By Geoff Dyer
Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 274 pages; $23
They say it’s risky to write like Hemingway, but the real loser’s game is imitating Fitzgerald. That’s because certain things, by definition, can only be done once, and growing prematurely old and jaded while living the high life in Paris as an expatriate is definitely one of them. To take up the illusions Fitzgerald lost – the faith that the party never has to end, the notion that beauty, thrills, and romance can last in perpetuity – and pretend to believe in them again in order to re-lose them just doesn’t work. Still, writers try, particularly young men. And though it’s a loser’s game, well, so is life, and some stabs at beating the odds are better than others.
Paris Trance, by British writer Geoff Dyer, is one of the nimbler reworkings of Fitzgerald – and of Hemingway too. And make no mistake about it, that’s what it is: a fully self-conscious reconfiguration of the twenties expat classics, complete with a smattering of borrowed lines from The Sun Also Rises. Dyer calls these lifted phrases “samples,” using the lexicon of hip-hop music, but because they’re so few and so quietly smuggled in, they don’t really affect the reading experience, they just alert us to Dyer’s postmodern mind-set. He’s imitating, he knows he’s imitating, and, as such, he’s also making a statement about the whole idea of imitation. That all experience is borrowed experience. That new things are really old things rearranged. You know the drill, that whole postmodern thing.
The narrator of the novel is not its hero but its hero’s biggest admirer, Great Gatsby-style. The hero is Luke, an Englishman in Paris who arrives with some vague intention to write a novel but quickly gets sidetracked by a burning love affair. Alex, the best friend who tells Luke’s story, lets us know early that it won’t end happily and that it will illustrate certain bitter truths about the self-defeating human heart. Of course, we know from the choice of setting alone that loss and disappointment are in the offing, since what else can expats in Paris really expect? The central convention of the expat novel is that its ending is fixed from its beginning, that paradise will be lost and left. Doom is absolutely guaranteed. This is supposed to help us savor more deeply the transient joys and triumphs preceding the crack-up.
Dyer understands his genre. Expats must always be escaping something, but it’s best if that something is vague and ill-defined; a hidden war wound, a messy love affair. Luke is escaping England, that’s all we know, its dreary, drizzling, monochromatic tedium. He’s a movie buff, and at first he spends his time huddled in theaters, where his favorite game is cataloguing film clichés. Once he meets Nicole, his Serbian lover, and Alex and his lover, Sahra, his conversations center on these tropes, over which the group is able to bond. They analyze the role of Styrofoam cups in detective movies; they deconstruct The Great Escape and other POW films. The conversations turn into full-blown raps, most of them fairly amusing and on-target, and prove Dyer’s point that what links us nowadays isn’t shared experience but shared reactions to the all-enveloping cultural miasma.
Sealing yourself into a blissful capsule is the original sin of expat novels, the defining, catastrophic act that winds and sets the cuckoo clock of doom. Once you’ve chosen your bar, your cocktail, and your party-mates, it’s only a matter of time before everything goes bust. Indeed, the only real room for innovation in the expat novel is choice of nightlife. Dyer chooses the rave scene – a demimonde far more important to British writers than to Americans, for some odd reason. For years now, the world of ecstasy and house music has figured so prominently in British youth novels – as a trapdoor into sexual wonderlands, as a classless psychological melting pot, as an alternative to grim maturity – that you’d think the sixties had recommenced there, filling the night with candy-colored paisley. In America, we’ve been busy making money, but in Europe they’ve all been dancing, apparently.
As Luke falls more deeply in love with Nicole, an enigmatic speaker of broken English who never really emerges as a character but only as an object of adoration, Dyer reveals an addiction to high-end paradox. Every emotion contains its opposite. Appearances are at odds with essences. Thus, being incredibly happy is tantamount to being miserable, and someone who acts one way is really another way. This perverse cast of mind, this habit of negativity, breeds real insights now and then, but after a while it gets mechanical, generating reams of pat profundities that inspire us to nod reflexively before we’re really sure that we agree with them. “The hankering to make of truth something ennobling and pure is itself a falsification.” “Her chasteness was somehow the outward proof, the external manifestation, of a potential for sexual abandon all the more alluring for being hidden, invisible.” Such conspicuous displays of intellect or, at least, of intellectualism, feel oddly coercive at times, manipulative.
This becomes a real problem in the case of Luke, who never quite assumes the tragic stature that Alex imputes to him. Luke is a beery slacker, a soccer fan, and a wannabe writer aimlessly in search of the perfect girl, the perfect dumb movie, the perfect all-night high. But without a World War I for a dark backdrop and a World War II to put clouds on the horizon, his burning quest for kicks just doesn’t mean much in the scheme of things or at least not as much as Alex keeps saying it does. “But there was a sense, I think, in which he did fulfil his destiny. There are people who are destined to have lives like this and, in some way, his falling short was a kind of triumph… .” This is straight Gatsby, straight Tender Is the Night, with no postmodernism about it. Sometimes an ironic sense of genre is just a way to give yourself permission to flat-out copy something, to rip it off. Sort of like lying with your fingers crossed.
That seems to be Dyer’s problem: He loves his masters, he loves the whole Lost Generation attitude, and if he could go back in time and write his story straight, he would. As it is, he can only get close to what he loves at a sort of art-student remove, by sampling and playing intertextual games. The real love object in Paris Trance isn’t Nicole, whom Luke ultimately leaves so as to freeze-frame their perfect love affair, but the expatriate novelists themselves, whom Dyer can only gaze at but never quite touch.