A short time later, newly single, I bought a second copy of the book and, after inscribing the inside cover, mailed it to a woman who lived in London, someone I had once kissed in the small hours of a wine-fogged night, many Decembers previous. It had been years since I’d seen her, though we did still write to one another now and then. My note read, simply enough, “If you move to New York I will marry you.” A joke, of course. But, at the same time it was also what I wanted to happen. Several weeks later, I got a message — via Facebook — from the woman in question. “Thanks for the book.”
Naturally, this story has made its way into the ragbag of anecdotes I carry around with me at parties and in low-lit bars. Once, after fishing it out, I was told by a fellow acolyte that sending the book was “very Geoff Dyer.” Trying to work out what that means — that this rather schoolboy act of impetuosity could be imitative of the writer who inspired it — is one of the aims of this essay. It would please me to think that, Dyer, who has made a career of ignoring the borders between fiction and nonfiction, might have smiled at my attempt to effect a concrete change in my circumstance through having someone read a novel. And perhaps Dyer, a master of the paradox, would have enjoyed, too, the notion that my little joke derived its humor from not being a joke at all.
Discussions of Geoff Dyer’s work often begin with the observation that his books resist categorization, and this one will too. His novels aspire, at times, to the condition of essays, eschewing plot or character development in favor of commenting on a famous photograph or a piece of music, or offering up travel writing-type observations of wherever the author last holidayed. In his nonfiction, on the other hand, Dyer is, by his own admission, quite happy to include invented scenes alongside more sober commentary. Moreover, it would be characteristic of Dyer’s impish reversals to argue that it is precisely these invented scenes that contain the author’s sharpest commentary.
I give you the opening sparring of his interview with The Paris Review:
The first thing I’d like —
Excuse me for interrupting, but — at the risk of sounding like some war criminal in the Hague who refuses to acknowledge the legitimacy of the court in which he’s being tried — I have to object to the parameters of this interview.
On what grounds?
It’s titled “The Art of Nonfiction.” Now I could whine, “What about the fiction?” but that would be to accept a distinction that’s not sustainable. Fiction, nonfiction — the two are bleeding into each other all the time.
You don’t distinguish between them at all?
I don’t think a reasonable assessment of what I’ve been up to in the last however many years is possible if one accepts segregation. That refusal is part of what the books are about.
It is that last claim that interests me most, the idea that breaking down these boundaries isn’t simply the method of these works, but part of their meaning. There is clearly more at stake here than in which sections of Barnes and Noble you place the various books. A clue to Dyer’s thinking can be found in the structure of his bifurcated novel, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, which reads more like two loosely connected novellas than a single, coherent whole.
In the PR interview, Dyer claims that in Jeff in Venice: “No narrative rope [binds] the two bits together. Instead, there’ll be hundreds of these little invisible filaments, like déjà vu-type echoes […] Plotwise there’s no connection at all, but the book is absolutely a unified aesthetic experience.” If we accept that these two novellas are one single novel on the basis of “déjà vu-type echoes,” why stop there? Why not see the whole Dyer canon as a single, many hued, still-expanding book whose various sections can be rearranged into thousands of different permutations? There are as many echoes and connections across the books as there across the two sections of Jeff in Venice.
In Dyer’s first novel, The Colour of Memory, there is a scene in which the narrator sits on his rooftop reading Invisible Cities, by Italo Calvino. In his second novel, The Search, Dyer sets his protagonist off on a conventional detective story which is derailed by his arrival in a series of surreal cities, one of which, Leonia, takes its name from Calvino’s book. It is as though Dyer’s second novel is the mad dream of the character from the first, the hallucination that exists in the blank space between chapters. To continue this train game from book to book, in The Search Dyer has a character deliver the following speech:
You know when you’re on holiday and you take pictures? You always wait until you’re back home before getting them developed, even if you have time. Otherwise they’re just postcards. But if you wait till you’re back home they’re different. Then it’s like that story of dreaming of a garden where you pick a flower — and you wake up with petals in your bed.
This “story” is taken from the writings of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, something Dyer makes explicit in his travel book, Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It. The final story, “The Zone,” begins thus:
In a well-known flight of more than fancy, Coleridge reflected on dreams and their aftermath. Suppose “a man could pass through paradise in a dream, and have a flower presented to him as a pledge that his soul had really been there.” And if, when he awoke, he found petals in his hand? “What then?” Coleridge wondered.
