Geoff Dyer’s Paris Trance: Imagining a New “Lost Generation”

paristrance

Recently, I had the privilege of attending a Geoff Dyer reading as part of Princeton’s Althea Ward Clark Reading Series. I also had the privilege of meeting Dyer, after having read his 1998 novel, Paris Trance, for my creative writing class.

            My classmates and I had been wondering about an epigraph that appears at the beginning of the hardcover edition, but was omitted from the paperback. It was a disclaimer about the creative license Dyer used with the geography of Paris, stating that (more or less, I don’t own the hardcover edition) “All street names and geography are accurate within the city of Paris, Trance.” Since this epigraph was missing from the paperback edition, we were all curious to see if it had hidden meaning, since we had not thought about the title as wordplay on “Paris, France.”

            I asked Dyer why the epigraph was removed. A tall, thin, and quiet British man, he told me his editor took it out, and he didn’t really know why.

            Naturally, I was disappointed. Since the novel Paris Trance seems to be laden in hidden meanings, it was a letdown to find out that something had no significance whatsoever. But still, I tend to believe that Paris Trance is a novel worth reading, characterized by wit and sharp observations.

            Described by Jeffrey Eugenides as a literary “Mount Rushmore” (“you just can’t help but look up at him”), Dyer has written work as varied as it is interesting. Some of his scenes have humor that seem straight out of Seinfeld episodes. He’s written four novels and six non-fiction books that blur the lines and reinvent what a book can be.

            Paris Trance is interesting for what it accomplishes in style and ambition.

            Implicitly referencing F. Scott Fitzgerald and “sampling” several lines from Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, Dyer describes the lives of two young couples in Paris, attempting to characterize a lost generation of the 1990s. Dyer’s skill is revealed by sheer endurance—his book only has three chapter breaks in the nearly 300-page narrative. The seamless transitions that push the novel forward helps ratchet the tension and keep the reader from finding easy stopping places.

            He also plays with perspective, with the narrator referring to himself in third person for much of the story, once and a while revealing himself as one of the (formerly young) men of the story.

            Not only does Geoff Dyer excel at endurance and bravely challenges perspective conventions, his style mimics the snappiness of film noir, to great effect.

            Here’s a conversation from the novel, p. 45.

“Now is my turn to ask where you are from,” said Nicole, after [she and Luke] had hurried across rue de Rivoli.

            “London. Have you been there?”

            “Once. I saw the Thames. Is it the Thames?”

            “In London. No.”

            “There was a sunset too. A great sunset.”

            “Maybe that was the Danube too.”

            “Or the Nile.”

            “Perhaps the Tiber.”

            “Maybe the Mississippi.”

            “The Amazon even. The conversation is flowing.”

 

            Much of the dialogue is like this, full of quips and intelligence, throughout the entire novel.

            The book isn’t for everyone, however, as its depictions of graphic intimacy may alarm some readers. They certainly shocked me. But even these events may be metaphorical, considering that the narrator is discussing his friends’ private lives, revealing more about his character than the truth about the others.

            It is through Dyer’s insightful description of the most mundane things, like old mirrors, factory life, and military jets that the reader is given a new perspective on everyday occurrences.

            From p. 271, the closing passage of the novel. (No spoilers, really. If you don’t want to read it, you don’t have too. Skip to the conclusion).

            “A military jet pulled through the sky, very high. Beyond that was the uncertain region where sky turned to space, where everything began to peter out, where distance ceased to be measured as space, only as light. The plane itself was no more than a dot, would probably have been invisible but for the vapour trail easing out behind it. He watched it race around the sky, following the curve of the earth in a long silent arc. The sound lagged behind, a rumble that was only now making itself in a part of the country the jet had passed over seconds before, miles inland, in one town or another.”

            Wow. Just a fighter jet? No, a metaphor for coming to terms with the realities of life, as this image is juxtaposed to the couple’s summer vacation in rural France, where they hope to escape from the day-to-day drudgery of the city yet are reminded of war, of their place in time, and of their reality by just looking up and seeing a jet.

(END OF POSSIBLE SPOILERS)

            In sum, I found Geoff Dyer’s Paris Trance an excellent literary read, full of experimentation and wit. Unlike the density of novelists like Thomas Pynchon or Richard Powers, Dyer’s novel reads lightly and delicately, mimicking the flowing properties of the major influences in this work. As the praise on the cover states, Paris Trance does indeed “invoke the shades of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, but as they might be imagined by Truffaut.” I look forward to reading more of his work, and hopefully it contains more “actual” deeper meaning than the omitted epigraph.

Cover image credit: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Geoff_Dyer_2011_NBCC_Awards_2012_Shankbone_2.JPG Wikimedia Commons, LIC – CC BY 3.0

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