BOOK REVIEW / Fierce bolts of lightning in an ephemeral world: 'The Search' - Geoff Dyer: Hamish Hamilton, 14.99 pounds

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The Independent Online
GEOFF DYER'S first novel was a vivid and generous book called The Colour of Memory, about a group of dole'n'dope loafers in south London. Then he offered us the superb But Beautiful, A Book About Jazz, a copy of which ought to be on everybody's Desert Island; its reworking of jazz legends and heroes is done with such imaginative reverence that even those of us who have trouble telling our Lester Youngs from our Charlie Parkers cannot help but fall under the book's charm. Now we get The Search, a futuristic, clever and very short novel about a man named Walker looking for a man named Malory.

The start is pure Chandler; Walker is a sharp-talking, sharper-shooting bachelor who is hired by a rich dame called Rachel to find Malory. (Marlowe was looking for a 'Malloy' in Farewell My Lovely.) The detective novel has always been a popular resort for post-modern pranksters; with the hero looking for something that he increasingly doubts the very existence of. Where other authors, however, have just taken the shell of detective fiction, Dyer sticks with Marlowe and most of his trappings: Walker drinks too much, likes his coffee strong and is lyrically depressed.

By keeping the adventure story format in which to tell his modern parable of lost identity, Dyer takes on a two-headed monster. He has to prove himself both dramatically and allegorically. The result here is a two-tiered novel in which Walker is either chasing or thinking, but rarely managing to do both at the same time. The action parts are very good, but they seem to happen in a different, tackier world to that of the lofty contemplation. They are suggestive of poor cousins and quota-filling on the author's part, despite containing one of the best thriller scenarios I've ever read: in a fierce thunderstorm, Walker is finally trapped after a hair-raising chase across the roof of a cathedral. As the baddy raises a crowbar above his head to end Walker's search once and for all, a magnificent bolt of lightning hits the crowbar and kills him.

Equally there are the passages, invariably more sci-fi and fantastic in their setting than these 'action' moments, which are pure futuristic parable. In one chapter, Walker reaches the city of Independence, where everything is caught in a vibrant freeze-frame, forcing the world-weary Walker into poetic epiphany: 'Frozen like this every gesture had a certain perfection, each moment of a person's day - however insignificant - was worthy of the consideration you would give to a great work of art.'

Another chapter finds Walker in Horizon, a city that is all one enormous building, with endless corridors and identical rooms; a vision of the future that is sure to strike an intimidating chord with our own shopping mall generation.

Taken by themselves, these chapters are strong. Dyer also uses their lessons to shift gradually Walker's perception of what he is searching for. Malory as a single, catchable object becomes less definable. Nothing outside the self is solid in this ephemeral world and Walker is really looking for himself. This is taken to the extent that by the end of the novel Walker is Malory, which works well on the allegorical level but leaves you feeling short-changed.

The trouble is that by juxtaposing, rather than fusing, the metaphysical and the Hollywood elements of his tale, Dyer ends up with the two competing against, rather than feeding off, each other. The Search is only 150 pages long but the problem is not necessarily one of space. The book seems to lack an authorial presence. It shifts from being good thriller to good sci-fi (or 'speculative literature' as they now call it in the land of equal opportunities). Although the author is never slave to either genre, he still doesn't manage to forge his own voice. It was Dyer's originality that made his first two books so perfectly weighted and distinct; in The Search he no longer seems in command.