When I sent a marriage proposal scribbled on the inside cover of a novel, I too had had Coleridgian dreams; I was trying to cash in for my petals.
In Dyer’s repetitions and leitmotifs, we get the sense of watching a mind traveling between planes of existence, an experience that suggests a reader should take a holistic approach to the body of work, rather than view each book as a discreet unit. Dyer contemplates this way of reading in Out of Sheer Rage, when the narrator comes across a woman watching television in a manner typical of night porters the world over:
[T]hey watch for hours but never become so absorbed in anything that they mind being interrupted. Given that there are a finite number of Westerns and an infinite number of nights in which to watch them they figure that any gaps can be filled in later. To them each film is really no more than a segment of an epic ur-Western spanning thousands if not millions of hours offering a quantity of material so vast that it can never be edited into a finished form.
Out of Sheer Rage was, incidentally, the first Dyer book I read. Perhaps that is why the image of the ur-Western has come to shape my understanding of this odd stack of books that sits beside me as I write. Surely, part of the point of thinking of each book as merely a thread in the tapestry of Dyer’s epic and unfinished ur-text is that each different order you put them in highlights different things, offers up different pleasures. In Sheer Rage, for instance, Dyer writes, “My mother still does jigsaws and she also loves to do crosswords, whole magazines of them. She is probably doing one now …” This characteristically lyrical change of gears from the habitual present to the particular present, to the very instant of writing, (lyrical that is, for its lack of obvious poetry, the portrait of the mother beautiful for its very drabness), becomes poignant when read sequentially after Another Great Day At Sea, a book dedicated to the memory of his now-dead parents. The bold present tense of the earlier work becomes a doomed, Orpheus-like attempt to reverse the passage of time.
In his study of photography, The Ongoing Moment, Dyer laments that the book, by nature of its physical reality, has a clear order. “I wish that each picture — or the verbal equivalent of a picture, each section of text — was not forced to be surrounded by just two others. Ideally some sections would be adjacent to four or eight or even ten others.” The unachievable ideal for the individual book — that it should be able to re-shuffle its own pages as though they were a deck of cards — can be achieved only by the collection of books.
I moved to New York at age 23 in order to become a writer. More specifically, I’d been accepted to the MFA program at New York University, and there was nothing keeping me in the United Kingdom. In fact, it was the desire to leave my native country — which, over the last few years had become quite toxic to me — much more than writerly ambition that made me apply for the program in the first place. It is not worth going into why I was so disenchanted with Britain, but I will say that the common trajectory for university graduates in England is that, after finishing their studies, they move to London to pursue a more adventurous, cosmopolitan life. For me, who grew up there, moving to the capital after university meant moving back in with my parents, sleeping in a room cluttered with the iconography of my adolescence, and being thoroughly miserable. But where else in Britain can you go?
I knew no one in New York when I arrived. I was trading in all the friendships I had made over the course of my first two and a half decades to become a stranger in a strange land. That’s right, dealer; five new ones, please. This all seemed like a terribly good idea. Not only was I being given the time (and validation) to write, I was also being given an entirely new set of experiences to write about. Money aside — I knew from the beginning it would be a struggle to make a living with one hand tied behind my back by the limitations imposed on people with student visas — it was a perfect arrangement.
Here is the opening paragraph to Paris Trance:
When Luke came to Paris with the intention of writing a book based on his experiences of living — as he grandly and naively conceived it — “in exile,” he was twenty-six years old (“a fine age for a man,” according to Scott Fitzgerald.) As far as I know he made absolutely no progress with this book, abandoning it — except at moments of sudden, drunken enthusiasm — in the instant that he began leading the life intending to serve as its research, its first draft. By the time we met … this book had assumed the status of a passport or travel visa: something which, by enabling him to leave one country and pass into another, had served its purpose …
You can see why, when I came across this book while browsing the shelves of Waterstones the day before catching my flight back to America for my final semester, I had the uncanny feeling of looking into a mirror, a mirror that, if I stood before it long enough, threatened to reveal things I hadn’t known were there.
