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.

Illustration by Liana Finck.

Illustration by Liana Finck

I was in a bookshop a couple of months ago, browsing the nonfiction section, when the idle rightward flick of my gaze was brought to a halt by the hardback spine of a new Geoff Dyer book. It was called The Contest of the Century: The New Era of Competition With China. My initial pleasure at discovering that Dyer had a new book out was quickly undercut by a creeping sense of doubt about the title and the topic, both of which seemed fundamentally un-Dyeresque. I then immediately dismissed this doubt, because Dyer is exactly the kind of writer—perhaps the writer—for whom no topic or title could be said to be out of sync with its predecessors, precisely for the reason that each of his books is out of sync with every other. Being fundamentally un-Dyeresque is, to put it maybe a little too Dyeresquely, the most fundamentally Dyeresque thing a Dyer book could possibly be.

Mark O'Connell Mark O'Connell

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

It’s hard to think of any contemporary writer whose bibliography is as meanderingly various: There’s a book about jazz, a book about World War I, a book about a single Tarkovsky film, a collection of travel pieces, a critical study of the work of John Berger, a book about a failure to write a book about D.H. Lawrence, a book about photography, a handful of collections of essays and reviews, and a comparably sized handful of novels. Dyer’s career has been consistently and resolutely all over the shop. This is not simply a figure of speech: In a hypothetical Platonic-ideal bookseller that stocked all of Geoff Dyer’s books, you’d have to go all over the shop—Music, Fiction, Criticism, Memoir, Film, Travel, etc.—in order to fill your canvas tote bag with his oeuvre.

So why not a book for the International Business section about the complex relationship between the West and China? I tried to imagine what this book’s inevitable idiosyncrasies might be, how it might deviate from the topic at hand. An elaborate diversion on the difficulties of scoring weed in Shenzhen? An entire chapter on Dyer’s preoccupation with a sexy young bureaucrat at the Chinese-British Chamber of Commerce? I was enjoying it already!

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But why would he give this book such a bluntly utilitarian title? And surely I would have heard something about a new Geoff Dyer book being in the pipeline. I plucked it from the shelf and read the first page, which was jarringly un-Dyeresque. There were no references to pastries or cappuccinos, no jocular evocations of a charmed and dissolute existence, no talk of tennis or recreational drug use or Burning Man, and no sidelong allusions to a wife with an uncanny resemblance to the film actress Natascha McElhone.

To make a long story short—or, rather, to prevent a nonstory from becoming any longer—I turned to the rear flyleaf and discovered that this Geoff Dyer, the one whose China-based book I now held in my hands, seemed to be an entirely different person from the Geoff Dyer I’d been thinking of (and whose work I will, I assure you, eventually come to consider in this essay). This guy—this whole other Geoff Dyer—was apparently a former Beijing bureau chief with the Financial Times. I became briefly preoccupied with him, or with the idea of him; I imagined what a curse it must be to share a name, and therefore be forced to compete in Amazon searches, with a writer so much more widely known and celebrated than oneself, not to mention one who wrote in so many different genres and on so many topics that a casual book-browser would have no good reason not to assume that he had written a book that was in fact by you. I wondered whether this other Geoff Dyer had considered changing his name, or even just tweaking it—to Geoffrey Dyer, say, or Geoff Q. Dyer—and whether his decision not to might have been based on the famous gift-horse/mouth principle, because sales had actually started to pick up on account of these same confused book-browsers. (I even considered buying the book out of an obscure compassion for this lesser-spotted Geoff Dyer but then decided against it on the grounds that, a, I would almost certainly never read it, and b, a former Beijing bureau chief with the Financial Times probably didn’t need any handouts from the likes of me anyway.)

