In the course of his career, British author Geoff Dyer has written books on jazz, World War I memorial culture, photography, D.H. Lawrence (really a book on procrastination), travel, the Russian art film Stalker, and—most recently—life aboard the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier U.S.S. George H.W. Bush. And that’s just his nonfiction; Dyer is also the author of four novels and numerous essays and reviews.
But until now, his first two novels, The Colour of Memory and The Search, have never been published in the United States. Graywolf Press (publisher of Dyer’s National Book Critics Circle Award-winning collection of occasional writings, Otherwise Known as the Human Condition) has taken advantage of the increasing acclaim for Dyer’s work and released the two earliest Dyer novels to an American audience for the first time.
Dyer’s first novel, The Colour of Memory, follows the life of a young man and his friends (based on the author and his own friends) who live on the dole in the Brixton section of London in the 1980s. Very little happens, plot-wise, in the course of the book. (Dyer’s novels tend to be light on plot.) A few romantic relationships start and end. But mostly the characters hang out, talk about movies and art, drink, do odd jobs, and go to parties.
It’s a bohemian life: without the burden of work, they’re free to pursue their artistic interests, much like Dyer did when he was also a university graduate living on the dole in Brixton. “It is possible to have aspirations without having ambition—and vice versa,” Dyer writes in his essay “On the Roof,” describing his time in Brixton. “Whereas people coming out of university ten or fifteen years after me—Thatcher’s children—combined the two, I had aspirations but was not ambitions. I liked the idea of writing because it was a way of not having a career.”
The unnamed narrator of The Colour of Memory shares Dyer’s lack of ambition, but not his aspiration to be a writer. While his friends paint, write, and make music, he tries to do as little work as possible:
I don’t know what it is about me and work. As soon as anyone pays me to do anything I devote all my energies to skiving. A lot of the time skiving’s even more boring and tiring than doing the work but the urge to attempt it is irresistible.
A novel about the artistic dreams of young British men and women might seem like unsatisfying fare, but the genius of Dyer’s book is how he contains the otherwise-bohemian existence of his characters within the growing political and social discontent of Thatcherite Britain. The characters spend their days talking about jazz, but they’re also getting beaten up in the street in their neighborhood. They’re seeing people beaten by police. Their cars are stolen. Their flats are burgled. After finding a new apartment, the narrator spends the better part of a chapter reinforcing his front door with steel plates and new locks. He isn’t a particularly handy guy, but if there’s one thing he’s learned in his time in Brixton, it’s how to reinforce a door.
There are a few moments when the young Dyer exhibits the common faults of the precocious writer: the prose is either overwrought or smugly clever. At one point, a hamburger van is described as “a belch in 3D.” But the clunkers are few and far between. Throughout the book, the writing is steady, often graceful, prefiguring the sharp sensibility of his later work. After the missteps, Dyer regains his footing quickly. The final moment of the hamburger van passage describes the owner “toiling away in a tropical drizzle of grease and onions.” It’s a sly, vivid image that hits on just the right sensory notes without being overworked.
For Dyer aficionados, The Colour of Memory will exhibit the quality of a Geoff Dyer ur-text. Take, for example, this deliberation by the narrator on making plans:
The following week I embarked on a strict regime of spontaneity. It all started with a friend in Amsterdam asking if I wanted to spend a few days there before she moved on to Istanbul. In the event I spent three days changing my mind and dithering about whether or not I could afford the flight. By the time I had finally decided to go there were no cheap flights available. As soon as it became clear that I couldn’t go my desire to be in Amsterdam became almost overwhelming. I phoned back the travel agency and said I would take a slightly more expensive kind of ticket but by that time the only available tickets were for ambassador class with free champagne. The ferry was also out of the question: I would have arrived about twelve hours before my friend left. I called her, said I couldn’t make it, and wished her luck in Istanbul. I put the phone down and after careful consideration decided that I needed to be more impulsive.
Fans will recognize that same tortured sentiment from Dyer’s wonderful book-length essay Out of Sheer Rage. The Colour of Memory contains the seeds for his later projects. When the characters talk about jazz, the road to But Beautiful becomes clear. When the narrator gives a lengthy digression on his videotape collection of The World at War, we can see the beginnings of The Missing of the Somme. I’d wager that Dyer’s next few books will also have some primitive origins in The Colour of Memory.
Even beyond the appeal to Dyer enthusiasts, The Colour of Memory is a good novel—not a good first novel, and not a good Geoff Dyer novel, but a good novel. It captures the kind of idealized era that Hemingway described in A Moveable Feast: a time that only becomes real when it no longer exists.
– Ryan Teitman is the author of the poetry collection Litany for the City. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Gulf Coast, The Southern Review, and The Threepenny Review, and his book reviews have appeared in The Rumpus, The Millions, and Kenyon Review Online.