But, as I have said, Paris Trance was not my first Dyer. The path that led me to his work began fittingly enough with an aborted attempt to write a novel that no one would have liked anyway. Like many novice fiction writers, my most immediate problem was generating the number of pages required to start calling a document I’d saved in Microsoft Word the “first draft of my novel.” The solution I came up with was to invent a protagonist who was himself a writer, and who could therefore come up with the pages for me. Brilliant. But did it work? Perhaps if it had I wouldn’t be writing this essay. At first this book-within-a-book idea seemed to have some mileage, but then I ran into an unexpected (though completely foreseeable) problem. Before long my protagonist suffered from the same writer’s block that was afflicting his creator.
When I presented a few chapters of this ragged novel to a friend of mine for advice, she very sensibly recommend that I read Out of Sheer Rage, Dyer’s book about failing to write a book about D. H. Lawrence. Taking writers block as his subject matter, Geoff performs one of his most Dyer-ish paradoxes — distraction as productivity, “detour as straight line.” He is the equivalent of a machine whose waste product is also its fuel.
The book turns, like so many other portrayals of life as a writer, to contemplating Yeats’s choice: perfection of the life or of the work. The model for the writer’s life that had been suggested to me throughout my MFA was the one that favors routine over inspiration, discipline over adventure, and I was quite secure in my belief that this was indeed the way. Writing is a job, so you should treat it like one. Get up at the same time each day and sit at your laptop until your 1500 words or your seven or eight hours (depending on just how serious you are) are up. Was it John Cheever who used to put on a suit each morning before making the journey to his “office?” Philip Roth offers a version of this model of the novelist’s life in The Ghost Writer, a book I read as an undergraduate with the same avidity that several years later I would bring to Paris Trance. When a young Nathan Zuckerman goes to visit his literary hero, E. I. Lonoff, he finds an old man who lives alone with his wife in a secluded farmhouse in the Berkshires, shutting out the wider world as completely as possible in order to dedicate himself fully to reading and writing fiction — a monk of literature. “All one’s concentration and flamboyance and originality reserved for the grueling, exalted, transcendent calling,” Nathan reflects. “I looked around and I thought, This is how I will live.”
Dyer, on the other hand, decided some time ago this was precisely not how he would live. Like Philip Larkin before him, Dyer abhors “the shit in the shuttered chateau,” with his “five hundred words” a day. When the narrator comes across Julian Barnes’ house in Sheer Rage, he pictures with horror the novelist spending each day doing nothing but writing his novels. “It seemed an intolerable waste of life, of a writer’s life especially, to sit at a desk in this nice, dull street in north London.”
If not by writing, how should a writer spend his or her life? Well, by living, of course. When, in Paris Trance, Alex asks Luke why he never got round to finishing the novel he came to Paris to write, Luke responds: “Why write something if you can live it?” Luke’s abandonment of his proposed novel in order to throw himself more fully into his Paris lifestyle is in keeping with Dyer’s ideas about how a writer should behave. Except that Luke takes it too far: “living” has to involve some kind of writing; it can’t replace it entirely. Dyer suggests that it is indeed because Luke is so ready to view himself as a writer, and therefore enjoys the illusion of fulfilling himself creatively, that he doesn’t write: “People always assumed he was an artist. Perhaps that is one of the reasons he felt so little need actually to create anything.”
However, Dyer, who is only 57 years old, has produced some 13 books. How do we account for this productivity from a man who has been hailed the “slacker laureate?” The true ideal underpinning Dyer’s canon, rather than believing (like Luke) that writing is something that gets in the way of living, or (like Lonoff) that living is something that gets in the way of writing, is that, just as there is no meaningful distinction between fiction and nonfiction, there is also no meaningful distinction between writing and living. Or, as Dyer puts it himself, “It’s a job for life; more accurately, it is a life.” And it is precisely this lack of a distinction between living and writing that gives his prose its particular energy.
This sketch of New York is taken from But Beautiful:
When a woman, feeling the city falling damp around her, hearing music from a radio somewhere, looks up and imagines the lives being led behind the yellow-lighted windows: a man at his sink, a family crowded together around a television, lovers drawing curtains, someone at his desk, writing these words.
Collapsing the time lag between having an experience and writing about it, Dyer also dissolves the gap between writing something down and having someone else read it. In that hurried portrait of “someone at his desk, writing these words,” Dyer creates the sense of lived experience, the act of writing, and the act of reading all happening simultaneously.
