No One Is Better Than Geoff Dyer at Not Writing About What He’s Writing About

Reading between the lines.
June 2 2014 10:22 AM

The MacGuffinist

No one is better than Geoff Dyer at not writing about what he’s writing about.

(Continued from Page 1)
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The most striking thing about The Search, first published in 1993, is how it both does and doesn’t default on this loiterly ethos. The machinery of plot is vanishingly minimal here (private detective/good-looking dame/missing husband), but it’s sufficient to drive the narrative, such as it is. Dyer’s protagonist, the functionally named Walker, tracks Malory (missing husband) through a lengthy succession of imaginary and increasingly strange locations. Malory is a classic MacGuffin; in fact, the entire narrative is a MacGuffin, a pretext for describing a Calvinoesque series of strange imaginary locations.

There’s a town that’s all one gigantic building, where the streets are corridors and the houses are rooms. There’s a town where everyone is frozen in midgesture, like a vast three-dimensional photograph. Particularly rich is the stultifying American nowheresville of Despond, in which Walker finds himself sinking into a general lethargy of spirit, leaving him profoundly disinclined to continue his pursuit of Malory.

Although my interest in The Search was beginning to dwindle well before the end of its 159 pages, the novel’s heavily MacGuffinized setup made me consider the extent to which the MacGuffin is a central presence in Dyer’s career as a whole. Because the thing about Geoff Dyer is that the subjects of his books are never really the point anyway. The subject of a Geoff Dyer book is only ever the pretext, the flimsiest excuse, for a book by Geoff Dyer. In books like Out of Sheer Rage and Zona, for instance, the topic itself—D.H. Lawrence, Tarkovsky’s film Stalker—is always essentially in service of the writing, which is exactly the opposite of how nonfiction is set up to operate. And so it’s just about conceivable that he could write a book on Chinese economic policy, though no expert in Chinese economic policy would find it satisfactory.

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And you get this feeling very early on with Another Day at Sea­—the feeling that spending two weeks as writer in residence on an aircraft carrier just happened to be Geoff Dyer’s excuse for a new Geoff Dyer book, that it could just as well have been any number of other things. (The book is, in fact, the first in a series of volumes resulting from the work of a nonprofit organization called Writers in Residence, set up by Alain de Botton with the goal of “recording and describing key institutions of the modern world—through the talent of some of the greatest writers on the planet.”)

But it turns out to be a very strong excuse. For one thing, the book is as concentratedly funny as anything he’s written. The situation provides plenty of occasion to exercise the comic persona he’s been consolidating for most of his career. There’s a wonderful diversion in the opening pages, where Dyer point-blank refuses to accept the suboptimal sleeping arrangements on this supercarrier with a crew of well over 5,000. Not getting his own room is entirely out of the question, as far as he’s concerned: “But we writers need a room of one’s own, I claimed, trusting that any grammatical damage would be more than offset—in the eyes of the Navy—by the Virginia Woolf allusion.” This tenacity pays off, and he gets his room of one’s own. “I had taken on the might of the US Navy and won,” he gloats. The room itself is, as he puts it, “practically the honeymoon suite, a place where a man could devote himself single-handed to the maritime art of masturbation.”

Thankfully, Dyer doesn’t go down this route, possibly because he’s saving that subject for a whole other project—perhaps a sequel to his magnificent essay about sex in hotel rooms. Instead, he spends the majority of the book being escorted around the vast carrier, talking to people about their various roles and their lives at sea. This might make it sound like a conventional work of journalism or reportage, but Dyer frequently makes it obvious that he’s nothing like a proper journalist. He keeps forgetting and mixing up people’s names, for example, and is not immune to getting bored with what they’re telling him and losing the thread of interviews. It isn’t these lapses per se that separate him from your typical journalist, so much as his willingness to admit to them, to make of them his own peculiar literary virtue. Dyer has always been doggedly committed to making a virtue of his own weaknesses. As he put it in a short piece in the Dublin Review last year, “A writer’s only possible relation to his or her failings has to be one of gratitude. First because there are hundreds of other writers out there whose strengths lie precisely in these areas of weakness. Second because these weaknesses oblige us to concentrate on the one or two little areas that are uniquely—and, as far as every other writer is concerned, undesirably—our own.”

