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The Dyer’s Hand

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Alex Webb/Magnum Photos
Geoff Dyer, New York City, 2006

1.

Life, said D.H. Lawrence, is a question of what you thrill to. For the restless English writer Geoff Dyer, life is equally a question of what you’re bored by. To say that Dyer is thrilled by boredom might be putting it a bit strongly, but he certainly takes an interest in the subject. “I am no stranger to boredom,” he writes in an essay about his failure to write a book about classical antiquity:

I have been bored for much of my life, by many things, but equally, I have also been fantastically interested by many other things. Antiquity represented a weird synthesis—a kind of short circuit—of these two currents of my life: for the first time ever I was bored by what I was interested in.

Normally Dyer is interested in something and then gets bored by it. He is an intellectual fidget, incapable of sitting still. In the introduction to Otherwise Known as the Human Condition, a career-spanning hodgepodge of occasional prose, Dyer makes no bones about his incorrigible distractibility:

Increasingly at ease with the vagaries of my nature, I came to relish the way that getting interested in one thing led to my becoming very interested in something else—so interested, in fact, that I often lost interest in whatever it was that, a little while previously, had transfixed me utterly.

This prowling and capricious nature has produced one of the strangest bodies of work in contemporary letters.

During the past twenty-five years Dyer has written books on jazz (But Beautiful), photography (The Ongoing Moment), the Great War (The Missing of the Somme), traveling the world and taking drugs (Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It), and D.H. Lawrence (Out of Sheer Rage), as well as four passionate and ruminative novels. These books, so stubbornly dissimilar from one another, are each a mixture of genres, combining autobiography, travelogue, criticism, fiction, and much digressive ranting.

In the essay “My Life as a Gate-Crasher,” from the recent collection, Dyer lays out a kind of a personal manifesto. Back in 1989, while “serving some time” at the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University in preparation for writing his jazz book, But Beautiful, the young writer was approached by a librarian curious about Dyer’s haphazard research. What kind of book was he writing, the librarian wanted to know?

I told him I had no idea. Having made little progress with this line of inquiry, he turned his attention from the book to its author. Was I a musician? No. A jazz critic? No…. Becoming a little frustrated, he asked, “So what are your credentials for writing a book about jazz?”

“I don’t have any,” Dyer replies. “Except I like listening to it.”

Wandering from one discipline to the next, this—liking something—has always been Dyer’s justification for delving into a particular subject. “As far as I was concerned,” he says, “writing the book would bring me to exactly the point at which I needed to be in order to be qualified to start writing it. But it’s not what you know that’s important; it’s what your passion gives you the potential to discover.”

2.

What, then, does Dyer discover? It is at once an odd pleasure and—by this stage in his career—a familiar frustration that he should seem just as transfixed by his own passion as by its various objects. One of his great discoveries is that even during the rapturous transports afforded by great art, or exotic foreign travel, or romantic love, the mind never ceases to watch itself; that this self-consciousness is always threatening to smother our profound experiences of life and art; but that, at the same time, this potentially inhibiting self-consciousness, if described with verve and wit, can be just as engaging as love, art, travel, or anything else.

In other words, Dyer rarely writes about a subject; instead, he writes around it. He can’t stop listening to the mental static that most essayists are at pains to tune out. Out of Sheer Rage, for example, is not so much a book about D.H. Lawrence as a book about everything that impeded and distracted Dyer during his attempt to write a book about D.H. Lawrence. At the start, he says he has always wanted to write “a study of—and homage to—the writer who had made me want to become a writer.” The pressure that such a project entails, however—he is anxious to do justice both to Lawrence and to his own transformative experience of first reading Lawrence as an adolescent—quickly sends him awry.

First, Dyer can’t decide where to live. Paris, his current home, seems

an excellent place to write a novel, especially a novel set in Paris, but it was not a good place to write a study of Lawrence. He hated Paris, called it, in fact, “the city of dreadful night” or some such (I had the exact phrase in my notes somewhere). If I was to make any progress with my study of Lawrence, if I was to stand any chance of making any progress with my study of Lawrence, I knew that I had to live in a place which had some strong connection with him, a place where I could, so to speak, feel the Lawrentian vibes: Sicily, for example, or New Mexico, Mexico, Australia.