Blurring the distinction between life and text accounts, in part, for the oddness of Dyer’s fiction. He claims, in his afterword to the reprint of The Search, that three of his four novels are “entirely plotless.” This seems especially true of the first and third novels, plotlessness best defined not as a lack of events (how can any scene-based writing lack events?) but as a lack of dramatic action, a scarcity of conflict. Both The Colour of Memory and Paris Trance consist almost entirely of one nice thing happening after another — even the less nice things (getting kicked out of your flat, losing your job) are related with such good-natured amiability that no real bitterness is felt.
(Or so I thought. After drafting the previous sentence, I reread Memory and found that quite a lot of nasty things happen: the threats of homelessness and violence hover throughout. Somewhere along the line I had reconceived the novel into what I needed it to be. Despite my reassessment, I decided to let the sentence stand, reasoning that the important thing was not the novel itself, but the afterglow it left for me. Paris Trance, on the other hand, is genuinely free of comparable darkness. At least I think it is. I reread that one, too, but then, as always, the moment you close the book, memory begins to exert its distorting influence.)
When we are taught to write fiction (in MFA programs, for instance), we are told that stories are about things going wrong. “Happiness writes white,” Henry de Montherlant tells us. And yet it is largely with this white ink that Dyer has produced two full-length novels. The question of how to make happiness worth reading is explicitly addressed by Alex and Luke in a conversation they have about vampire movies. Luke describes his favorite trope in these films, the moment when the traveler stumbles into a lonely inn:
Called something like The-Creaky-Sign-Blowing-In-The-Storm-Arms and everyone in the pub turns hostile when he tells them where he’s going. A lightening flash fills the window at this point, obviously. But why, instead of explaining to him that he’d be better off going somewhere else, why do they suddenly turn all sullen and virtually show him the door? […] if they just let him stay a couple of nights till the storm died down and he then got the coach back to England, back to his fiancée, everything would be fine. […] I would prefer that to the whole dismal bit about Dracula. Basically by the time he gets to castle Dracula it’s all pretty well downhill. What I like is the coziness that the prospect of the horror builds up.
After listening to Luke say his piece, Alex responds, sagely, “You wouldn’t get that coziness without that horror.” Luke retorts, voicing what is presumably Dyer’s own view, “Just the prospect of the horror would do.” Indeed, it is exactly this principle on which the novel is built. As long as we know that Luke is going to make a hash of his love life, that he is never going to amount to anything as an artist, and that Luke’s Ecstasy habit will contribute to, if not cause, his eventual ruin, we don’t actually need to see his decline; the knowledge of it casts a poignant and bronze-tinted light back on the idyllic scenes of the novel. Moreover, the act of recalling the lost idyll becomes a more-than-worthwhile task for the novelist. Why write something if you can live it? Alex knows why. “Because you can’t live it forever.”
After I finished the MFA, fired up by my reading of Dyer, I decided that I wouldn’t even attempt to get a “career job,” that instead I would live frugally, work the dribs and drabs that I needed to in order to pay my rent, and write whenever I felt like it. I also began dating a woman named Liz, and soon after fell very rapidly in love. I’d known her since I’d first moved to New York, but only now, a year and a half later, had we become involved. The months that followed might have been my happiest in America, maybe my happiest anywhere. For a while I read constantly, drank moderately, slept in late, ate well, worked when I absolutely had to, and enjoyed more or less every bit of it. I didn’t have much money and I didn’t need much.
Soon, however, a cloud started to pass across my sunlit existence. I wasn’t writing. I had all the time to do it but, somehow, I’d got too good at letting myself off the hook. Not so much writer’s block as writer’s never-ending lunch break. My anxiety about not writing reached its zenith one morning when I was alone in Liz’s apartment, having set aside the whole day to write while she was at work. At 11, after having been up for four hours, I’d not written a single sentence. Instead of writing, I’d worked myself into a state of wall-punching fury about not writing.
