The Dyer’s Hand

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


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…

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