Monday 4 May 2015

All neon in the city of light

It’s not often that I review novels on this blog but I was intrigued by the pitch for Dan Gennoe’s “All Neon Like Love”. Add in the fact that the book features London and Paris as two of its major characters, as well as the opportunity it would give me to interview someone who seemed like he might have something interesting to say and I was sold.

Having said that, I’m now not actually going to review the book as such. This is a blog about Paris, and it is how the city is represented in the novel that interests me. Fortunately, the Paris chapters are the strongest parts of the novel anyway, with landscapes that play a real role in driving the narrative. More than London, it is also a city that provides both comfort to the main character and drives him closer towards insanity. But more on that in a minute.

Firstly a little on the author. Dan Gennoe is an ex-music journalist and co-founder of Flipside, a London-based underground music magazine that saw success in the late 90s. Dan’s move into fiction has been a long process, but one that has been well thought out. Despite being courted by many publishers and agents, he eventually decided to take the whole process into his own hands, in the style of many of the independent music bands he crossed in his previous career.

His book certainly doesn’t look like a self-published novel, although I can’t help feeling it might have been slightly different if it had gone through the hands of a major publisher. Perhaps this is part of the issue though. Would this story have been better served by a Fleetwood Mac style high production job, or is it better for its sometimes untuned passages that read like they were produced in someone’s garage?

Much of its power comes from the switching of traditional gender roles. The dominant, career-minded decider here is female, the obsessive, powerless dreamer is male. The intensity can be a little irritating, but it does efficiently reflect the mindset of the main character, a 30 something music journalist (hmmm…) racked by restrained and unspoken grief following the death of his older brother. The book’s publicist described it to me as a ‘one-sided love story’, but for me it is instead a novel of loss and absence.

Loss is not just the ever-present missing brother, but also the main character’s own identity – we never even learn his name in the book. Absence is Sophie, the girl he meets, falls in love with but never really knew. We suppose that she is French, but this is never clearly stated either.

Names and identities are central, mostly because of their unreliability. This invisibility, or deception, seems particularly important in the Paris sections of the book. The city seduces the main character with its indifference, giving him a general sense of being watched but not being seen.

Being at once part of a play and a member of the audience in Paris provides comfort for the book’s hero who never really seems to know why he is in a particular place, nor where he should be. His obsessions are an extension of this self-loathing, an uncomfortable skin that he needs to shed.

Paris is at first soothing, before later rubbing cheap wine on his wounds. Like Sophie, a club is described as being “hidden away in plain view, like everything and everyone else in Paris”. An important scene then plays out inside this club, naturally in almost complete darkness.

Paris turns from a dream home to an environment where light and truth will never be possible. The city of light is finally just a place of artificial neon illuminations. Much like love perhaps.

The interview

When the main character arrives in Paris, you write that the city immediately “seduced him with indifference.” It also offers a vague sense of being watched but not seen, and he later finds Paris a very easy place to spy on people. What is it about Paris that creates this invisibility?

DG: Everyone in Paris is there to be seen. No one hides. The mere fact that people prefer to sit outside a café drinking their coffee says that Parisians aren't afraid to be looked at. I'm sure if you asked they'd say that it's because they like people watching, but to me it always feels more like a case of wanting to be seen outside that café, that restaurant. In Rome people people watch - you see them crane their necks to follow someone as they go by. In Paris they're waiting to get noticed. 

The thing is, when everyone's there to be seen, it's rare that anyone actually takes any notice. You see people sitting outside cafés but you don’t actually see the person, you don't take them in, it's just another beautiful person sitting outside another beautiful café. Also, Parisians always give off the air that they're actively not paying attention to you. In London we don't like to be seen looking. In Paris they like to be seen looking at something else. All of which makes it feel like it's very easy to be invisible in Paris.

For the book’s main protagonist, a banal supermarket “came to symbolise Paris more than anything else, the Eiffel Tower included.” Why, in your opinion, is this ‘exotic in the ordinary’ important when we are in a new place?

It's the difference between the tourist world and the local world. Supermarkets, laundrettes, little local shops are the places where real people go, the people who belong there. So as an outsider, when you get to see inside them, it's like getting a glimpse into a secret world not made for a tourist like you. That in itself is exciting. Then seeing all the shelves with all their unfamiliar packets, with all their strange names makes it seem like this secret world is full of shelf upon shelf of amazing new and exciting things rather than the baked beans and washing up liquid that's really there. Suddenly grocery shopping is an adventure rather than a chore.

Later, the character worries that one day he would walk into the supermarket and recognise everything, and at that point Paris would feel “normal and commonplace, just like everywhere else” and lose “its magic and charm.” Have you personally reached this stage yet with Paris (I haven’t, after nearly 20 years!)?

No. I think commonplace is one thing Paris could never be. It's like the city itself demands that everything, even buying beans and washing up liquid should be an enchanting experience. But then I'm an outsider, despite spending a lot of time there. I'm a Londoner. I live in London, so when I step off the train at Gare du Nord I feel instantly transported to somewhere where the volume has been turned down and the balance has been tipped a little more in life’s favour. I hope that will always be the way, but I do always worry that this time might be the time that I won’t.

