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BOOK REIVEW / A gumshoe's detours de force: 'The Search' - Geoff Dyer: Hamish Hamilton, 14.99

Candice Rodd
Sunday 12 December 1993 00:02 GMT

YOU KNOW this situation. In an unfamiliar city, you sensibly buy a street plan, only to find that you can't make it correspond to the actual world around you. You ditch the map and abandon yourself to instinct, or fate. Exactly this happens once to the hero of Geoff Dyer's cool, clever and short second novel; it happens to the reader repeatedly. The Search occupies a wide imaginary landscape where the author is always just ahead of you, skewing the signposts. The effect is something between exhilaration and a panic attack.

For a page or two we seem to be on Chandlerian terra firma. Gatecrashing a smart party, Walker, bored, single and newly out of prison, meets an attractive older woman who asks him to trace her fugitive ex-husband and get him to sign some vital papers - a matter of some urgency and danger as (for unspecified reasons) someone else is pursuing him too, with a view to murder. 'Tracking' is apparently an illegal underworld activity, but it is lucrative, Walker has nothing better to do and there is definite sexual promise behind the mysterious beauty's dark glasses. So it's farewell my lovely and we're off, on a package tour through gumshoe thriller, film noir, road movie, strip cartoon heroics and chivalric romance, with overnight stops at Kafka, Calvino, John Berger (about whom Dyer has written elsewhere) and Paul Auster.

It was hardly necessary to name the hunted man Malory, or have one of the sinister types Walker encounters mockingly call him Lancelot, to establish that this is Grail legend, with the quarry always tauntingly out of reach and the compulsive search for the enigmatic other becoming an ever more metaphysical quest for the self. Opening in cunningly familiar terrain (San Francisco perhaps), the story is soon ricocheting across a borderless mythic continent of rain-lashed swamp and sun-baked prairie punctuated by ever more otherworldly cities, heading, the long way round, to denouement of a kind amid medieval arcades, gargoyles and eerie towers. As a tarot-reading fellow-traveller remarks: 'It passes the time.' Walker journeys by bus, by hired and stolen car, by truck, bicycle and box-car, by every mode of transport known to Hollywood. He eats in steamy diners, drinks in murky bars, sleeps in queasy hotels, garnering fragmentary clues that are never what they seem, glimpsing his prey nightmarishly unreachable across a crowd, being himself indirectly menaced and covertly pursued. He is lonely, hopeful, afraid, driven: an unmistakable Everyman.

What saves the book from pretentiousness - it is among everything else a self-conscious commentary on the processes of fiction - is sheer narrative prowess. Even as we register the references - a motorway pile-up from which our (momentary) superman walks away unscathed, a vertiginous rooftop chase - our Pavlovian hearts beat faster. It is all rather exciting, if enervating. When, in a town called (I'm afraid) Despond, Walker succumbs to the local malady of inertia and seriously considers staying put, we know how he feels. But we read on, because fiction has conditioned us to accept the protagonist's reflection that 'the right path might be, precisely, a culmination of mistakes, of detours', and because Dyer's imagery, even at its most opaque, is so seductive.

There are whole strata of metaphor about reality and illusion: a massive bridge trembles thrillingly in a breeze; tapes replay the plangent sounds of silence; unanswered telephones imprint their cries of longing on empty rooms; and everywhere there are reflected images - abandoned film uncoiling in streets, scenes captured piecemeal in shattering glass, a whole town atrophied in three-

dimensional freeze-frame and, above all, variously obfuscating and revelatory, there are photographs.

This is an ambitious and stylish book, but Dyer was right to keep it under 150 pages. Humankind can bear only so much teasing with archetype and myth, with penetrating but partial glimpses, with thwarted yearning and calculated anxiety. The full human picture remains, like Malory, frustratingly just out of reach. There is, though, a wonderfully suggestive scene where Walker strays into a house, evidently the home of a writer, and sees through a window an elderly couple tranquilly taking tea in the garden. If it is his own future he is being shown, it is a resolution thoroughly earned and devoutly to be wished.

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