Next, after moving to Italy, Dyer finds himself becoming increasingly interested in Rilke, especially Rilke’s letters, which he starts to read at the expense of rereading Lawrence: “I should be writing my book about D.H. Lawrence, I said to myself, everything else should be subordinated to that—but who can tell where that task begins and ends?” Not Dyer, certainly. Instead of trying to ignore or suppress such anxieties, such absurd cul-de-sacs of “research,” he makes them his explicit subject and plays them for laughs.

Dyer has a number of bold and unexpected critical insights about Lawrence—that his best work was done not in the novels or stories but in his letters and travel writing; that his gift for comedy has been obscured by his vatic self-seriousness; that his numerous revisions often had the effect of dulling the antic vitality of his first drafts. But it is not really for critical insight that we turn to a book like Out of Sheer Rage. What justifies the book and makes it so distinctive is the acute attention, to say nothing of the comic brio, that Dyer brings to bear on those qualities in himself (indolence, distraction, an immense capacity for boredom) that threaten to undermine his criticism. He likes to remind us that we encounter great art not in the sealed vacuum of intellectual detachment but in the midst of life’s muddle and mayhem.

Otherwise Known as the Human Condition, which recently won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism, contains pieces on literature, visual art, music, and much else besides. Some of the critical pieces are very good, like the one on the photographer William Gedney. “Those who lack things are defined most conspicuously by what they own,” Dyer writes of the photographer’s poor rural subjects, “and in Gedney’s photograph’s every thing—a can of brake fluid, a bag of Henderson’s sugar—is valued, used.” So, too, in Dyer’s writing, where every scrap of self-doubt and hesitation, every failure, no matter how insignificant, seems to get a hearing.

In general, however, Dyer never seems quite at home in the short critical essay. Lined up side by side in one volume, his book reviews give the impression less of a mind receptive to telling differences and variety than of someone intent on seeing the same thing in lots of different places. Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is praised for the “ingenuity with which [it] contains [West’s] tendency to dispersal by giving it free reign.” Ryszard Kapuściński’s Imperium gets high marks for its “amazing digressions, little essays…on how to make cognac, on the history of the Armenian book, on anything and everything.” Dyer loves the “shapeless privacy” of John Cheever’s Journals, which he considers the author’s “greatest achievement.” It’s hard not to feel that this is how Dyer himself would like to be praised.

Christopher Ricks once said that inside every long book there is a shorter book, trying to escape its responsibilities. With Dyer’s short essays, you get the feeling that there is a longer, more irresponsible essay trying to get in. In his review of Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke (a book lauded for being “all over the place”), Dyer gives us a characteristic aside: “Whatever else might be said about my talents as a reader, my ability to quit is undisputed. I can give up on any book.” If Dyer were writing one of his own books, such an aside would quickly dilate into one of his comic riffs, but here he must remain dutifully on message.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the most interesting pieces in Otherwise are the ones in which critical analysis takes a back seat to personal revelation. He likes to quote Camus’s remark that if man needs bread and housing “he also needs pure beauty which is the bread of his heart.” But his writing nevertheless acknowledges that art is only a part of life, not life’s sole purpose or justification. One of the most moving and provocative pieces in the new collection is called “Reader’s Block.” Written in 1999, the essay describes the way in which Dyer’s appetite for books has dwindled as he has grown older:

The strange thing about this is that at twenty I imagined I would spend my middle age reading books that I didn’t have the patience to read when I was young. But now, at forty-one, I don’t even have the patience to read the books I read when I was twenty. At that age I plowed through everything in the Arnoldian belief that each volume somehow nudged me imperceptibly closer to the sweetness and light. I read War and Peace, Anna Karenina, Ulysses, Moby Dick. I got through The Idiot even though I hated practically every page of it. I didn’t read The Brothers Karamazov: I’ll leave it till I’m older, I thought—and now that I am older I wish I’d read it when I was younger, when I was still capable of doing so.