To ease my restlessness, I slid open the window to Liz’s bedroom and shimmied out onto the fire escape to smoke. Below me, nothing moved in the valley between the apartment block on whose edge I perched and the one opposite. It was the sort of place that suggests mystery: rickety staircases, cracked bricks, small windows offering up tantalizing slivers of other people’s lives. Dragging my thumb across the sticky wheel of the lighter, it took a few false starts to get the thing lit, while I kept my left hand cupped around the flame struggling to be born. Once it had caught, I dragged too hard and burned the back of my throat. Was my whole life plan a stupid one? Not getting a real job, valuing time over money so that I would be able to write — what the hell was I thinking? What vanity! Was I writing now? Here I was, with a full morning calling out to be used productively, and I was indulging in a habit I’d long since quit. Surely this was the ultimate in procrastination: killing time and, as an inevitable by-product, myself. I took another sharp drag on the cigarette.
As I sat there, with the various choices I’d made over the previous year whirling around in the pitiless afternoon light, re-categorizing themselves from “decisions” to “mistakes,” I saw a single soot-smeared feather drifting into the valley, swinging first one way, then the other, as it fell. I attempted to see some kind of symbolism in this, and failed, though it did complete the dirty beauty of the scene before me. As a boy, John Updike saw a glimpse of the divine in the form of pigeon feathers, or so the autobiographical fiction tells it. I cannot say I experienced a comparable epiphany.
I decided I would get back to my laptop and write something — anything at all — as soon as this cigarette was done. The cigarette was my timer, an imprecise one, which appealed to me all the more: there was no counting down with such a clock. I agreed with myself that, while it lasted, I didn’t have to feel guilty about not writing. Just then, I noticed a squat, blue-gray pigeon had its talons wrapped around the railing of the fire escape facing mine, and it appeared to be looking at me. Never before have I locked eyes with a pigeon, and I can tell you it’s a strange feeling. Did it recognize me as a fellow creature? That feather I saw floating earlier might have belonged to this bird. I kept expecting it to flutter off, or to turn its head sharply away from mine, in some kind jerky, 90-degree movement, but we remained looking into one another’s eyes. For a moment, what passed between us — that is, nothing — felt very much like empathy. And all at once I was tranquil again. It’s fine, I told myself, the writing will come. My cigarette, meanwhile, had burned down to the stub, and I duly tossed it into the valley. Then I lit another.
If all of Geoff Dyer’s books can be read as fragments of a polymorphous whole, the two books that are most carefully sewn together are Colour of Memory and Paris Trance. When, in the latter, Alex and Luke first meet, they bond over both having lived in Brixton, the setting of the earlier novel. Moreover, it turns out that, when living there, they both knew someone called “Steranko,” a memorably-named character from Memory. And how does Memory end? With one of the central characters, Freddie, leaving England to move to France: “No point staying here,” he says. “The fable’s got to run its course.”
In setting up these links between the two works, Dyer enables himself to perform great feats of elision. Some of the most important bits in Paris Trance are, then, not actually in Paris Trance at all. When, years after the events of the novel have taken place, Alex goes to see Luke in England, and finds him a washed-up wreck, he asks his old friend what he does with himself. The following cryptic dialogue is exchanged:
“Nothing. Actually that’s not true. I wait.”
“For it all to come round again.”
There is a buried reference to Nietzsche here, which can be found by digging around in Memory, the earlier novel, where he quotes The Gay Science:
What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: “This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence — even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!"
Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: “You are a God and never have I heard anything more divine.”
Reading Alex and Luke’s dialogue in the light of this extract, it seems that Luke is Dyer’s way of testing out a philosophical question: what kind of pleasure-to-pain ratio does an individual need to receive the demon’s message as good news? Luke’s romanticism has to do with the idea of eternal return. He seems to be contented with the notion that, for every two years of bliss he gets, he has to suffer a lifetime of wasted potential. He pays for his weekend, in other words, with a very long working week.
One night, Liz and I were invited over to dinner with my friends Maria and Ben, who, like us, were a transatlantic couple. Ben was another Brit abroad trying to write that elusive first novel. (We had met while earning our MFAs.) There existed further parallels between us — he was also, like me, newly in love, working a bum job, and well acquainted with the works of Geoff Dyer.
Ben was a great cook, but a slow one. Consequently, although it was nearly nine by the time we arrived, dinner was far from ready, though martinis were available. Quite soon we were all overtaken by a rapid and giddying drunkenness.
“The only reason everyone thinks he cooks so well is that he hides behind the flattering veil of alcohol,” I said. “By the time you eat you’re too pissed to notice the mediocrity of the food.”
