I found this story of two English youths living out a brief exile in Paris quietly affecting. They each find apartments, menial work, and beautiful girlfriends, and set about enjoying themselves. It is in the interaction between the couples that the charm lies. Luke and Alex lark about, basking in the loves of their lives, Nichole and Sahra. Nichole is from Budapest, and gives herself to Luke with total abandon. He adores her with equal absoluteness. Sahra has uncertain origins, and is more circumspect concerning Alex; but they grow together as the story progresses. There is a mild element of sexual wanting and possessiveness between the four, but on the whole, they interact in a way that enriches their lives.
Two major set pieces take place away from Paris. A winter break in an old house in the country, with snow falling and wood fires in every room; and a longer summer spent renovating another house, even further afield, where their surroundings crackle in the heat. They eat, drink, take drugs, plan outings, have sex, laugh and play, indulging themselves in a wholly good humoured way.
They are all essentially good, kind, considerate people. Their love for each other is sincere and lasting, and the lives they lead, despite the dissolution and lack of caution, is intrinsically moral.
This makes it all the sadder when the denouement comes, with one of the four friends feeling the need to call it a day, baling out, for no reason given other than whim. The fallout from this is handled well by the author, who describes the 'end' just after the middle of the story; so the last pages are set on a relatively high note.
However, the major flaw in the novel is precisely the inexplicable, unexplained nature of the descent of the central character, from someone exhibiting reasonable well roundedness, having social balance, being generous, loving and totally fidel, to an outsider, hell bent on the abandonment of all he values.
The ruin Luke brings on himself and the girl of his dreams is so unlike the character we have got to know, it jars. Although this is fiction, I like to be able to understand the different trajectories people take; and the only conclusion I could come to was that the acid trip the four friends indulged in together at the end of their deliciously evoked summer idyl, which forms the final pages of the novel, caused one of them to become prematurely unhinged.
This is a relatively lightweight novel, for its genre. It provides a snapshot of an idyllic existence that only becomes blighted 'off screen'. There is little in the way of struggle or ambition obstructing the main characters lives. They are going nowhere, mainly because, they are already where they want to be: with each other, having fun. They are not complicated people, but they each have remarkable insights into their shared condition, and admirable depths of feeling towards each other. A different, happier ending could have been contrived, but I suspect the author had his own reasons for this.
I have no idea how autobiographical the story is; but the way Geoff Dyer has created his two main male characters makes them seem like dual facets of one person. Luke, intelligent, sharp, funny, but wholly unambitious, sparkles alongside Alex, also intelligent, also sharp, also funny, who also appears unambitious, but who, at the same time, possesses a greater grasp of underlying reality. It is Alex rather than Luke who will one day settle down and compromise; and it is this sense of the author recognising in himself these opposing sides of his own character, and acknowledging that one needs to vanquish the other, if he is to succeed at the longer game
As for the girls, they are sweet, to a degree. Everyone would like to be loved by Nichole, in such an extreme, unconditional way; but maybe it is more realistic, with more lasting potential, to have the more practical Sahra in the background. Perhaps the author had someone in mind for whom these two girls represented all that was best in their sex.
It must be emphasised, because it is what makes the novel so endearing, that although tempers flare, and barbed words are spoken, there is an enduring soundness to the outlook and behaviour of the two couples, and the world they inhabit, that is positively wholesome. They go with the flow, and the flow is with them.
As I said, this came across as lightweight, but not frivolous. It asked questions about life that are not easily answered. Perhaps the biggest statement it makes is that life is for living rather than reflecting on, and certainly not for moralising about. None of the main characters has any pretensions to immortalise their doings in prose, or images, or music. They were not artists. Or not at the time; although, in fact, it is Alex who is telling the story. So he becomes an author, by default.
Nevertheless, the value of art, as a means of conveying the essence of life, shrinks beside the value of life itself. For a couple of years, these four friends exemplify how this might be lived, to the full, for no reason other than the pleasure it gave them.