By Geoff Dyer
Farrar Straus Giroux. 274 pp. $23
THE PARIS PILGRIMS
By Clancy Carlile
Carroll & Graf. 460 pp. $25
Reviewed by James Sallis
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.
In the eminently readable, intriguing The Paris Pilgrims we are again, though directly this time, in the expatriate Paris of the '20s. Clancy Carlile, an historical novelist whose earlier books include Children of the Dust and Honky Tonk Man, here recreates wonderfully the artistic fervor of the time, equal parts divine aspiration and silliness, when Hemingway, Pound, Stein, Picasso, Louis Aragon, Sylvia Beach, Joyce, Djuna Barnes and a cast of hundreds set about cooking up their bouillabaisse of creativity and communal support.
Problems assert themselves early on. The writing is all surface, few shadows anywhere about, rendered without perspective and resolutely unsophisticated. Cliches such as "throwing caution to the wind" and "enthusiasm leaving her like air from a slowly deflating balloon" pop to the surface. In the opening chapter, in which Sylvia Beach first meets Hemingway, every possibility for interpreting this man's behavior gets run down in a wild, careening slalom. Subtlety is not a tactic here.
This lack of subtlety works not only against the novel's task of recreating complex characters but also against its evoking that sense of mystery at the heart of all art. From the first we're told far too much about Hemingway's fantasy life; every least tremor of insecurity is noted. The result is simplistic, reductive. The man seems at times little more than an anthology of neuroses: impotent, a repressed homosexual or transsexual, in need of constant adulation merely to stay afloat, a pathological liar whose lies instantly become more real to him than the life about him.
By contrast the evocations of Paris, of daily life and the times, are wonderful. And though the book centers on Hemingway, portraits of others are far stronger and more complex. That of Gertrude Stein is truly remarkable; she comes solidly alive.
Still Hemingway emerges as a captivating, aggravating, flamboyant, frightened, deeply divided figure, half greedy adolescent, half (even if self-styled) saint. He was a man at once smaller than life and larger, a hero not in many of the ways he contrived to be but certainly in others. He's an artist whose image has virtually nothing to do with the man leaning hard against it from behind to keep it from toppling when winds come, as come they will.
James Sallis 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.