterdam, Ko Pha-Ngan in Thailand. His behaviour conforms to backpacker stereotypes: he smokes copious amounts of cannabis just about everywhere; he gets ‘messed up on mushrooms’ in Amsterdam; and in New Orleans he contracts chlamydia. Throughout the book, Dyer seems to be constructing an image of himself as a younger man. As in Paris Trance, there’s a contrast between who we know Dyer to be and how he wants us to think of him.

Here, however, Dyer doesn’t emerge badly from his identification with a younger version of himself. Most of the time, it is impossible not to like him. One reason for this is that he seems to be half aware of his own ridiculousness. Some of the best moments in the book come when he draws attention to his own immaturity. On Ko Pha-Ngan, for instance, he stays in a travellers’ retreat called the Sanctuary, and seduces an American called Kate. Afterwards, as he and Kate have a drink before venturing out to a full moon party, he subjects some of their fellow residents at the Sanctuary to a lengthy disquisition on the merits of Ecstasy. He then offers the following explanation for his behaviour: ‘As I said earlier, it had already been a great day. I was beginning to get very excited about the party and I was, in truth, feeling a bit full of myself.’

There is also something perversely charming about Dyer’s lack of interest in the countries he visits. Of course, this is another cliché of backpacking. People traipse all over the world in search of ‘experience’, but end up hanging out with other Westerners. Dyer is far more knowledgeable and reflective than most of his fellow travellers, but he, too, often sees foreign cultures only in the narrowest terms. One of the funniest chapters in the book concerns his journey to Libya, which he visited in 2000, shortly after the end of the post-Lockerbie prohibition on tourism. He went there to visit some Roman ruins on the Mediterranean coast (he was researching a book – destined never to be written – on antiquity), but before he gets to any ruins he spends several pages describing an increasingly farcical evening at his hotel. He describes the bureaucracy of checking in, the appalling service he receives, and the fact that nothing in his room seems to work. Eventually deciding that it is time for dinner, he goes to the restaurant and is confronted by the maître d’ with his head in his hands. This causes him to reflect on working conditions in the Third World:

I was not surprised by this. Jobs in some parts of the world involve nothing more than a commitment to turning up and doing nothing for eight or nine hours. When your shift is over you go home and do nothing there as well. If your job is outdoors, then employment becomes indistinguishable from loitering. If your job involves being indoors, then it is often indistinguishable from the most abject despair.

The observation could have been made by an 18-year-old, though an 18-year-old might not have used such sophisticated language. Appreciating Dyer’s humour often requires abandoning a certain sense of propriety, and submitting to something more irresponsible – and it’s well worth it.

But there is a cost to Dyer’s refusal to grow old. After leaving the hotel dining-room in Tripoli, he returns to his room for a while, and writes about his experience of Libya so far. Looking up from his notes, he is

confronted, in the mirror above my desk, with the awful reality – grey hair, bulbous nose, scrawny neck – of my appearance. I have often been disappointed by my appearance, but I have never appeared so utterly repulsive as I did then. It was as if all the hidden misery of my life had suddenly manifested itself. Either that or I happened to have glimpsed the version of myself – a version I had not in fact hidden as thoroughly as I had imagined – that was routinely seen by everyone I encountered. A prophecy was in the process of being fulfilled. ‘Life,’ said the face in the mirror, ‘is taking its toll. All the disappointment and regret, all the bitterness and rage that you have tried to keep hidden, is now breaking out, eroding the last patina of handsomeness and hope. You are no longer a handsome man.’

Yoga for People who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It has many such gloomy moments. Another image of Dyer, not unlike the older version of Luke in Paris Trance, constantly shadows his younger, bolder self. Shortly after describing his reflection, Dyer tells us that, ‘for at least six months before coming to Libya I had been feeling what I suspected might be the tug of middle age.’ This manifests itself in an ‘intensifying wish for the familiar’; and, in particular, in ‘watching football on TV’. For the most part, it seems, this tug has been too weak to distract Dyer from his pleasure-seeking ways. Let’s hope it stays that way.