The point is that Geoff Dyer is not just the kind of writer whose shadow you’d hate to have looming so insistently over your career, but also the kind of writer who—if you’d just read a cluster of his books in quick succession, as I have—might lead you to believe it was perfectly OK, even perhaps outright advisable, to get 800 words into a book review without mentioning the actual book you’re supposed to be reviewing. Or, in this particular case, without mentioning any of the three books you’re supposed to be reviewing. (Emboldened by my extended exposure to Dyer’s off-topic ethos, I emailed my editor to say that I was going long with this thing, and that it would encompass matters whose relevance would not be immediately obvious, but that given his editorial blessing I was about 70 percent certain I could pull it off. I imagine Dyer himself has had versions of this exchange on quite a few occasions.)

Dyer’s first two novels, The Colour of Memory and The Search, have now been published for the first time in the U.S., on the same day as his latest nonfiction excursion, Another Great Day at Sea. It’s difficult to imagine three books by the same author having less in common. In fact, it’s difficult enough to imagine three books by different authors having less in common.

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The Colour of Memory is a novel—basically plotless, basically autobiographical—set in the 1980s about a group of friends drifting together through their mid-20s on an easeful eddy of booze, weed, and social welfare. The Search, which is also a novel—at first heavily dependent on plot, and then quickly not at all—is about a private detective trying to find the missing husband of a woman he badly wants to have sex with. And Another Great Day at Sea is an account of Dyer’s 2011 experience as a writer in residence onboard the USS George H.W. Bush aircraft carrier, off the coast of Bahrain. The only thing these books really have in common is the fact that nothing much happens in any of them. Which is to say that what happens in these books is, primarily, Geoff Dyer’s writing. One of his more impressive gifts is the ability to create a sense of momentum within essentially static narratives; the way in which nothing happens, in his work, can often have the aura of spectacle. And this has everything to do with the charisma of his voice, with the leisurely sharpness of his prose. Whatever it is he happens to be writing about, and whatever genre he happens to be avoiding doing it in, Dyer has become one of the most reliably entertaining of contemporary writers. His own hypersusceptibility to being bored has turned out to be an effective inoculation against being boring himself.

From the very start of his career, Dyer has been getting away with having nothing happen in his books. (One measure of talent would be the extent of what you can get away with.) The Colour of Memory, first published in 1989, is, in ways, very obviously a first novel, in that it draws heavily on the experiences of its author’s early adulthood, and is more or less openly indebted to some prominent predecessors. There’s a lot of Fitzgerald, for one thing, and a fair amount of Waugh, in its elegiac evocations of a doomed leisure class. The youthful wasters at the center of this novel are not wealthy layabouts, though, but the post-collegiate electively unemployed who were once broadly accommodated by Britain’s social welfare system. (In one of the earlier of the novel’s numerous party scenes, one of the characters holds forth on the literary romance of the so-called lost generation: “It’s meaningless,” he says. “Every generation wants to think it’s lost. Take us. Who could have been more lost than us? We’re so lost we’re virtually extinct.”)

As a thin substitute for anything remotely resembling a plot, Dyer numbers his short chapters in descending order, counting down from 060 toward 000. This is meant to evoke a steady diminution of time; not a countdown to any conclusive event, but rather the passing of youth itself, which is the ongoing event at the center of the novel. There are whole chapters that are entirely composed of descriptions of scene, pure narrative still life. As the novel progresses, the consciousness of passing time is increasingly countered by a preservational instinct:

In a window was a well-tended pot plant. The window was very clean and because of the darkness of the balcony the room looked exceptionally bright. There was a stillness about the interior that made it look like one of those installations in museums showing rooms and furniture from different periods of history. It was easy to imagine a small discreetly printed placard just below the windowsill: ‘Young Woman’s Bedroom, Council Flat, South London: Late Twentieth Century.’

This works as a sort of casual mise en abyme, as an internal figuring of the novel’s own methods and motivations, its artful eulogizing of a life of nothing much—of hanging out in flats and on rooftops and at agreeably boring parties, drinking and getting stoned and fancying your best mate’s girlfriend.

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