Candid, self-deprecating, unmistakably English in its measured whining (“even though I hated practically every page of it”), this is another one of Dyer’s characteristic registers. His prose, which moves forward with a kind of graceful limp, seems on the one hand at risk of collapsing under the weight of its own grumpiness, while on the other it is clearly relishing (and inviting the reader to relish also) the comedy of this grumpiness.

But Dyer is more than a comedian; he is a thinker whose means is comedy. He is so funny, in part, because he is rarely just funny. “Reader’s Block,” for example, takes a surprising turn as Dyer sadly wonders if his diminished book-hunger is the sign of a broader dulling of sensibility, a process whereby one loses—in the words of the essayist Gerald Early—“slowly but inexorably the ability to feel deeply about anything.” He rejects this view, however, in favor of a more resilient and unexpected interpretation:

If reading heightens your responses, shapes your idea of the world, gives you a sense of the purpose of life, then it is not surprising if, over time, reading should come to play a proportionately smaller role in the context of the myriad possibilities it has opened up.

When he was eighteen, “A life devoted entirely to the study of literature seemed the highest possible destiny. No longer. Reading, which gave me a life, is now just part of that life, at the moment rather a small part.”

Dyer’s rejection of this particular destiny helps to explain why the final third of Otherwise is comprised of pieces on subjects that are, for the most part, far removed from literature or art. Instead we find Dyer searching for meaning (roughly synonymous, in his estimate, with pleasure) in sport, food, sex, travel, fashion, social life, and his own brand of loitering. For all their humor and burnished fluency there is something desperate about these pieces, as though Dyer is throwing himself into experience in order to fend off a potentially debilitating ennui; you get the sense that at any given moment he is never very far away from a comprehensive breakdown.

In a typical piece, “The Wrong Stuff,” Dyer’s lust for experience, for something—anything—to keep boredom at bay, takes him to an airbase near Moscow where wealthy tourists can pay to be flown around in decommissioned state-of-the-art fighter jets. He is by turns terrified, exhilarated, and nauseous. Reflecting on the absurdity of paying vast quantities for a few brief minutes of adrenaline, Dyer is still forced to admit

that if I had an infinite amount of money I would spend it on one thing after another like this…. When I got down I might have returned to my life of loneliness and boredom, but if I had the money I’d go up again and again until it no longer made me happy and then I’d take off and do something else that made me happy.

The subjunctive is all wrong here: this is precisely what Dyer has done and continues to do.

3.

When I first heard what Dyer’s latest book was going to be about, I thought that someone—probably Dyer—was having a laugh. In paraphrase, Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room sounds, to put it bluntly, awful. In fact, the book is itself a paraphrase of the Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky’s ambient, very slow-moving film Stalker. For reasons that are not at first clear, Dyer has decided to devote all of 220 pages to “summarizing the action of a film almost devoid of action,” a film that—just to up the absurdity-ante still further—was itself based on a book to begin with, Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic.

As Dyer readily admits, “Stalker is a film that can be summarized in about two sentences.” In a nameless police state, two middle-aged men, known to us only as Writer and Professor, solicit the expertise of a third, Stalker, to take them to a mysterious, Edenic, and heavily guarded area known as the Zone, at the center of which (“in any magical realm there is always some deeper recess or chamber of more powerful magic,” as Dyer writes) there is said to be a room where all one’s deepest wishes are granted. Glacial in its pacing (it is two hours and forty minutes long but contains a mere 142 shots), and relentlessly earnest in its exploration of the themes of desire and perception, it is difficult to think of a film less amenable to book-length summary.

So what is Dyer up to? Or, to put it less diplomatically, what was he thinking? In a familiar self-deprecating gesture, Dyer frames his distended précis as a last-ditch effort to stave off boredom and despair, as simply a way of filling his days. Would he have undertaken such an apparently ridiculous project, he asks aloud, “if I was capable of writing about anything else? In my way I am going to the Room—following these three to the Room—to save myself.”

