on 21 July 2004
I wasn't looking for an exciting plot, or an entirely new scenario. I know that the dole-queue of 80's Britain has been explored before and will be again, in fiction. This may be a nostalgic read, but isn't a nostalgic write as such, as it was first published in 1989.
I like Dyer's characters, I care about them. I find them real. They are sweet, sincere, kind people, with strong bonds of friendship. I care what they do, I enjoyed being part of their time together, time when often little happens but they enjoy eachother's company and the passing of time. I felt that male friendship was touchingly portrayed. These men have feelings (of course), they show them, not through flashy shows of emotion and "new-man" (this was before the "new-man of course!), but in the care they show one another.
Above all, I like that Dyer enjoys words. He clearly cares about language, and paints with it. The book is very sensual - lots of visual passages, but plenty of sounds and smells, too, and the feeling of hot or cold - depending on the season - well-evoked. In a couple of places I worried the prose was moving slightly towards the purple (but only everso slightly!). And in a few places I found the repetition of fire or jet-trail imagery a bit tiring, though on reflection, I think this adds to the feeling of repetition in the lives of Dyer's characters, who do live in a bit of a cycle.
I like Dyer's observation of detail, and the way that through this Brixton becomes almost a character in the novel. Though he acknowledges the bleak, miserable environment these friends inhabit, he does find the beauty in it, and conveys that beauty admirably.
I found the ending touching, it made me think back to earlier passages, and really tied the book up well for me.
I have read that Dyer is working on a book about a series of photographs. This makes perfect sense to me, as there is a lot of that in this novel - photographs evoking memories and wonderings. I will look forward to that book.
Certainly this is a novel I would recommend to friends, and one I know I will re-read.
on 14 August 2000
Geoff Dyer's The Colour Of Memory is an amazingly well-written novel, (the author's first) perhaps more so for how it is written than for what actually takes place on the pages, more about this a bit later. The narrator of Colour Of Memory, plus five or six close friends are all young, university-educated and living a near-impoverished existence in a series of barely inhabitable South London, Council flats.
In Colour Of Memory, Dyer describes in beautifully vivid detail a series of intimate snapshots of life lived day to day on the margins of Thatcher's Great Britain in the mid-1980's. The novel begins with a kind of lost generation, Hemingway-esque line; "In August it rained all the time-heavy, corrosive rain from which only nettles and rusty metal derived refreshment". From this line onward, the tone is set with the narrator losing his low-paying, unengaging, government-sponsored job as well as being evicted from his Brixton apatment. Narrator and friends are all portrayed by the author with a wistful, near-biographical approach; discussing the Darwinist, capitalist landscape of Tory-dominated Britain, listening to Maria Callas on a cloudy afternoon, arguing the merits of John Coltrane's sixties-era recordings, smoking strong dope on the roof of the narrator's flat, attending parties in dangerous neighborhoods and just scraping by while trying to nurture their separate, artistic ambitions. Without question, the characters of Colour Of Memory, narrator included, are all 1980's beatniks of one kind or another and the novel makes clear how quixotic a life this really is, living in a society and an atmosphere that values financial prowess and ordinary survival skills over creativity of any variety.
What takes place on the pages of Colour Of Memory is seemingly woven together with an invisible thread, there appears to be no obvious plot, rhyme or reason to the action. Yet, the reader is propelled forward through one shimmering vignette after another, one can't articulate why, one just seems to feel some connection to these people and therefore cares about what comes next, no matter the order of happenings. Colour Of Memory could be seen as self-indulgent and a trifle mundane, but fortunately for the reader it easily escapes this fate by presenting itself as a compelling group of beautifully written recollections, sometimes sad, usually funny and certainly tracing the beginnings of a great writer. Maybe Dyer summarized this novel before it even began with a quote from John Berger, probably his biggest influence: " What remains of our hopes is a long despair which will engender them again".
The colour of memory is blue - sailcloth blue like the sky above Brixton just before the riots - of which you will sense only an atmosphere of heightened tension in this book, a worry that one might be mugged, and one incident when Geoff and his black friend Carlton, had to leg it one night when picked on by a trio of skinheads.
"Since I'd last been to the DHSS offices a month before they'd spruced the place up a bit. In particular they'd put in a thicker plate glass partition and lowered the claimant's side of the counter so that you actually ended up on your knees and yelling, as if praying to deaf and bureaucratic God."
This was Geoff Dyer's first book and from the outset one understands that this is a far-from conventional novel. If, that is, it is a novel at all? On p.126 Geoff quotes his friend Freddie, famous within their circles for being a writer who doesn't write very often, if at all. He might be quoting his own paen to plotlessness: "Oh no, there's no plot. I hate plots. Plots are what get people killed. Generally plots are the worst thing about books. It's such a bore the way that in chapter eleven or whatever somebody always has to get hold of a gun. Plots are what you get on television: there's no need for them these days."
What we do get in fact, in Geoff Dyer's books, is story. Here is what it was like to be a career-free doley in the dying days of the 1980s. You may think there is something reprehensible about writing from the class-barricades, and so there might be, but there is no pretension, no dishonesty and a great deal of humour. It is also beautifully sensual and enjoyable. These young men and women like each other. They like living in Brixton, they are friends and they care about each other. The free-flowing text is full of insight and a kind of hard-wired, awkwardly-framed poetry. On a train one day there is an incident when a group of youths attack someone: "Everyone from that end of the carriage charged up to my end where we all huddled, horrified, like cattle in a storm."
