On Dyer and Houellebecq
Cross-posted at Idiom
After opening a story in his 2003 collection Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It by announcing his intent to write a book, a typical Geoff Dyer monologue proceeds as follows:
I couldn’t read or write or do anything that required sustained attention. I was distracted, constantly, by one thing or another. Everything competed with and detracted from everything else. Nothing was satisfying, nothing held its own. If I was out I wanted to be in; if I was in I wanted to be out.
After four pages of this—you’ve been spared—Dyer has made little headway, but the reader has a better idea of what she’s gotten herself into. While the passage claims to introduce a book about ruins (or more specifically, the decision to write it), it ends up, like much of Dyer’s fiction, taking writer’s block as its true subject and turning the project’s collapse into the book itself.
Geoff Dyer’s writing is often charged with being deliberately schizophrenic, and indeed, readers familiar with him aren’t likely to know of him for the same reasons. His criticism makes regular appearances in the British dailies, and – in addition to nonfiction works about World War I and the history of American photography – he’s been dubbed “the Poet Laureate of the Slacker Generation” for his fiction and backpacker travelogues, to say nothing of his open affection for psychedelic drugs. Over the span of nine books—his first was a critical study of mentor John Berger; his most recent, a novel riffing on Thomas Mann—Dyer has defined himself through his polymath’s taste and disregard for easy classification, a practice he suggestively calls “intellectual vagabondage.” His latest book, Jeff In Venice, Death in Varanasi, is strangely true to life, centering on two Dyer-esque British freelancers. While Yoga follows “Geoff,” a quasi-autobiographical stand-in that reflects the book’s uneasy relationship to genre. In the spirit of frustrating librarians, fictional improvisations regularly appear in nonfiction works, and philosophical asides occupy a permanent position in his fiction.
As the excerpt suggests, many of Dyer’s books begin with pretensions of later-abandoned goals: writing an essay about antiquity while in Rome, drafting the Great Parisian Novel—and instead devolve into coyly diversionary accounts of the things that happen when writers should probably be writing. Rather than working, Dyer’s protagonists—who are always unattached creative types—float from cafes in Amsterdam to bars in New Orleans, swapping observations about Nietzsche before heading off in pursuit of the next transient adventure. As such, projects started are rarely finished, or at least not in the intended form. A study of D.H. Lawrence becomes an excuse for a Mediterranean vacation and an article about Parisian walking tours quickly sours into a marijuana-fueled exercise in public paranoia. If Dyer is to be taken at face value, his novels are door prizes offered in lieu of finished products; the byproducts of a writer’s life lived rather than transcribed. Ultimately, though, this is a bait-and-switch—books are finished (if not the ones promised), and, à la Proust, writing becomes a life-affirming act, the thing that happens in the wake of continual deferral.
As a cultural critic whose philosophizing tends to bleed into his fiction, Dyer shares unexpected ground with another of Europe’s highly regarded writers—Michel Houellebecq, a novelist both acclaimed and despised for his bleak vision of Western society. Throughout his career—he’s four months older than Dyer—Houellebecq has positioned himself as the arch-misanthrope of European letters, polarizing readers with his unrepentant nihilism and decidedly un-PC musings about everything from sex to Islam. (Houellebecq was sued in 2001 after calling Islam “the stupidest religion.”) Despite this, Houellebecq parses scientific and cultural trends with a degree of insight largely absent in contemporary fiction. He discusses genetics with a comfort most authors reserve for Auden or Shelley (which, admittedly, isn’t always a good thing) and when he’s at his best, he brings a undeniably compelling sci-fi quality to his fiction. Bucking the trend of the experimental nouvelle roman, Houellebecq picks up where Sagan and Camus left off, and according to some, is single-handedly responsible for reviving the French novel of ideas.
While Houellebecq’s second novel, The Elementary Particles, earned him his reputation as one of France’s most important writers, the book repelled critics (Michiko Kakutani called it a “deeply repugnant read”) for its unapologetic misogyny and thesis that 1960s counterculture was directly at fault for societal decline. In Particles, as in his first novel, Whatever, Houellebecq mobilizes fiction as a means of enacting philosophy, using characters as mouthpieces for his grim and deadly serious vision of the world. “I’ve always been struck by how accurate Huxley was in Brave New World,” remarks Bruno, one of the novel’s protagonists,
Everything that’s happened since  simply brings Western society closer to the social model he described. Control of reproduction is more precise and will eventually be dissociated from sex altogether… Pharmaceutical companies will eventually break down the distinction between youth and age… Brave New World is our idea of heaven: genetic manipulation, sexual liberation, the war against aging, the leisure society. This is precisely the world that we have tried—and so far failed—to create.
As he continually reminds his readers, Houellebecq is a product of May ’68, and his writing hammers away at exposing the movement’s fallout as nothing more than empty wish fulfillment. Utopian promises have failed, Houellebecq informs his readers, and free love and individualism have produced a society that’s collectively alienated, or “atomized,” to cite the UK title of Elementary Particles. A 2000 New York Times Magazine profile confirms Houellebecq as the high priest of his own self-fulfilling prophecy, trailing him as he shuffles around the house in a bathrobe; drinking, writing, and making half-hearted passes at a bemused but non-compliant reporter.
Over the course of five novels, Houellebecq has refined his philosophy into an aesthetic, applying it to subjects ranging from quietly pathetic—and vaguely autobiographical—software engineers (Whatever) to East Asian sex tourists (Platform) to a sci-fi rendering of humanity’s dystopian future (The Possibility of an Island). Regardless of the context, Houellebecq’s anti-heroes are always comfortably numb European men within one of two categories, John Updike observes in a New Yorker review: “a desolate loner consumed by boredom and apathy, or a galvanized male porn star.” Neither, Updike rightfully adds, are particularly sympathetic. Houellebecq’s characters are driven by powerful narcissism, and there’s no escaping themselves or their sad realities in the author’s all-encompassing universe. As if in darker versions of Dyer’s novels, when Houellebecq’s characters leave home they inevitably wind up in exotic tourist hives, fruitlessly pursuing “authentic” experiences while lounging by pools with fellow sunburned Westerners.
For all their obvious differences, Dyer offers a much-needed addendum to Houellebecq’s vision of bourgeois shiftlessness. In Dyer, shiftlessness takes the form of transcribed procrastination and backpacker storytelling; it means another trip, another essay, and a jumping-off point for casual criticism and philosophizing. In Houellebecq, it emerges as a symptom of societal decline, a natural byproduct of Western culture and a platform for advancing grand theories explaining it. While Dyer makes no claim to engage in the kind of the social metaphysics that Houellebecq trades in, Dyer’s writing itself undermines the quiet basis of all of Houellebecq’s fiction: that he’s the only one who understands what’s really going on, and that the rest of the world has been lulled into a false sense of unexamined complacency.
Finally, Dyer is able to provide what Houellebecq’s often bloodless fiction doesn’t: a sense of emotional stakes. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Paris, Trance, Dyer’s book about a young Englishman moving to Paris to write the great expatriate novel. For the first twenty pages of the novel, our hero, Luke, wanders around Paris, bereft of a job, friends, or basic French skills. This kind of isolation is something Houellebecq’s characters are familiar with, but rather than use it as an excuse for vitriolic philosophizing, Dyer performs loneliness at the level of the sentence, carefully muting his prose until Luke’s eventual happiness prompts otherwise. In doing this, Dyer entangles the reader’s fate with that of the protagonist. This style of mapping loneliness is not as boldly ambitious as Houellebecq, but in some ways is accomplishes more, and reminds us what fiction should do—even if it isn’t exactly fiction.