What we gradually come to realize is that Dyer is using Tarkovsky’s film rather as John Ashbery used Parmigianino’s Self-portrait in a Convex Mirror in his famous poem of the same name—not as an object for cool critical dissection but as the occasion for thought, as a point of departure for a series of messy digressions on life, art, time, memory, and—lest we forget—cinema. That is to say, Zona is a kind of autobiography by other means.

Amazingly, the book is not only readable, it is hard to put down. A bit like “Reader’s Block” in his Otherwise collection, Zona turns out to be an elegy for a youthful intensity of responsiveness that Dyer knows has faded and cannot come again. “The time when I might have been able to read late-period Henry James has passed,” he writes in one of his glum, self-punishing sentences,

and because I have not read late-period Henry James I am in no position to say what harm has been done to my sensibility by not having done so. But I do know that if I had not seen Stalker in my early twenties my responsiveness to the world would have been radically diminished.

Dyer’s responsiveness, diminished though it may be, is everywhere on show in Zona. Unlike Stalker, with its meditative, endlessly patient panning shots, he seems to be going in several directions at once. Early on, as he describes the moment when Stalker is seen “making his way through railway sidings, beautifully desolate and puddly, in the postindustrial fog,” Dyer interrupts himself with a footnote (the book is teeming with self-interrupting footnotes: they are where most of the autobiographical material appears) to give us the following vignette:

Printed in the Observer alongside a review by the film critic Philip French, a still from this sequence was actually one of the things that persuaded my friend Russell and me to see the film in the first place. When I was a boy, growing up in Cheltenham, stills were displayed outside the ABC, the Coliseum and the Odeon as a way of luring you in and it was always a significant moment when you saw the still image in motion…. It confirmed that you were within the experience advertised outside, even though it was almost impossible to pin down the precise moment when the still was taken (we didn’t realize, back then, that a still was not a frame lifted from the flow of images, but a different, independent entity), or at least the slight lag between “seeing” the still and recognizing it as such meant that it had morphed into a slightly different image. A still, it seemed, was not still at all, more like the aftermath of a more specific but still elusive tingle of déjà vu.

It is exhilarating, after the somewhat loafing, off-duty prose at the start of this passage (“When I was a boy, growing up in Cheltenham”), to encounter that crystallized perception at the end: “like the aftermath of a more specific but still elusive tingle of déjà vu.” Dyer has a knack for alighting on random, intimate scraps of experience that most people take for granted. Every cinemagoer must have had some version of this still-spotting, but to my knowledge, no one has ever described it.

Although the book forgoes the conventions of plot, it still is remarkably suspenseful; for much of the time we have literally no idea what is going to happen next. One moment Dyer is describing the grand climactic scene when the three men in Tarkovsky’s film finally make it to the Room and are about to be granted their deepest wishes; the next, he’s telling us about his own deepest wish, or as he prefers to think of it, his deepest regret, “one I share with the vast majority of middle-aged, heterosexual men: that I’ve never had a three-way, never had sex with two women at once.” And we are not denied a thorough examination of the various times in Dyer’s life when he came within a hair’s breadth of realizing his wish. It is this ironic incongruity, between Tarkovsky’s grandeur and Dyer’s carnal waywardness, that finally makes Zona, for all its formal shenanigans, such an engaging, human, and oddly traditional book. We all know what it is like to feel indebted to, and inadequate before, a towering work, but few people have ever described that feeling with the ingenuity or the candor of Dyer.

Toward the end of the book, Dyer confesses that after spending so much time with Stalker, “I might never want to set eyes on it again; after this, I might have laid it to rest for good.” What comes through in both Zona and Otherwise, even more than Dyer’s intellectual promiscuity, is the degree to which he has kept faith with a single urgent theme: namely, the half-life of our passions, the way in which the thing that thrills us one day—a novel, a piece of music, a city, a love affair—may bore us to tears the next. He understands the painful asymmetry between our desires and life’s ability to satisfy them, but this understanding doesn’t dull his appetite, it quickens it. His books and articles are a sad, funny, and instructive record of this insatiable hunger for life.

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