(The Nation, May 9, 2011)
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In 1978, when Geoff Dyer was 20, he read William Hazlitt’s essay “My First Acquaintance With Poets” and was entranced by an autobiographical passage: “So I have loitered my life away, reading books, looking at pictures, going to plays, hearing, thinking, writing on what pleased me best.” On the spot Dyer decided to become a professional scribbler. He kept that promise to himself, and since 1986 he has published novels, travelogues and essay collections, but also wide-ranging volumes on jazz, photography, World War I and John Berger.
Dyer, who was born in England, adopted Hazlitt’s tendency to loiter, as well as his conception of literary freedom. (Hazlitt’s blazingly acerbic language did not leave an impression.) Indeed, it’s freedom that defines Dyer’s professional identity—freedom to write what he pleases, freedom to trespass on literary genres, freedom to ridicule academia, freedom to travel the world. Open a Dyer book and you will see him wandering through Paris with a joint in one hand and a desirable woman in the other; enjoying himself on the beaches of Mexico and Thailand; reading a book on the waterfront of New Orleans; strolling through the Pushkin Museum in search of works by Gauguin; or taking the bus to Franco’s “Valley of the Fallen” near Madrid. To read his work is to step into a parallel universe of art, literature, jazz, friendship and sex, all of which are set against a backdrop of bohemia, squalor and existential distress. It’s a formula that has won Dyer a cult following and plaudits from peers: his recent novel Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi (2009) carried blurbs from the likes of Zadie Smith, William Boyd and Jan Morris.
Dyer knows that he has managed a rare feat on Grub Street: in an age of academic specialization and journalistic decay, he has earned a living by the poise and productivity of his pen. “As I grew older I came increasingly to feel that my working life should be virtually synonymous with living my life as I wanted, irrespective of whether I was doing any work,” he declared in the introduction to his 1999 essay collection Anglo-English Attitudes. “Effectively, as my American publisher put it, I had found a way of being paid for leading my life. I liked that a lot, naturally.” But freedom entails risks; one wonders if Dyer—whose literary persona is an uneasy synthesis of idler and intellectual—has ranged too widely and written too much. Of his dozen books, only one is first-rate; a handful of the rest are worthy of the bookshelf. Dyer is extremely gifted, but he is also a writer in search of his ideal subject. It is not Geoff Dyer, contrary to what Dyer might think.
Dyer’s first book, a study of John Berger called Ways of Telling, was published by Pluto Press in 1986. (It has never appeared in the United States.) In this dense and airless book—“dull” is how its author has since described it—Dyer moves chronologically through each phase of Berger’s life and career, summarizing and assessing his works, placing them in their historical and intellectual contexts and launching counterstrikes against Berger’s detractors. Ways of Telling is a tribute to Berger—“the hope of this book,” Dyer writes in the preface, is “that he may be seen not as an exception but as a model”—but Berger never comes to life on the page, as he does so effectively in Adam Hochschild’s Mother Jones profile from 1981. Visiting Berger at his eighteenth-century farmhouse in the French Alps, Hochschild observed, “It has cold running water only; across the driveway is a two-hole outhouse with snow drifting through cracks in the walls.”
Ways of Telling is full of insightful passages, and Dyer’s account of the British art scene in the 1950s is admirably comprehensive. But the book has the whiff of the library and the left-wing bookshop: it’s the work of a young Oxford-trained writer calling attention to his intellectual grooming. A typical sentence reads: T.J. Clark’s “books on Courbet are definitive in a way that none of Berger’s could be.” Other passages are incoherent: “Literary taste is nurtured, in general, in the English faculties of institutes of higher education. The aesthetic consensus that results is, ultimately, given the social function of these institutions, ideologically informed.”
Still, Dyer backed into a fruitful subject. John Berger has always been a compelling and neglected figure, and anyone with a serious interest in Berger will eventually have to consult Ways of Telling. The book, it seems, served a salutary function in Dyer’s career. From Berger—who has devoted his life to Marxist-oriented art and cultural criticism, as well as fiction, reportage, personal essays and screenplays—Dyer gained a very expansive sense of form, an unwillingness to dwell in a single genre. (From his immersion in Berger’s shelf of books, Dyer may also have learned the virtues of laughter, the absence of which mars Berger’s work.) Dyer’s ties to Berger have remained strong: in 2001 he edited Berger’s Selected Essays, to which he contributed a stirring introduction.