Ben told me to shut up and threw half an onion in my direction.
The apartment was one that none of us lived in — Maria was housesitting for a friend — and so, inevitably, it was bigger, more nicely decorated, and located in a more expensive part of the city than any of our actual homes.
“What does she do?” I asked. “The woman who lives here?”
“She works for Google.”
“How the other half lives.”
It was about this time that one of us (I forget which) suggested we make this whole dinner party feel a good deal less middle-aged by ordering a gram of cocaine.
“Brilliant idea!” the other one said, whoever that was. “That would be so Paris Trance.”
“My God! You two have to stop talking about that book!”
“You know,” Ben replied, “you telling us not to talk about Paris Trance is exactly the sort of thing that would happen in New York Trance.”
For some reason, the task of ordering the coke fell to me, despite the fact that up until now I had never bought so much as a bag of weed. I did, however, have a contact — a friend of mine had once texted her dealer on my phone, and so I had a number.
“Hey,” I wrote, “im a friend of karren. can I get a gram of coke to the upper east side please?” Dropping my usual high standards of grammar when texting was an attempt to look like a “normal bloke,” which is, presumably, exactly the sort of person that people who sell drugs most like selling them to. I wondered if the “please” was too prissy, but told myself not to worry — surely it can’t hurt to be polite.
I soon got a text back. “whoaaaaah! Can you be any less discreet?!!!”
In the most indignant tones I could muster, I read the texts aloud to my friends, who promptly burst into laughter at the obvious wrongness of my approach. The sparks of my indignation were soon kindled into flame by my drunkenness. What was this American paranoia? So you can’t text a drug dealer and tell him you want to buy drugs from him! Surely this guy wasn’t so deluded about his own importance as to believe the FBI or whoever was reading every paltry message that flashed onto his phone’s tiny screen? What a pathetic man! Reasoning that the only way to douse the flame of anger that now threatened my evening was to keep drinking, I asked Ben to build me another martini, and he duly obliged.
I drafted my response, aiming at false humility. “So sorry, didn’t mean to put my foot in it. I’m British, you see, and we don’t do well with awkward topics. I just want ‘one.’ Is that better?”
Before sending I ran it by the group.
“Perfect,” said Liz.
“That’ll clinch it,” said Maria.
When, a few minutes later I received the final text of the evening — “Not tonight bro I’m going to bed” — we all hooted with laughter. Except Ben, that is, in whose eyes, which seemed in the candlelight to be entirely black, I saw a desperate hunger, the kind that isn’t satiated by feeding, but is driven on by it. In that moment I saw the curtain opening on a darker side to our obsession with Dyer’s book about gluttonous love, and the pursuit of pleasure at all costs.
It turned out to be one of those nights where the speed at which the present is transposed into the past is accelerated. The delay between something happening and its becoming part of a shared history was roughly the length of time it takes for the image in a Polaroid to emerge from the darkness. Within minutes we were reminiscing about my botched attempt to procure class A drugs. And while Ben joked about it too, I could see that his heart wasn’t in it. And neither was mine. Although I could see the funny side of my ineptitude, my principal feeling was frustration at failing to acquire the substances that would have perfected the occasion. For a while, we bathed in the warm glow that the alcohol lent to the evening, but soon the conversation turned the way of all drunk conversations — that is, to the thing most likely to disrupt the possibility of anyone’s having a good time. In our case, visas.
“If we can’t get sponsorship,” Ben said, “we should all just get married.” Something in my chest tightened. I’d not broached this subject yet with Liz, although I’d thought about it. We hadn’t been seeing each other long.
“Bad deal,” Maria said. “What would be in it for me and Liz?” After she spoke, she laughed. I could tell she and Ben had had this conversation before, and that for them it was a sort of game.
“Come on,” Ben said, as though asking someone to have one more drink with him before turning in. “Please?”
I dreaded hearing what Liz would say, and hoped that we could talk about it alone first. But that wasn’t how it panned out.
“We could swap,” she said. “I could marry Ben and you could marry Toby.”
I felt a pang of jealousy.
“That’s a terrible idea,” I said.
“Why not?” Maria said. “I’d be down.”
Ben sensed, before anyone else, before Liz even, just how unhappy I was, how desperately I needed for us to talk of other things.