Geoff Dyer can write, you see. Does it matter that he's writing about a group of drifters, young men without jobs for much of the time, who make a point of getting drunk, of scoring soft-drugs when they can, who are serious about football and sometimes about girls, who are mostly white, middle-class wastrels, who read books, who listen to jazz and Maria Callas? Well, no, actually, it doesn't matter at all.
on 26 July 2000
Although described as life in South London in the Eighties, this novel could equally describe inner city life today. It is written as a series of snapshot experiences of the narrator's life around Brixton. One could almost imagine this book as a series of photographs. That, I guess, is a sign of good writing. This novel is a straightforward, entertaining read. Don't expect anything deep or profound. It shows how life is made up of little moments which we are often blind to, and are often quite beautiful in their spontaneity and simplicity. It has certainly helped to open my eyes to the unexpected beauty of everyday life in London if you look for it.
on 17 October 2014
Well-written but I prefer more plot. Also, his classical-music-loving layabouts get up my nose a bit. Also, why does his narrator have so little sex - only a bit at the close of a chapter towards the end? Is it because a relationship would demand a small bit of responsibility?
on 4 December 2001
The Colour of memory is a nostalgic drench in those balmy happy-go-lucky days of 1980s unemployment, a sort of Dolequeue Revisited. Its cast of urbane, witty, 20-something Brixton-dwellers coast serenely from park to pub to party in a haze of soft drugs, beer, and sparkling conversation. This is the Dandy Aristocracy of the DHSS, critics and artists all, cunningly staying clear of the squalor of a dull job, biding their time on housing benefit until their genius is recognised. They are only occasionally menaced by the more brutal elements of the society around them, elements never as thin, beautiful, or musically-sophisticated as themselves, often identifiable by the noun+faced adjectives applied to them: lard-faced, lager-faced, pavement-faced etc. The story is told in short, episodic passages, each rising to a final poetic epiphany - ah, so many epiphanies in those blissful days of Thatcherite largesse! The writing is crafted in strong equiAmisian contours, marked by the play and reversal of cliche, the sharp decoding of metropolitan debris, the random danger of proletarian violence. It ends with a thin ooze of vague, unearned tragedy, and, rather strangely, warms one to the memory of Norman Tebbit.
on 22 March 2015
I enjoyed the colourful and original prose style of this book, the first I have read by this writer. He takes us to Nineties Brixton, post riots but still an edgy urban place where the characters reminiscent of Irvine Welsh but less extreme, drink, smoke cannabis, meet muggers, and live a feckless life during a summer in the city. Might read another one of his books, but wasn't blown away by the plot or characters.
on 25 March 2014
I don't write many Amazon reviews, but I felt compelled to write one for this book just because the writing is so beautiful. There are passages and phrases that I want to copy and steal. (Yes, I'm a writer.) There's barely any plot but it doesn't really matter. It's a series of atmospheric snapshots. Love the way he describes the narrator getting it on with Foomie. So tender and romantic. Dyer has an Amis-esque turn of phrase but with a lighter touch and a gentler world-view. His prose is also slightly reminiscent of Rupert Thompson; another excellent stylist. Occasionally I got a little bored by the numerous descriptions of the sky, but overall it made me nostalgic for my early twenties, and inspired me to start noticing things as carefully as Dyer.
on 28 February 2011
Geoff Dyer is a very fine writer, although he's not (in my opinion) a very good novelist, as he himself would probably agree. He says in the foreword to one of his books - and therefore perhaps disingenuously - that he only writes novels because, in Britian, if you are a writer, you have to write novels in order to be taken seriously as a writer, although the kind of book he much prefers to publish are his unclassifiable book-length essays, such as Out of Sheer Rage or The Missing of the Somme, or his (excellent) collections of journalism like Anglo-English Attitudes and the recent Working the Room.
The reason why Dyer is not a great novelist is that you can, I think, tell that his heart isn't quite in it. His own favourite writers - Berger, Nietzsche, Sebald, Lawrence, Bernhard - tend to be either barely or not even novelists at all, or if they are novelists, they're hardly conventional ones. Dyer loves to write about things that he's interested in, or better yet, things that he's passionate about, and I don't think he's all that passionate about pretending to be other people, which kind of goes with the territory if you want to write novels. Having said that, his novels are interesting because they're by him, even if they have the quality of having been written by someone who knows a lot about novels, rather than someone who 'naturally', as it were, writes fiction.
This was Dyer's first novel and I think it's his best. It's been compared to Amis fils but Dyer, unlike Amis, doesn't have Grand Ambitions as a novelist, and so is free to actually like his characters rather than regard them as specimens of a general decline, or whatever. The structure is simple but smart and unexpected, and for all that the characters continually moan about their time and place (Brixton in the late 80s), Dyer's style makes you want to be hanging out with them, drinking beer in steaming, smoky pubs on rainy nights or on sunlit rooftops at the weekend, getting wrecked on wine and pot in each other's flats, fancying each other's lovers, listening to Coltrane. It's a great novel about being young.
Dyer went on to write another very good if somewhat darker novel about youth, Paris Trance, although The Colour of Memory has its own shadows and darknesses lurking around the edges; he's also written two other novels, The Search (an interesting but obvious pastiche of Italo Calvino) and Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, which is the only book by Dyer that I've never been engaged by enough to finish. His other books are much better, the ones that nobody else could have written. Maybe he'll write a brilliant novel one day, but he's already written enough brilliant books to qualify as one of the finest English writers of our time, and in any case, if I were him, I wouldn't be worried; the really great English writers of our time aren't (primarily) novelists.
on 30 May 2014
Written with a lovely lyrical rhythm once you get into it, it's like listening to a poem or a piece of music. Happy, sad, funny, scary by turns a powerful memoir of a particular time and place but equally one that resonates with others experience of that time between youth and adulthood. It would make a bitter sweet film but Brixton is so physically changed and smartened up now, I'm not sure where you would set it!