In 1989 Dyer published his first novel—The Colour of Memory, a chronicle of bohemian life in Brixton in the ’80s. The themes are familiar and the writing is mostly mundane (“I caught a cold and passed it on to someone else. I went out; I stayed in.”) But one facet of the novel, beneath the principal narrative line, catches the eye and the ear. Dyer appreciates jazz, and writes about it with flair: “The clean, intelligent emotion of Jan Garbarek’s tenor filled the room. Audible landscapes formed and re-formed themselves around us. Morning music, mist melting in the sun.” Dyer ended up taking stock of his talent as a music writer and finding a form for it: in 1991 Jonathan Cape published what is still his most vibrant work—But Beautiful: A Book About Jazz. (An American edition appeared from North Point Press in 1996.) It consists of seven atmospheric vignettes concerning major figures in jazz, including Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, Lester Young, Ben Webster and Art Pepper; other giants, including Coleman Hawkins, make fleeting appearances. Sewn into the narrative is a silver thread about Duke Ellington traveling the country by car: “Duke had said many times that the road was his home and if that was true then this car was his hearth.” The book artfully combines fiction and nonfiction: some of the events described took place—for instance, the assault on Chet Baker in 1966—but the material has been transmuted by Dyer’s imaginative interpretation of old black-and-white photographs, court transcripts, archive footage and clippings from the New York Herald Tribune. “As a rule,” he writes in the preface, “assume that what’s here has been invented or altered rather than quoted. Throughout, my purpose was to present the musicians not as they were but as they appear to me.” The various threads form a seamless whole.
A substantial imaginative leap separates Ways of Telling from But Beautiful. The quasi-academic language of the Berger book is gone; Dyer’s prose in But Beautiful is akin to a musical instrument: it has the swirl, beauty, flexibility and range of a tenor saxophone as blown by one of the masters. (Keith Jarrett, in a blurb for But Beautiful, compared the book to a “great solo.”) The section on Lester Young unfolds in a dingy Broadway hotel, where the ailing Young is subsisting on Chinese food and booze:
When they jammed together Hawk tried everything he knew to cut him but he never managed it. In Kansas in ‘34 they played right through the morning, Hawk stripped down to his singlet, trying to blow him down with that big hurricane tenor, and Lester slumped in a chair with that faraway look in his eyes, his tone still light as a breeze after eight hours’ playing. The pair of them wore out pianists until there was no one left and Hawk walked off the stand, threw his horn in the back of his car, and gunned it all the way to St. Louis for that night’s gig.
This is how Dyer begins his section on Mingus:
America was a gale blowing constantly in his face. By America he meant White America and by White America he meant anything about America he didn’t like. The wind hit him harder than it did small men; they thought America was a breeze but he heard it rage, even when branches were still and the American flag hung down the side of buildings like a star-spangled scarf—even then he could hear it rage. His response was to rant back, to rush at it with all the intensity that he felt it rushing at him, two juggernauts hurtling toward each other on a road the size of a continent.
Here is Monk strolling in Manhattan, gazing over the Hudson:
As he looked out across the river a smear of yellow-brown light welled up over the skyline like paint squeezed from a tube. For a few minutes the sky was a blaze of dirty yellow until the light faded and oil-spill clouds sagged again over New Jersey. He thought about heading back to the apartment but stayed on in the sad twilight and watched dark boats crawl over the water, the grief of gulls breaking over them.
But Beautiful is not flawless. Because Dyer has a better command of diction than of narrative, some of the chapters feel shapeless and made me yearn for A.B. Spellman’s Four Lives in the Bebop Business (1966), an insider’s nonfiction account, which, among many other virtues, has a brisk narrative pace. Dyer is acutely aware of the ways American racism marked the lives of his subjects, but sometimes his treatment of race is too abrupt and heavy-handed. On other occasions, Dyer pushes his deft ventriloquism too far, as in this passage describing Mingus in his wheelchair: “Even talking was becoming difficult. His tongue lay in his mouth like an old man’s dick.”
These are minor imperfections. But Beautiful is powerfully concise: “Booze, junk, prison. It wasn’t that jazz musicians died young, they just got older quicker.” There are intriguing musical insights: Mingus “wasn’t like Miles, who heard the music and then simply transferred it from his head to the instruments. Mingus didn’t hear music until he was making it.” But above all there is the kind of emotional power and lyricism often associated with the writing of the late Whitney Balliett, whose jazz criticism graced The New Yorker for four decades. The apex of But Beautiful is a snapshot of Art Pepper in his prison cell at San Quentin, unfurling a blues on his alto saxophone while his mind expands with visions of the debauchery for which he was renowned. Pepper’s solo has an entrancing effect on his cellmate, Egg, who is snugly ensconced on the top bunk. It’s a vignette of great resonance and beauty.
Authors routinely reinvent themselves. When Norman Mailer published his swaggering collection Advertisements for Myself in 1959, few would have expected him, twenty years later, to win a Pulitzer Prize for a thousand-page “true life novel” about Gary Gilmore. Mailer’s audacious gamble paid off artistically. If you’ve read Dyer’s books in chronological order—including his lean, modest essay on World War I, The Missing of the Somme (1994)—it’s hard not to be baffled by the identity he assumed in Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling With D.H. Lawrence (1997). The denizen of libraries and left-wing bookshops had reinvented himself as a slacker: “I do everything badly, sloppily, to get it over with so that I can get on to the next thing that I will do badly and sloppily so that I can then do nothing.” But slackers are not generally inclined to write learned treatises on John Berger or ransack jazz archives, as Dyer did in the research for But Beautiful, a book that features epigraphs from Theodor Adorno and Ernst Bloch.
