Books: Amazon swallows

PARIS TRANCE by Geoff Dyer, Abacus pounds 9.99
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The Independent Culture
FEW WRITERS dare tackle the subject of happiness. Just as villains always seem more interesting than the virtuous, there is a general belief that compared to misery, happiness is rather boring. In Paris Trance, Geoff Dyer takes on this prejudice. The book deals with a young Englishman, Luke, who goes to Paris, gets a job, and befriends another young Englishman, Alex. They each acquire a girlfriend (Nicole and Sahra) and the four of them hang out, go clubbing, sit around in cafes, watch films, copulate with impressive dexterity, take a few drugs, and go on a couple of excursions to the countryside.

We are told on page two that "whatever makes events into a story is entirely missing from what follows", and this proves not to be a joke. Paris Trance is almost entirely plotless and is structured through mood rather than event. Dyer even rejects cycles of conflicting mood, and instead constructs his novel around an ever-increasing ascendancy of bliss.

At first, he simply communicates the joy of being young, in love, and in Paris. Dyer's evocative prose is somehow deeply romantic and saucily graphic at the same time, stranded somewhere between Barbara Cartland (Nicole tells Luke that even his morning breath smells nice) and Penthouse (Luke is capable of projectile ejaculations which Nicole just loves to swallow). One can't help feeling that Dyer conceived Nicole with only one hand on the keyboard, and as the novel progresses Luke has more and more fun in increasingly imaginative ways with his girlfriend.

Their pleasure soon extends beyond the purely sexual and into an array of perfect days, weekends and months. Just when you think the four protagonists' lives can't get any better, something great happens to them. Covering friendship, love, ecstasy, the perfect Christmas in a run-down cottage, the perfect clubbing night in Paris and the perfect summer renovating an isolated farmhouse, a pattern of increasingly joyous adventures builds up, in the manner of an adult Swallows and Amazons.

This ought to be sickening, or at best boring, and it is a testament to Dyer's skill, invention and perception that the novel never ceases to be entertaining. His knack for creating sympathetic characters, combined with a genius for describing in intimate detail everything you'd rather be doing than sitting around at home reading a novel, creates a form of pure escapism to rival the Hollywood musical.

To worry about whether or not the novel is convincing is to miss the point. Dyer knows that he is an escapist, and what intellectual meat there is in the book lies in his analysis of the nature of happiness. The trouble is, having so brilliantly described so many ways of enjoying yourself, the only thing Dyer's philosophising can contribute is the rather deflating suggestion that happiness doesn't add up to very much.

"Nothing in the past has any value. You cannot store up happiness. The past is useless," he tells us, in a rare authorial intrusion into the text. This comment smacks of a moral to the story, seemingly borne out by the rather dismal fate of the central character. Dyer plays down this note of doom, however, and having conceived an unhappy ending for his tale of unmitigated pleasure, he wisely places this ending two thirds of the way through the book, allowing us 70 more pages of idyllic idleness to take home with us as the real point of the novel.

With Paris Trance, Dyer reasserts his credentials as the Poet Laureate of the Slacker Generation. Whether or not the Slacker Generation actually exists is another question. For most of Dyer's readers, this book will provide simple boyish escapism as we commute to work through grey weather, wishing that we were on a mattress, under the stars, outside a French farmhouse, hot and naked, with the pneumatically adventurous Nicole for company. Women might find the prospect of being forced to shag the skinny, obsessive, pasty-faced Luke every few pages rather less enticing.