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Fine By Me: Geoff Dyer's Unlikely Terms of Engagement

03/31/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The English writer Geoff Dyer's books defy formal classification when considered singly and defy generalization when considered together, or so the critical commonplace has it. "Geoff Dyer is the least categorisable of writers," says The Spectator. "Give him a genre and he'll bend it; pigeonhole him and he'll break out." The Evening Standard calls him "the kind of writer who cannot sit still for a moment, changing direction constantly between projects--and sometimes right in the middle of one." The biography on the jacket of Dyer's last few books has described him a bit confusingly as the author of "three novels, a critical study of John Berger, and three [or four or five, whichever was the case at the time] genre-defying books." Just which of his books are included in this group is not clear, but the most likely candidates are The Missing of the Somme (on public memorials of the Great War and the nature of the memory they have engendered, 1994), But Beautiful: A Book About Jazz (1996), Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D. H. Lawrence (1998), Yoga for People Who Can't Be Bothered to Do It (essays with leitmotifs, 2003), The Ongoing Moment (a survey of photography, 2005), and Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi (2009).

The critical consensus on Dyer's books--unconventional, diverse--largely ignores their underlying conviction: a belief in the unity of the arts, in all forms of art as the product of the artist's communion with his or her artistic precursors. Credos are hidden in plain sight. In The Ongoing Moment Dyer compares the contemporary receptions of the photographer Robert Frank's The Americans and the alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman's Shape of Jazz to Come:

Frank's pictures share with Coleman's music the need to explore formal boundaries by doing away with them. The objections to the free jazz ushered in by Coleman can easily be carried over to Frank, whose work was judged, by traditional standards, to be unframed, uncomposed. In the late 1950s Coleman's music was revolutionary, unprecedented. Listening to it now we can hear, quite clearly, that it is drenched in the blues that the saxophonist had heard growing up in Fort Worth, Texas. It's the same with Frank.

Dyer's main subject is the discovery of aesthetic affiliations--a kind of organized synesthesia. So while his work may appear "unprecedented," this appearance could not be further from the truth. Precedents, and predecessors, abound.

The act of teasing out these affiliations consumes the attention Dyer might otherwise devote to creating fictional universes. His narrators, whether first- or third-person, are of a piece. And not only with each other. What we learn about them seems too close to what we know or assume about Dyer himself for us not to identify them with him.

This identification, one suspects, is by design; they sound just like him, or just like we think he sounds. Although they are not named Geoff (only one is Jeff, which, as any Geoff will tell you, is not at all the same thing), neither are they given other names or attributes incompatible with what little we know about Dyer from outside sources. The Dyer narrator is mischievously gonzo yet hypochondriacal, judgmental yet skeptical, intellectual yet incurious, competitive yet self-deprecating. He is a comedian with no instinct for laughter, a hedonist with an ascetic streak, a peripatetic who longs to be on his couch at home watching a British Premier League game on "telly." Like many a traveling Englishman before him, he is a connoisseur of discomfiture and dissatisfaction, a man of the world whose world is not his oyster but rather a clam of suspect freshness. Unlike them, however, the Dyer narrator takes some of the blame for his unhappiness and seeks to remedy it, assuming a stoical determination or, when this effort eludes him, getting high. This self-critical spirit, gameness, and a disarming directness of address make him a companionable and apparently trustworthy reporter.

But the more we read, the harder it is to overlook a basic distinction between the narrators whom we are invited to think of as Geoff Dyer and Geoff Dyer himself. Even in essays, the Dyer narrator is an underachiever whose sense of failure and self-betrayal cannot be stilled by the pleasures of sex, drugs, and travel to primo party destinations such as Haad Rin and Black Rock City. "I have achieved very little in my life," one of these says to himself in Amsterdam, the shrooms he's forcing down his gullet preventing him saying it aloud. Another, the narrator of "The Rain Inside," recalls an extended period of serial distraction that makes him sound like a model for Kierkegaard's description of the aesthetic stage:

My days were made up of impulses that could never become acts. Ten hours was not enough to get anything done because it wasn't really ten hours, it was just billions of bits of time, each one far too small to do anything with.

Geoff Dyer himself, the 51-year-old author of eleven books, the editor of a few more, a seasoned, adventurous journalist who has flown in a Russian supersonic fighter jet and gone on safari, has "achieved very little" only by the standards of an inconceivably exclusive pantheon.

This discrepancy between the writer and his personae indicates that the work is in good measure invented. Still it is better, as in more interesting and enjoyable--and, at least in this sense, truer or more faithful to the work--to defer our awareness of the fictive elements in Dyer's nonfiction. This is just what an apparently confessional essay such as "Decline and Fall" leads us to do. "In Rome I lived in the grand manner of writers," it begins. "I basically did nothing all day. Not a thing." It ends with him sitting at the Campidoglio and reflecting:

I had been drifting for years, and now--like the lone cloud we'd seen at Hadrian's Villa--I had drifted to a standstill. I may not have admitted it at the time--if that afternoon was a turning point, then I responded as one invariably does at such moments, by failing to turn--but at some level I knew that I had been kidding myself: that all the intellectual discipline and ambition of my earlier years had been dissipated by half-hearted drug abuse, indolence, and disappointment, that I lacked purpose and direction and had even less idea of what I wanted from life now than I had when I was twenty or thirty even, that I was well on the way to becoming a ruin myself, and that that was fine by me.

The moment at which Dyer declares that he is resigned to his existential failure--"that was fine by me"--is the one in which we see, as if in a simulated intimation of the Lacanian real, that this failure is staged and that what we have been reading is a kind of fiction, a mock confession à la Rousseau. Maybe our sympathy for a man in crisis is transferred in the aftermath to the character that man has drawn, and maybe that sympathy is mixed with admiration for the artistic feat the man has pulled off. But no matter how this change in our understanding of the nature of what we have been reading may change the experience we have had of it, it is clear that Dyer finds such reversals enabling. As playwrights write against type, he writes against form.