Out of Sheer Rage has a simple conceit. For years, Dyer tells us, he aspired to write a “sober academic study” of Lawrence; lassitude prevented him from doing so. What he wrote is a book about trying to write a book about Lawrence—a shaggy tract on boredom, inertia, despair, missed opportunities, stressful obligations and dead ends, among other afflictions. In Dyer’s hands, the rules of biography are inverted: on a visit to Sicily, where Lawrence lived in the early 1920s, Dyer encountered an old woman who knew Lawrence, but he neglected to ask her any questions (“she was old and tired and I was too respectful”); instead of energetically following Lawrence’s footsteps through Mexico, he lounged on the nude beach of Zipolite in Oaxaca.
Out of Sheer Rage—which his publisher identified as a “memoir”—emerged from Dyer’s dissatisfaction with the standard conventions of travel writing and literary biography. (He scoffs at “state-of-the-fart theorists” who churn out papers with titles like “Alternatives to Logocentrism in D.H. Lawrence.”) Dyer was hardly alone in his displeasure with those genres: Janet Malcolm harbored her own set of concerns about the biographical treatment of Sylvia Plath, and in 1994 she produced a startling work of criticism and literary journalism, The Silent Woman, about the moral and ethical pitfalls of the biographical enterprise, and about the “sadism and reductionism” of journalism. Certainly there are some valuable passages in Rage—including some fine pages on Lawrence’s conception of freedom and a moving evocation of his final months, in addition to a few funny gags—but one can’t escape the sense that Out of Sheer Rage, which helped to cement Dyer’s reputation on these shores, is vastly overrated. It has a sprawling narrative architecture that cannot be hidden beneath (or justified by) a slacker pose. Its prose is verbose, a defect aggravated by its frequently rancid tone (“I hate children and I hate parents of children”).
What explains Out of Sheer Rage’s cult popularity? Surely there are finer books on procrastination and the hazards of the literary enterprise. (See Martin Amis’s The Information or Jonathan Raban’s For Love and Money.) When Out of Sheer Rage was published, memoirs were in vogue: a first-person account of “wrestling with D.H. Lawrence” may have appealed to highbrow sensibilities bored by run-of-the-mill accounts (real or invented) of incest, divorce, substance abuse and alcoholism. The author holds little back: the book contains too much Dyer and not enough Lawrence. We learn about Dyer’s athlete’s foot, his bad knee, his aching back and his eczema; his deep desire to live in San Francisco and his disgust for the residents of Oxford; and his in-flight sexual fantasies (“Often in planes I find myself thinking of having sex with the flight attendant: pushing my hand up between her legs as she walks past, fucking in the toilet: standard in-flight porno stuff”). In such passages the slacker becomes a buffoon. There’s no better example than the scene in which Dyer and his girlfriend throw down their towels on the beach in Zipolite: “I moved around in front of Laura who was dozing, one knee raised up, legs slightly apart so that I could see her cunt. After a few moments I became lost in the pleasure of looking at her breasts, her legs, her stomach, her cunt. My prick stirred into life…. I spat in my hand and rubbed saliva over the head of my prick.”
“If we’re being utterly frank,” Dyer wrote in 1999, “there were times when it was only the prospect of one day being able to publish my journalism that kept me writing ‘proper’ books: do a few more novels, I reasoned, and maybe my obscurity will be sufficiently lessened to permit publication of the book I really care about, a collection of my bits and pieces.” That’s a just admission: Dyer’s novels, including The Colour of Memory, do feel halfhearted in their texture and structure. The Search (1993) is a weird detective story seemingly written under the influence of Chandler, Coetzee and Calvino. Dyer’s most enjoyable novel, in which melancholy and humor achieve a fine balance, is Paris Trance: A Romance (1998), which brings to life two young expatriate couples adrift in France; pack it for the long flight to Charles de Gaulle. Dyer’s most recent novel is the overpraised Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, the first half of which is a lethargic account of the Venice Biennale, related by a hack; in the second half, an expat writer hanging out in Varanasi undertakes a journey from anxiety to a kind of transcendence; in the final pages he is wearing a dhoti and bathing in the Ganges. As one expects from Dyer, there are some ingenious and witty passages. But his India is a thick stack of clichés (“there was shit everywhere…. Every kind of shit”). For a realistic and affecting account of Varanasi, read Pankaj Mishra’s novel The Romantics (2000).
