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Sunday, May 30, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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`Paris Trance' Languishes In Romantic Development

Special To The Seattle Times

------------------------------- "Paris Trance" by Geoff Dyer Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $22 -------------------------------

Before he sets down a single word of his new novel, "Paris Trance," Englishman Geoff Dyer tells us what we can expect with a quote from D.H. Lawrence: "The usual plan is to take two couples and develop their relationship. Most of George Eliot's are on that plan. Anyhow, I don't want a plot. I should be bored with it. I shall try two couples."

Dyer's two couples are Luke and Nicole, Alex and Sahra. All are in their 20s. The men are English, the women more exotic: Nicole is from Belgrade; Sahra (the one American) grew up in Libya. None of these handsome people have any great ambition, but they know good chemistry when they feel it.

Anyone lucky enough to have fallen in love young in a great city will recognize the kind of dream time Dyer is exploring here. It's the sort of day-by-day hanging out that friends do when they first meet. This flow of the mundane is underlined by the absence of chapters. These people go to cafes, to movies, to raves, take coke and Ecstasy, drink beer and make love.

The one thing they don't do much is separate. By the halfway point, the novel feels short of oxygen. You begin wishing for minor characters, a few new voices on the page, but they rarely appear. Even Luke and Nicole's dog is mute, an inflated Dalmatian balloon floating above their bed.

"Paris Trance" is consciously old-fashioned. Dyer is recalling the expatriate novels of Fitzgerald and Hemingway. He even drops samples from "The Sun Also Rises" into his text.

But remixing a Parisian romance is not his real point. What interests Dyer is the movement of time, or more accurately, of time remembered seconds after. Nicole has an old mirror in her apartment, which at odd moments preserves images from the almost-present.

"Nicole took Luke's hand and they moved in front of the mirror which, for a second, showed only the bed. Then their reflection moved inside the frame and looked back at them. They stepped aside, but for a few moments the mirror continued to hold their images."

After-images similar to this one occur throughout the novel. Nicole and Luke take Polaroids of their lovemaking; Luke's friends do an outside version of his favorite old movie, "Brief Encounter," through an empty TV screen fitted into his window. These people want to be watching and living at the same time.

The nagging problem in "Paris Trance" is that Dyer doesn't follow Lawrence's advice. His couples are static. The sex evolves, the people don't. Dyer seems reluctant to test his characters with anything more demanding than a menu.

Even the end of Luke and Nicole's romance comes across as ordinary, a casual implosion.

"Paris Trance" is well-written. The ending is perfectly right. Yet the whole effort feels like a hardworking writer's summer vacation, a chance to go off somewhere and get lost in a dream.

Copyright © 1999 The Seattle Times Company

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