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Paris Trance
By Geoff Dyer
Farrar Straus Giroux. 274 pp. $23
Reviewed by James Sallis,
who recently completed a biography of Chester Himes. Collections of his essays and of poems, as well as a two-volume collection of stories, also are forthcoming.

Sunday, June 27, 1999

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When blurbs apologize for a book's offering up "escapism" and depicting "sad, unremarkable lives," the reader takes caution. In the case of "Paris Trance" such caution, any caution, is unwarranted. The book, by the author of last year's "Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D.H. Lawrence," is a fine novel, written with a light, sure touch, affecting far beyond its length and apparent (but only apparent) insubstantiality. Dyer's novel suggests that, just as once America gave to the world the blues, rock-and-roll and the romance as serious fiction, transforming that world's perception of itself, slackerdom is now a chief American export.

The four characters of "Paris Trance," Alex and Sahra, Luke and Nicole, all have come to Paris with vague, high expectations that gradually slacken to the dailiness of dance, drugs, movies, work, sex. "Life is there to be wasted," says Luke, who never began his novel. Dialogue among the four, in a hollow echo of witty repartee, often samples or resembles that of films. Sometimes the couples in fact cut and paste between life and film as they act out familiar scenes and situations, striving to fill hollows whose presence they barely perceive, the zeros at their center. Those who cannot create must live the life cut for them by others, like aliens slowly learning to pass as human but never quite getting it right.

Here are Luke and Nicole talking to each an:

"It's easy isn't it, happiness?"

"It's all in the lubrication."

But of course it's not. Lying beside her early on in their affair, Luke muses: "There will come a time . . . when I will look back on this night, when I will lie in another bed, when happiness will have come to seem an impossibility, and I will remember this night, remember how happy I was, and I will remember how, even when I was in the midst of my happiness, I could feel a time when it would be gone."

In many passages about Luke, waste is the key: "Life is there to be wasted," "There is nothing in life more pleasurable than destroying things," "the potential for wasting the talents we are given," "he's a complete waster." And so, with practice, comes Luke's fall, as friend and narrator Alex, and ourselves as readers, sadly look on.

Just as those aliens I conjured up earlier might have moved like hermit crabs into human shells, the characters of "Paris Trance" inhabit the shells of previous expatriate novels. The name Nicole, of course, directs us toward Fitzgerald's "Tender Is the Night." A coda acknowledges Hemingway's "The Sun Also Rises," and anyone wondering at Luke Barnes's fall would do well to consider his near-namesake from that same novel.

It is, finally, the ache that's left here, an ache existing from the start for the book's narrator, waiting coiled for the reader, an ache that perhaps can't be defined, located, named – like Luke's vision of sky, sea and land fusing to a single plane at novel's end.

   
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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