 Author Geoff Dyer.
Author Geoff Dyer.

Photo by Jason Oddy

Many of the book’s best moments—and it is full of great moments—are generated not by Dyer’s attempts to honor his basic journalistic obligations, but by his hanging back and noticing the things that a typical reporter would likely deem irrelevant. He’s at his most interesting here, as he always is, when he’s insisting on the importance of trivialities. Here he is, for instance, watching members of the ground crew hanging about on deck during a quiet moment between launches: “John Updike asks, in one of his books about art, if there is such a thing as an American face. I don’t know, but looking at the guys on the flight deck, unfaced by cranials and vizors, persuaded me that there is such a thing as an American walk. Even overweight cops have it: an ease and grace, a subdued swagger. It used to be identified mainly with race—a black thing—but now it seems a cultural and national quality.” A good writer, like a good standup comic, makes a point of mentioning things you yourself are likely to have noticed, but which you, unlike that writer or comic, are unlikely to have noticed yourself noticing. And like a good standup comic, Dyer is consistently alert to the comic potency of rhythmical accumulation. He is irrefutably one of contemporary literature’s finest purveyors of face-melting riffs. Here, for instance, he takes his cue from a phrase used by the sailor from Florida who gives him a tour around one of the ship’s many stores of explosives:

‘OK,’ said Dave when we had completed our descent. ‘This is where the rubber meets the road.’ How Americans love places where the rubber meets the road! He was right, of course, the rubber met the road here, but this was not the only time and place on the carrier where such a claim was made. The rubber seemed to meet the road all over the ship. But then America is the place where the rubber dreams of meeting the road––and vice versa. Certainly the rubber doesn’t meet the road with anything like the same frequency or enthusiasm in England. In many ways England is the place where, rubber-and-road-wise, never the twain shall meet.

Dyer’s method of writing around rather than about his subject is typically one of his great strengths, but there are moments in Another Great Day at Sea when you wonder whether he should be doing more than nodding in the direction of the vast looming context of his immediate situation. About a third of the way through the book, I began to feel uneasy about his refusal to engage the military power of which this gigantic ship is both symbol and vessel—his apparent lack of interest in the question of what this aircraft carrier is doing off the coast of Bahrain in the first place, what this booming industry of launching and landing is ultimately in service of. As brilliantly as he writes about the things he is interested in, and as worthy of consideration as he proves them to be, the largely unacknowledged presence of that context exerts a cumulative pressure on the book. In that short, jocular chapter in which Dyer browses the ship’s explosives and lays down that rubber/road riff, I kept pausing between chuckles to wonder when the actual function of this “IKEA of munitions”  was going to be addressed. I was wondering about the people for whom these munitions were laying in wait. There is real warmth in Dyer’s portrayal of the young Americans who have become his unlikely shipmates—“the warmth,” as he puts it, “that comes from being in the presence of good people.” But he doesn’t examine what this basic goodness means—what it counts for, and what it’s up against—in the moral context of the vast operation in which they’re engaged.

I’m not going to completely contradict myself here by saying that this doesn’t much matter in the end—clearly I’ve gone on about it enough to suggest that it does matter—but this evasion of a pressingly relevant issue is part of the whole point of Geoff Dyer. You read him for the pleasure, and sometimes frustration, of following his meanderings around and away from his proper subject. You read him for his ability to turn every topic, no matter how unpromising, into another excellent excuse for a book by Geoff Dyer.

---

The Colour of Memory  and The Search by Geoff Dyer. Graywolf Press.
Another Great Day at Sea: Life Aboard the USS George H.W. Bush by Geoff Dyer. Pantheon.

Another Great Day at Sea: Life Aboard the USS George H.W. Bush

Mark O'Connell is Slate's books columnist and a staff writer for the Millions.

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