Thoughts on Geoff Dyer, Part 2

Editor’s Note: Part 1 of this essay appears here.

Titled, with typical offhandedness, Working the Room, Geoff Dyer’s latest collection of non-fiction includes the same kind of miscellany as his first collection, Anglo-English Attitudes: essays on contemporary art and photography, literary journalism, meandering thoughts on jazz, sports and fashion, and a handful of singularly offbeat autobiographical musings.

Of these, the least engaging are the essays on art and photography, which betray the heavy influence of Dyer’s friend and mentor, John Berger. As skillful as they are, there is nothing as dampening to a reader’s interest as overhearing one writer speak in another writer’s voice. Anglo-English Attitudes contained an essay “Ecce Homo”, which juxtaposed a photograph of an exhausted prizefighter with a Bellini crucifixion, imitating Berger, who famously compared a foreshortened snapshot of the dead Che Guevara to Mantegna’s foreshortened Christ. Although there are no echoes in this volume as blatant as that, there are still a distressing number of borrowings from Berger’s bag of tricks here; Like Berger, Dyer is of fond of the baldly asked rhetorical question, the combination of the stridently political and the vaguely mystical, the habit of deflating the pronouncements of the Western imperium by quoting Third World poets, and the discovery in art of the remote past the outlines of our current predicament.

About literature, Dyer is more solidly himself. Working the Room includes something new to Dyer: a handful of introductions commissioned for new editions of literary classics, and they are all well-researched, personalized, and meant to be inspiring to the young readers who might pick them up. He links Sons and Lovers to the upward mobility of the working class scholarship boy, which was his own fate as well as Lawrence’s.

As a book reviewer, Dyer is good at encapsulating a writer in a few lines: Denis Johnson is “a writer, who, at some level, did not know how to write at all — and yet knew exactly what he was doing.” Lorrie Moore has an “eye for absurdist, hi-def detail.” Don DeLillo “has reconfigured things, or our perceptions of them, to such an extent that DeLillo is now implied in the things themselves. While photographers and film-makers routinely remake the world in their images of it, this is something only a few novelists — Hemingway was one — ever manage.”

Towards the back of the book, in the usual gathering-place for the oddballs in any essay collection, Dyer the flaneur re-emerges (being a flaneur is rarely a full-time occupation). He pauses to notice a new outcropping on the urban landscape: the spontaneous bicycle- accident memorial, known as the ‘ghost bike.’

Ghost bikes “throw into relief something about the inadequacy of public art in general and ‘memorial’ art in particular….most public sculpture prompts the viewer to echo [Randall Jarrell’s question]… ‘It’s ugly, but is it Art?’…State-sponsored memorials like the Diana Fountain in the Serpentine are distinguished by their failure to give voices to the sum of individual feelings they are designed to articulate.”

This leads to a lament (more forceful coming from a relative insider to the art world) “that the larger needs of society [rarely coincide] with the deepest, un-coerced urges of the best [contemporary] artists.”

Dyer finds the most successful spontaneous contemporary memorial at Burning Man: The Temple of Tears, dedicated entirely to suicides and built to burned after a few days. Here, “there were no notices or guards stipulating appropriate behavior…” Dyer notes, in a striking parentheses,” (Solemnity, it is worth remembering, is usually a form of decorum, a way of behaving that is entirely compatible with a lack of feeling.)”

In “My Life as a Gatecrasher,” we come to the heart of the Dyer approach, which is really a clear statement of the flaneur method. Dyer relates an anecdote about his research — what he calls his “unsystematic rummaging” — for But Beautiful, performed at the archives of the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers. Asked by a curious librarian about his background and credentials for a writing a book about jazz, he replies, “I don’t have any…Except I like listening to it.”

He continues:

I didn’t know much about jazz. Certainly not enough to write a book about it — that, precisely, was the motivation for doing so. I loved jazz but it was infinitely mysterious to me. If I’d known what I needed to know before writing the book I would have had no interest in doing so. Instead of being a journey of discovery writing the book would have been a tedious clerical task, a transcription of the known…As far as I was concerned 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.

The gatecrasher, Dyer writes, quoting Nietzsche, “never penetrates into the depths of a problem, yet often notices things that the professional with his laborious poring over never does.” He notes that this is Barthes’ approach to photography as well.

Dyer may invoke the highly regarded Barthes, but there is something very Plimptonesque about his own combination of amateurism, fearlessness and self-deprecation. He mentions that when he published his WWI book, The Missing of the Somme, he was considered enough of an authority on the war to be asked to appear on a TV panel with the great military historian Correlli Barnet: “– he rolled over me like a tank.”

The longest essay in the book is, in typical Dyer fashion, about the most trivial subject. “Otherwise Known as the Human Condition (with particular reference to Donut Plant donuts),” examines a well-known peculiarity about urban life: why is it, in a large metropolis with an apparently infinite number of choices, that we always succumb to a routine and frequent the same few places. This leads to an account of Dyer’s quest for the best spot to have coffee and a pastry, and the mysterious moment when the familiar satisfaction of a daily habit starts to turn into a bore:

I like to go back to the same few places all the time — then as soon as I break free of the prison of routine, I am left wondering why I kept going to a place I had stopped enjoying years earlier.

Dyer recounts, at epic length, his search for the perfect coffee and doughnut in New York. Of course, he has no interest in writing anything as prosaic as a well-researched foodie piece about the comparative merits of says, Donut Plant Donuts and Tim Horton’s , or even in rhapsodizing poetically about these everyday pleasures a la M.F.K Fisher. What he is interested in his own complicated and ever-shifting reactions to a seemingly simple ritual.

That the essay turns into a protracted yawn is a sign of the inherent riskiness of the flaneur approach and makes us admire all the more similar writings of Dyer’s that do succeed. In his search for fresh insight into the near-at-hand, the flaneur is always heroically skirting the edge of the trivial, the hermetically subjective, the obvious, and even the boring.

* * *

Read John Broening’s Column Note here.

— John Broening is a chef and writer based in Denver, Colorado. His work has appeared in the Baltimore Sun, the Baltimore City Paper, Gastronomica, Edible Front Range, and the Denver Post, for whom he writes a weekly column about food.

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