If Dyer’s four novels are collectively unsatisfying, the same is mostly true of his travel writing. In 2003 he published Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It, a collection of forgettable dispatches from Cambodia, Paris, New Orleans, Detroit and Miami, some of which originally appeared in The Threepenny Review, Modern Painters and Feed. Colin Thubron or Neal Ascherson he is not: “Taxi drivers urged us to go to the killing fields,” he writes in the Cambodia chapter, “but we were too hot and tired—the heat meant we were tired all the time—and had no desire to see piles of skulls, and so, whenever possible, we retired to the breezy familiarity of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club.” Platitudes fall like dead leaves: “If you are happy, being alone in a hotel, on expenses, drinking beer, and watching porno is close to bliss; but if you are lonely and unloved it is utterly soul-destroying.”
Like But Beautiful, Yoga elides the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction; but the results are much less satisfying. In the preface Dyer notes, “Everything in this book really happened, but some of the things that happened only happened in my head.” To position his travel book between genres is obviously Dyer’s prerogative. But readers pay a price: we are denied the authorial responsibility of nonfiction and possibly the unbridled imagination of fiction. Yoga has a half-finished feel: it seems to be one of his “proper” books, a bridge to what he really cares about—his miscellaneous journalism, his “bits and pieces.”
The appearance of such a collection, Otherwise Known as the Human Condition, indicates that the author is doing what he most enjoys. Happily for the reader, the idler has been supplanted, this time around, by the critic and close reader. The book contains sections on art, writing and music, as well as some personal essays. Many of the pieces first appeared in London newspapers, and they are too brief to be effective in book form. One exception is Dyer’s review of Denis Johnson’s Vietnam novel, Tree of Smoke (2007), where his skills as a book reviewer and critic take flight:
Johnson is all over the place, and he is an artist of strange diligence. It is as if his skewed relationship to the sentence—not really knowing what one is and yet knowing exactly what to do with it—operates, here, at the level of structure. Tree of Smoke is as excessive and messy as Moby Dick. Anything further removed from the tucked-up, hospital corners school of British fiction is hard to imagine. It’s a big, dirty, unmade bed of a book, and once you settle in you’re in no hurry to get out.
The strongest pieces—on F. Scott Fitzgerald, Rebecca West, the Goncourt brothers and recent books and movies about Iraq and Afghanistan—are the ones where Dyer has the space to stretch his legs, burnish his prose and spin a web of connections. In his essay on the photographer William Gedney he writes:
Gedney was fascinated by the history of his [Brooklyn] street and spent long hours in the local library, excavating its past, transcribing quotations, and pasting newspaper accounts of significant events of the street’s history into what he designated his “Myrtle Avenue Notebooks.” Whitman—whose grave Gedney photographed—had also lived on the avenue for a while, and the paper he had edited for several years, the Eagle, boasted that this first paved and graded street in the area was “the pride of the old-time Brooklynite.” That was in 1882; by 1939 Henry Miller considered it “a street not of sorrow, for sorrow would be human and recognizable, but of sheer emptiness.”
Dyer has a gift for excavating magnificent quotes from other writers, but it’s a gift that frequently serves to overshadow his own paragraphs. Consider how hard it would be to improve upon these lines, which he discovered in Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. West had encountered a student interested in writing a thesis about her:
I explained that I was a writer wholly unsuitable for her purpose: that the bulk of my writing was scattered through American and English periodicals; that I had never used my writing to make a continuous disclosure of my own personality to others, but to discover for my own edification what I knew about various subjects which I found to be important to me; and that in consequence I had written a novel about London to find out why I loved it.
Certain readers may be charmed by Dyer’s essay on his quest for the perfect doughnut and the ideal cup of coffee:
Finding Grand Central Station was easy enough, but finding Oren’s Daily Roast within the vast station complex was extremely difficult. Eventually I found it, saw it, saw a line of people queuing up, saw that although it was essentially just a stall, they did indeed stock Doughnut Plant doughnuts but that only one vanilla doughnut remained. I joined the queue. If anyone had taken the last doughnut I would have pleaded with her and put my case—‘If you knew what I have been through this morning…’”
Near the end of the collection is an essay titled “Reader’s Block,” wherein Dyer confesses, “I find it increasingly difficult to read. This year I read fewer books than last year; last year I read fewer than the year before; the year before I read fewer than the year before that.” Admirers of his literary criticism may mourn that disclosure; but I hope it inspires Dyer to immerse himself again in the world of music and musicians, preferably jazz musicians. In his hands, a book about Charles Mingus and “White America” would be fascinating. So would a biography of Don Cherry—whom Dyer calls his “guiding spirit,” and whose photograph is pinned above his writing desk, or a history of West Coast jazz, from Art Pepper to Charlie Haden. The research could be undertaken in San Francisco, where the doughnuts aren’t half bad.