The exploits of a model in a glossy, superficial world of sex ‘n’ drugs ‘n’ photo-shoots do not, to be honest, sound like immediately appealing reading — which is rather the point. This is the world in which Gavin Bower has chosen to set his first novel; and it’s a world of which he has first-hand experience, having been a model himself. And it’s not a world that Bower paints very prettily.
Dazed & Aroused is narrated by Alex, who became a model straight out of university, and spends his days (and nights) shuttling between auditions, shoots, and parties. The agency pays his rent, and he can piggy-back for free on his father’s membership of a chain of exclusive clubs. In short, Alex has the kind of lifestyle that could easily be the envy of any young man with a taste for hedonism. The story of the novel is essentially one of how Alex messes up such lasting relationships as he has.
Bower set himself a difficult task with this book, which was to take a fundamentally unpleasant subject and write about in a way that was readable whilst still bringing home the unpleasantness. I think he pulls it off. It helps that Dazed & Aroused is so short (less than 200 pages), because it simply wouldn’t work at greater length. What Bower has done is construct the novel in a particular way so that everything — from ‘plot’ to prose style — is geared solely towards a critique of the world Alex inhabits, and of the protagonist’s response to it. There’s no room in the text for anything else.
Alex’s world is suffocatingly shallow: he flies from city to city, with barely any sense of what makes each place distinctive; meets beautiful people everywhere, who all blur into one another; he has a girlfriend, but thinks nothing of cheating on her… His life is one of drifting, albeit with a certain amount of glamour. There are celebrities and successes, but the really big break remains elusive for Alex. Names like Kate Moss are spoken like charms, as if to symbolise that golden moment which forever lies around the corner.
All this is mirrored in the prose: for one thing, Alex narrates in the present tense; but Bower has other, subtler techniques: every so often, when the hedonistic perks of the model’s life go to his head, Alex will retreat into long, breathless sentences where he’ll gabble about this and that and all the exciting things that are happening to him and all the people at all these places and he’ll do so without punctuation or pause… A very effective way of distancing us readers from the narrative, just as Alex seems distant from his own life.
However, Bower’s prose is not always so well judged. Particularly at the beginning, I was concerned that he was making the subtext a bit too conspicuous: in the second chapter, for example, Alex listens to a Frank Sinatra song that talks about people being made and broken; and then overhears a conversation about the superficiality of modern life. Alex also has a tendency to notice slogans and beggars around him; and he notices them so often that it can become wearying. The former of these issues settles down eventually, as Bower embeds his critique properly in the fabric of his text, where it should be; the latter, however, never quite stops being intrusive.
Be that as it may, Dazed & Aroused broadly achieves what it sets out to do. No, it’s not a particularly pleasant book to read; nor does it necessarily have much to say that is new — in the sense that you probably had an idea that the fashion world could be superficial, which might in turn have a detrimental effect on some of the people who inhabit that world — but it’s a book that works. It works because it shows so clearly the consequences of Alex’s actions.
For, in the end, Dazed & Aroused is a very personal book — Alex is at least as much to blame as his industry for his circumstances, and probably more so. In keeping with his superficial narration, we don’t really get to understand Alex; but there’s a sense at the end that he might, at last, be starting to learn something. There’s hope after all.