As a writer, the book’s hero has a rather non-conformist lifestyle, but when in Paris he dreams of a very bourgeois parallel existence, with a large apartment on the Rue du Bac, well-dressed children and a holiday home by the sea. Is this your Parisian ideal too?

I was going to say no, but then I thought about it and I suppose it might be, if only for the same reason that it is his. Essentially he spends the whole book wanting something he can’t have, and dreaming himself into the reality of what it might be like if he did have it. Paris is the perfect place, especially for a Londoner, to dream of a different life and to want all the things that he or she can’t or shouldn’t have. 

As a writer in London, and particularly as a music journalist, which I was in a previous life, I’ve had a very non-conformist lifestyle, and the thought of conforming in London is pretty horrific to me. But in Paris… The parallel existence he dreams of is very bourgeois and probably includes a lot of shopping at Bon Marche, which would probably be fun for a while. But he probably wouldn’t be happy and neither would I. I’d probably end up bumming around bars and cafés with my laptop, as I do in London. That’s how most of the book got written, in a bar in Soho, so I’d probably do a lot of hanging around in St. Germain.

The book is a tale set in two cities, London and Paris. How do these great rivals differ in your opinion?

To me London is a very serious place. Great people do great things in London and they really haven’t got the time for any of the other things that go into making life. In Paris great people also do great things, but they have lunch first, and it will be a good lunch, that they’ll enjoy and it will make them happy and even when they’re having a bad day, there’ll be something, a glass of wine, a good coffee, a nice pair of shoes that will make it that bit better. 

Eating lunch at your desk doesn’t make you more efficient, it just makes the day a bit duller and I think that seriousness spills over to everything in London - the architecture, the shops, the way people walk down the street, the looks on commuters faces in the morning. Don’t get me wrong, I love London, I love its energy, its drive, that it’s always changing and isn’t afraid to lead the way. More than any time I can remember, London feels like a world leader, which makes me very proud. Paris doesn’t feel that way, and I doubt anyone there is that bothered about leading the world, or even being in a part of it, as long as everyday has something to recommend it. 

That’s why, as much as I love living in London, it does me good to go to Paris, to walk down the street and be reminded by the beauty of everything that life really is there to be lived.

You recently ran the city marathon. How is Paris experienced during these 42km of suffering, and what goes through your mind? 

It was only the last 10km that was full of suffering, the first 32km were just incredible. It was my first - and if you’d have asked me in the hour after the finish I would have said my last - marathon. I figured that if I was only ever going to just the one, I’d do it in Paris because the route is flat and beautiful. The logic was that if it did all become too much, I’d at least have the sights to take my mind off it. As it was I barely saw a thing. I don’t when I’m running. I get into this zone where I’m focused on the road ahead and dodging around people. In fact, my wife, who also ran it, was very excited afterwards because we’d run past Roland Garros and I didn’t know what she was talking about because I hadn’t seen it. 

I knew from the 10Ks and half-marathons I’ve run in London that I have a habit of not seeing anything I run past, so I made an effort at for the first couple of miles to take it all in, and running from Champs-Élysées to Bastille was amazing. After that I don’t remember much apart from wondering why I’d never been to the Bois de Vincennes before, it looked lovely, and then wondering if the Bois de Boulogne was ever doing to end. 

Then in the last 2km I had a very dangerous thought. I realised that I’d run 40km, which was my longest run to date. I suddenly decided that if I wanted to, I could stop. I could stop and it would be fine because it would still be my longest run, which would still be an achievement of sorts. The hardest thing about distance running isn’t the fitness or the energy or the pain, it’s keeping your mind from sabotaging you. I didn’t listen to it thankfully and managed to sprint to the line to make finish sub-four hours - 21 seconds sub-four hours, which was my aim, so I was happy if exhausted. Last few K aside, it was such a good day. 

That night we went and drank an excessive number of cocktails in one of favourite bars, Little Red Door, with a runner friend who’d been cheering along the route. By the end of the night we’d decided it would be the best idea ever to run the Nice-Cannes marathon, so I guess we must have enjoyed it. Although I’ve yet to actually sign-up.

Will there be another Paris book in the future? What other aspects of the city would you still like to explore?

Probably. I’ve got an idea for another Paris book, this time set exclusively in Paris. It’s about a guy who runs a bar/club in a fashionable hotel. He’s a control freak who sells a lifestyle but doesn’t live it, and then he meets a girl who changes that and he starts to go off the rails. It’s about beautiful people and the darkness behind them. 

There have been similar books set in New York, but I think Paris would add something more and it would be a far sexier and more seductive story for the setting. I think there’s something about Paris and the way I write that goes together, so even if I don’t do that one, I’m sure Paris and the secrets behind the light and dark of the city are probably something I’ll end up returning to. I find the city so fascinating in real life, I don’t think I could leave it alone in fiction.

Many thanks to Dan for taking the time to answer my questions and for two of the photos in this post. Thanks also to Mari for setting everything up and for the review copy of the book.

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