Shiftless, solitary, sybaritic men occupy the central role in Geoff Dyer’s non-quite fiction. Surrounding a central male character is a common cast of supporting roles: another man, more grounded; a dark-haired, sexually adventurous girlfriend (‘almost-wife’) and an asexual female in a sibling-like role (but not a sister, for the central male is always an only child).
Woven throughout Dyer’s writing over twenty years, whether essay or novel, as narrator or subject, is this shiftless, solitary character. More than any author I read (including Sebald), Dyer is retelling and reinterpreting a personal narrative. In Paris Trance he writes, “The events recorded here concerned only a handful of people and, quite probably, are of interest only to those people.”
Whether the setting is Paris, London, Venice or Varanasi, the story line remains the same: the doomed love of a solitary and selfish, but not unsympathetic man. His generosity almost redeems his selfishness:
‘It’s like he hasn’t been weaned. The world is just a breast to be sucked.’ ‘How can you say that when he’s just cooked yet another incredible meal for us?’ ‘Easily. The fact that he’s very generous doesn’t stop him being totally selfish.’
This haunted character (ranging in age from twenties to forties) inhabits a life without contact with children. In ‘On Being an Only Child,’ Dyer asserts, “It’s not just that I have never wanted to have children; I have always actively hated the idea. Frankly, I can’t understand why anyone [his italics] wants to have them.” In this childlessness state, the character can live an existence of blameless hedonism.
Dyer’s latest fiction Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasicarries forward the same motifs: the familiar cast of characters, candid sex scenes and drug taking. It should all become a bit repetitive and ‘only of interest to those people’ who can recognise themselves. And yet it is rare to uncover such insight into love, friendship, art, music, cinema, literature and life. The author’s personality is what haunts long after you have forgotten the characters and setting. Dyer’s presence lingers strongly after the carefully constructed sentences have gone out of mind.