“Food’s ready,” he said, cheerily. “Let’s serve out.”
Incredibly, this clunky tactic to diffuse the situation worked. There’s something to be said for drunk people: they have the same capacity for moronic happiness that they have for moronic self-pity. The evening resumed its pleasant course, and the conversation hovered around less fraught topics.
Later, in bed, with her body nestled into mine, I said to Liz:
“Would you really not marry me?”
“Oh my God, Toby.”
“Hear me out.”
She wriggled out of my arms, keeping her back toward me.
“It wouldn’t be an actual marriage,” I went on.
“I don’t want to talk about …”
“Just hear me out. I love you. I don’t want to be in a separate country from you. I didn’t want to ask you this now. I wanted to wait. But now that it’s come up, we may as well talk about it. Say six months down the line, we still feel about each other the way we do now. Say I don’t manage to get a visa. Wouldn’t you consider marrying me? Not as a real, let’s-be-together-forever thing, just as a, you know, we-want-to-be-together-now thing, and this is what we have to do.”
“Are you proposing to me?”
“No! Well, sort of. But not really.”
Only then did she roll over to look at me. She didn’t look annoyed, as I was expecting. She looked sorry, like she pitied me.
“It’s just hard to see that, if we got married, and lived together, and dated each other, well, if we did all that, it’s hard to see how we wouldn’t be actually married.”
“But that’s just it! If things didn’t work out, we could just get ourselves a lovely divorce! No hard feelings …”
She didn’t laugh at my levity.
“You think we’re too young, don’t you,” I said.
“I don’t think I ever want to be married.”
I did already know this, of course. One of the down sides of starting a relationship with someone you’ve been friends with a long time is that, when something like this comes up, you can’t say you weren’t warned.
“Right. Good, then.” I said.
“Don’t be weird.”
I rolled over to face the wall.
“What is it?”
“It’s nothing. Really. It’s just that you said you’d marry Ben.”
“Oh my god, I knew that would upset you!”
“You’d marry Ben but you wouldn’t marry me.”
“That would be completely different! It wouldn’t be an actual marriage.”
“Can you imagine what that would be like for me? You being married to my best friend?”
“I don’t even know why we’re talking about this. It was a joke! That was just dinner talk.”
I knew this, of course. But, coincidentally, at the same time as being a joke, it was also the last thing I wanted to happen in the entire world.
“I know. I’m just.”
“I don’t want to have to leave.”
“I know you don’t. I don’t want you to leave.”
“So then marry me!”
She put her arm around me and grabbed a fistful of my shirt. Then she rested her chin on my shoulder. I listened as her breathing assumed the slow rhythms of sleep, that familiar sound in her nose that teeters on the edge of snoring. It was a week night and, unlike me, she had to rise early the next morning.
There is a moment in Paris Trance when Alex, after describing a road trip, turns away from the narrative to make the following observations:
You cannot store up happiness. The past is useless. You can dwell on it but not in it. What good does it do anyone, knowing that they once sat with friends in a car and called out the names of cinemas and films, that they ate lunch in a town whose name they have forgotten?
It is a painfully jarring paragraph. It seems to show the author confessing to the futility of his art right in the midst of the performance, like a magician holding his hands up and saying the vanished dove will not be reappearing. So much for the novelist’s power to preserve. I thought about those lines that night as I lay next to Liz, unable to sleep, and I wondered if they were true. I have never much cared for the idea that the writer gets to cheat death, living on through his or her work. But I am fond of the notion that an author gets to hold on to things for just a little longer than the ordinary person.
This too now seemed like a fallacy. What was this life that I had chosen for myself? Where were its consolations? Trying to be a writer meant having less money and stability than my peers. I knew that, I signed up for that, but only now did it become abundantly clear what I was giving up. The prospect of having to go back to England filled me with sadness. I could see then what I’d been denying to myself for a long time: that I’d built New York into my own idyll, that I viewed my life here as though it were already over, and that by looking at it through the lens of nostalgia I only saw what was good in it. I knew also that between having no proper job, and my student visa’s imminent expiration, my tenure in this country was likely to be just two years — the same amount of time that Luke spends in Paris — and that when it was over, New York would seem to me no more than a brilliant dream, whose radiance, once I had woken with no petals in my hand, would serve only to emphasize the dullness of the gray morning light.