Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Reading Geoff Dyer

The essays in Otherwise Known as the Human Condition often seem fired off with the effortlessness of a pool shark making clever bank shots. Elusively show-offy, though also using a self-effacing sleight of hand, Geoff Dyer has made his own genre of personal essay, keeping the reader engaged the same way as someone very interesting at a party. This is a writer’s trick, a necessity, and a boon, to be continuously interesting. It’s hard not to find Dyer’s voice appealing.

Dyer’s style feels sprung in one sitting--and that’s not bad, if anything, you feel envious for how easily he cuts loose. In Dyer’s work, there is a feeling of the pre-emptive, that he’s writing in this manner for when someone decides to scrutinize it. Having what appears as a “loose” style might be an excuse for avoiding explaining that one is in fact more rigorous than they seem. There's something appealing about Dyer's attitude, which is a kind of hands off, You can't hold me accountable for being so freewheeling. But there is a danger with the encomium, which is what Dyer resorts to most often in his essays: too much praise can smell sickeningly sweet.

Does the ability to write whatever one wants, as breezily as it seems to flow from the pen, then become in danger of sacrificing rigor and putting the ego on display? It feels like Dyer toes this line where a certain amount of reigning oneself in is necessary. Yet if your writing is consistently entertaining, you must have an innate understanding of how far you are willing to go before you embarrass yourself. Sure, it's simple, leave those parts out. But Dyer might be the writer he is for the ability to leave those parts in.

Dyer claims a boredom with the quotidian, which is only doubted by his apparent enthusiasm and engagement with his material: literature, music, photographs. The collection is divided into five essay categories to reflect this broad range of everyman, John Berger-esque interest.

Dyer’s assessment of The Great Gatsby, for example “[...] the writing in these pages is strikingly inept”, may be the opinion of many who have gone back to reread that acclaimed classic, but only Dyer gets away with saying it, perhaps because his tone is good-natured--besides, how can he pick a fight with the dead? Dyer’s interpretation requires him to re-read Fitzgerald and assess from different periods of his life of reading him. This almost doesn’t seem worth the trouble with many beloved classics, because after awhile one loses interest in revisiting writers they’ve already spent more than their fair share of time in the attempt to disprove prejudiced negative opinions. But you can be glad Dyer makes the effort. That Dyer returns to a historical fiction is intriguing, and it makes one realize that Fitzgerald, who hasn’t yet fallen out of the canon, is surely teetering on the edge.

When it comes to writing about music, primarily jazz, Dyer the enthusiast can drown out the music with his history of listening, perhaps without adding anything substantial to our understanding. When Dyer mentions the same obscure ECM jazz recordings (in three separate pieces in the collection!), and attempts to answer the question, "Is jazz dead?", the reader suspects enthusiasm has trumped authority. So heavily larded is Dyer’s playlist with Keith Jarrett, that he stretches his credibility to the point where the reader is numbed to the praise. Also, there are Dyer’s silly statements, witty though they may have been in the composition: "The history of jazz has been the history of people picking themselves off the floor." What that means, I'm not sure, and the tone is Dyer imitating Amis, which happens intermittently, here.

Though you can see why Dyer is drawn to the photographers William Gedney, and Miroslav Tichy, artists who improvised and never quite finished what they started or were committed to it long enough to be taken as masters of their art. Tichy seems to have become an artist in spite of his intentions, which have more to do with satisfying prurient urges (he took stalker-ish telephoto shots of women on home made cameras). And he has the outsider position of a Henry Darger, without the discipline. Gedney was always starting a writing project, though it seems it was ultimately easier to mess around behind the camera than to write.

As for his interest in photography, I impatiently read this section (“Visuals”) and wondered why it’s one quarter of the book, and why it’s the front end. My sense is that Dyer is so enthusiastically drawn to photographs and their explication, but without a slew of examples, it isn’t always clear what he’s talking about. And thus, some of Dyer’s pronouncements seem unearned, even overstated. It might be a great niche for Dyer to be a student of photography, but his airy interpretations, no matter how much they are accurate and true for the author, they don’t add to my knowledge or interest as a reader.

Dyer is preoccupied with Americanness and specifically, with the fixation of American writers on the novel; though as a writer of novels, and an outsider, British, he obviously, also has the fixation. Dyer highlights the particularly American phenomenon of how writers aren't taken seriously unless they are heavy hitting novelists. He also works this idea into a discussion of Iraq war memoirs and a perception of the damning strait-jacket of British class distinctions for prose writing. And his critical, yet somehow still praising, take on Susan Sontag, in response to the proclamation she made for herself as a "storyteller", boils down to what discerning readers of Sontag may think: "To put the matter crassly, Sontag couldn't tell a story to save her life." Dyer has a penchant for going after the dead.

You often hear these arguments from a less than successful novelist (Dyer) who has made a name for himself as an essayist (I hesitate to say, critic). The novel is held up for canonization in the history of letters because fiction is the ultimate entertainment--soothing medicine--to make readers forget the pain of reality. Or it allows them the comfort of wallowing, from a safe distance, in someone else’s misery. Writers want to be in that canon--or it's the fastest way, one viable way, into possible posterity. No matter that the works there are often merely popular long before they would ever be praised as literature. Dyer gets this point, and rails about it a few times, and then you can sense he recognizes that he's established his foothold at least in the current readership of non-fiction.

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