April 1, 2018 at 9:00 pm

Lit Fest | ‘Never on the Ground: The Buoyant Prose of Geoff Dyer, April 11, 13

Geoff Dyer, portrait

Geoff Dyer. Photo credit: Matt Stuart.

The 2018 Spring Literary Festival welcomes author Geoff Dyer for a lecture on Wednesday, April 11, at 7:30 p.m. in Walter Hall Rotunda, and for a reading on Friday, April 13, at 7:30 p.m. in Baker Theater.

By Jordan Floyd
Graduate student pursuing a M.A. in Creative Writing: Nonfiction

At first glance, Geoff Dyer is one of our most prolific, celebrated, curious nonfiction writers, with books on art, jazz, photography, travel, and many other subjects that have won him acclaim, and thousands of readers. His book Another Great Day at Sea: Life Aboard the USS George H. W. Bush is an example of his hilarious reporting. In it, Dyer plunges into the culture of a U.S. aircraft carrier, and by including elements borrowed from the new journalists, he turns himself into a key character. The book has been favorably compared to the nonfiction chestnut, “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” by David Foster Wallace, and so we can confidently claim, easy-peasy . . . Dyer equals nonfiction brilliance.

At second glance, though, we see a writer who consistently challenges our ideas about journalism and nonfiction, one who, without any genre agenda, seems naturally to write in different registers, as in his award-winning book Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi. He blends his nonfiction with fiction as though the two are coffee and cream. “Fiction, nonfiction—the two are bleeding into each other all the time,” he told the Paris Review in an interview. And just as it’s fascinating to go with Dyer aboard an aircraft carrier, it’s fascinating to tack with him as he sails in and out of what’s observed and what’s imagined. “This is what I love about Geoff Dyer,” wrote Clancy Martin in the New York Times. “His feet are never on the ground.”

It can be hard to evaluate a writer like this, who has jumped around in subject matter and genre, and who has published so widely, but Dyer has given us an answer key, in a way. In a Prospect Magazine article from 2011, he attempted to make sense of his allergic reaction, as he put it, to David Foster Wallace’s work, that same work his own writing has sometimes been compared to. “I’m not attempting a considered evaluation here,” Dyer wrote of his intention for publishing on the subject of the late DFW. “I’m just trying to explain my symptoms in the hope of finding out what it is that makes me react in this way.”

So, let me explain the symptoms I feel reading some of Dyer’s work. Once pages deep into Another Great Day at Sea, and simultaneously adrift in the results of shouting “Geoff Dyer essay” into the Google ocean, I, too, had somewhat of a physical reaction, though I couldn’t call it anything allergic. Instead, I felt as I do when I’ve had a drink or two. Looser. Willing to converse with less inhibition.

Or, let me share what I sense during moments of reading the essay “Diary,” where Dyer notes with what seems like sincerity that it’s a shame his father “wasn’t around to enjoy the irony and comedy of his son having a stroke at 55” (Dyer did, in fact, have a minor stroke in 2014). There, I feel like I’m tipping one back with a funny, mordant friend. And while I’ve not read all of Dyer’s work, I have now chatted with him on the page for a few weeks, and I can confidently say Geoff Dyer seems to be alright. Let me continue to tell you why.

Dyer is interested in the world around him, of course, but not in a way that’s obsessive and manic, or alternately, that’s incessantly ruminative. No, he appears to be interested in the world conversationally. That is, the world as Dyer sees it strikes me as one that’s full of conversations to be had, and if he can only slip into one or two he might be quenched for a time. Dyer’s interest in people and the conversations that help define their lives is displayed excellently in Another Great Day at Sea, a work of approximate immersion journalism, for lack of a better term, in which he documents his experiences talking to an ambitious number of crew members on the USS George H. W. Bush.

At about the midpoint, Dyer speaks with a man named Ron who works on the ship’s Flight Deck Control office. Dyer asks Ron if it is true that he is retiring from his service and Ron answers “yes,” citing his very young children and his “duty as a dad now to go home and raise [them] in a good moral Christian manner.” Dyer details Ron’s desire to mold his kids and shield them, in a sense, from what might be considered worldly. (He’ll use a “curriculum based on Christianity and God.”)

That Dyer remarks on the perils of such an upbringing—he writes in an aside that it is “practically guaranteed to turn your sons and daughters into atheists, converts to Islam or just zonked-out acid heads”—comes as no surprise; but the pondering that comes after, and the continued dive into Ron’s mind is an arresting feature of Dyer’s style as both writer and, I venture to say, as a person. “But . . . maybe these kids would turn out to be upstanding, good Christian folk who would homeschool their kids too,” Dyer writes. “And who was I to say there was anything wrong with that?” What follows is one of my favorite back-and-forths in the book, but I won’t spoil it for you. “A damn good interview,” my notes read. “Must include this.” And here I am including it, as evidence of a hallmark of the writing: Dyer always shows that he cares to understand. And who wouldn’t want to hang out with guy like that?

Perhaps what is best about Dyer, in my estimation anyway, is the quality of his work that fits so well with the metaphor of drinking I’ve set up. It’s an afternoon beer under the sun on a patio, and it’s just one. But the good times can extend, casually, effortlessly. Suddenly, we’re our best, smartest selves, whether we’re talking about D. H. Lawrence, as Dyer does in his book Out of Sheer Rage, or Yoga as he does in Yoga for People Who Can’t be Bothered to Do It, or photography as he does in his latest book The Street Philosophy of Garry Winogrand. And this is precisely what happened when I first picked up Another Great Day at Sea, and when, subsequently, I found all that I could of what Dyer’s written.

Of course, the metaphor breaks down when it comes to the notion of excess. You won’t be hazy and full of regret when you overindulge in Dyer’s work. You’ll just feel bubbly.

So, I continue to want more of his lively-dry wit, a second draught of his uncommon honesty. I want to watch him approach more people, slip into conversation with them, and carry us all toward the horizon of charm and intellect. To the world, Geoff Dyer has been the GQ Writer of the Year, the winner of the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for best comic novel, a National Book Critics Circle award for criticism, and the Windham-Campbell Literature Prize (for nonfiction!). But, to me, he’s just my new buddy Geoff. Here’s to him and to many more good conversations.

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