Books

05.21.14

Geoff Dyer at Sea: Unmoored but on Target

The usually peerless, occasionally annoying, and always peripatetic author distills his latest book out of time spent aboard a US Navy aircraft carrier.

Man is a classifying animal, which is one reason Geoff Dyer makes people somewhat feverish: he writes genre-defying works, they cry, in the genre known as repetition.  Certainly, the frictive force of his books arises from their refusal to stay in one place, criticism or sociology or memoir or humor, instead continually slipping from one to another. But Dyer, in all his wide range—four novels and six, yes, genre-defying works of nonfiction—can indeed be classified. He is a writer. He is the person who stands just over the border. At that demarcation between inside and out, the vista is most expansive. No matter what field he faces, it is as noncombatant.

And so, because he is not a historian, his appraisal of World War I eighty years on, The Missing of the Somme, is as stone lyrical as anything ever written on war-after-the-fact. In it he arrives at (as well as departs from; neat feat) the startling notion of the Great War as one that was pre-mourned. “The war, it begins to seem, had been fought in order that it might be remembered, that it might live up to its memory.” He goes on to compass the very nature of memory by way of considering how we memorialize mass death. All of it is so canny we can only wonder why no one had said these things before. But this is what Geoff Dyer does: remarks on conspicuous truths that are anything but until he points them out.

Likewise, he is not a musician, yet he wrote what many consider the best evocation of jazz and the impulses behind it (But Beautiful).  And so on, through all the “subjects” he takes on; the quote marks are necessary to indicate the fact that he only has ostensible subjects.  Dyer’s true subjects are thought and writing itself.

In Another Great Day at Sea: Life Aboard the USS George H.W. Bush, the author’s latest launching pad is literally that—the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush. There are few places as fully odd to situate a thinky Brit whose career is based on standing around contemplating stuff, and therefore few places as rich in material. Or as problematic. The world of the military is to the writer admittedly “the polar opposite” of his own. This position frees him to make Dyeresque observations from a distance about the dislocating nature of life on a carrier, which only he could characterize as “as crowded as a Bombay slum.” 

It also frees him to remain artistically uninvested to a large extent. The opportunity to go on board was given—granted by Writers in Residence, “an association devoted to placing some of the best writers and Magnum photographers in some of the key institutions of the modern world”—not earned: a writer does not so much accept as surrender to a true subject, since it makes itself so much of a nuisance the only way to get it to stop harassing you is to write a book. 

Therefore a lot in Another Great Day at Sea feels tossed off, as if he had some great ideas—Geoff Dyer is a veritable idea machine—but didn’t quite feel like working them into writing; they remain in note form, albeit witty and original and sometimes astonishing notes.  (Dyer on a bad day is still more profound, and more polished, than most writers at their effortful best.) They can also be a bit snide, as distinct from being funny, about which talent more later. 

The greatest strength of ‘Another Great Day at Sea’ is the paradoxical way it finds the center by aiming anywhere but the big bull’s eye.

As well as, in places, shockingly dismissive. 

Even an atheist sympathizer might gasp at descriptions of a biblical text, in a chapter about a Pentecostal service the writer was “with great courtesy… invited” to witness, as “one that didn’t merit any kind of serious scrutiny” and of his generous host as having “chosen ignorance rather than knowledge and all his knowledge was no more than the elaboration of ignorance.” I happen to be of his godless camp, but I found this smackdown gratuitous and rude. Dyer is a supremely self-assured writer, which in part means he is justifiably certain of his intellect, but at this point he begins to sound like the much-lauded author who has come to believe his own hype—death to a writer, no matter how true. Similarly, at first mention of someone he calls “the snapper,” I thought I’d encountered a nautical designation, moreover the only one here left unnamed. On the second or third occurrence it suddenly struck with a vaguely sickening jolt: he is referring to the photographer on assignment with him, the very fine Chris Steele-Perkins.  (The 8-page color insert in the American edition is bumped up to 44 pages of photos in Visual Editions’ U.K. version, and there “the snapper’s” name, absent on the jacket of the Pantheon release, appears prominently on the back cover.)  Why the pointed snub? It is not as if Dyer is cold to photography; his The Ongoing Moment is a balletic high dive into the depths of photography’s essence.  Steele-Perkins’s pictures adeptly capture the otherworldly character of the ship with its whiplashing contradictions on which Dyer so often remarks, as in his acute characterization of it as an instrument “devoted entirely to safety, to the safe unleashing of extreme violence.” 

One of Dyer’s great gifts as a thinker is his attentiveness to irony, and as one can imagine there is no shortage of it to be found onboard an American military vessel. An interview with the ship’s drug counselor is so circular it reminds the author of nothing so much as how it goes (and goes) when conversing while stoned.

The ironies get maddeningly ludicrous when politics enter the door, which Dyer to his credit only observes from a decorous distance: they are anyway so large they can be seen from a mile without ocular assistance.  “… [W]e spent our time strutting round the Gulf like we owned the place …  How would we have felt if the Eye-ranians had a carrier twenty-eight miles off the coast of Maine or Cornwall?”  American foreign policy taken down in a couple of sentences: it takes a bumptious outsider, and one with a conscience, to do it like that. 

“Like that,” with Dyer, often means painfully funny. I started laughing midway through the first paragraph on page 167 (a riff on eating, and the peculiar absurdities of being a shipboard self-captive) and by the bottom of the page I was nearly keeled over, stomach aching.

The greatest strength of Another Great Day at Sea is the paradoxical way it finds the center by aiming anywhere but the big bull’s eye: Dyer spends his time considering the farther circles of his target, thereby closing in on the center with stealth. As if working down a checklist, he notches short chapters about every institution within the greater floating institution. (“How big was it? Impossible to say … there was nothing bigger than it—except the sea and sky which always serve to emphasize the lack of everything else.” How frustrating is this book? Impossible to say. Except to give such an example of how lazy and piercingly sharp Dyer can be in the same breath.) Among his subjects:

• Shipboard language and its accidental poetry (“Show me one good reason why the USS Ronald Reagan shouldn’t be called the USS Emily Dickinson”)
• The military penchant for acronyms, for which he coins another, A.I.E. (Acronym Intensive Environment), which is such a smartypants meta-joke no one gets it
• The food, often
• The sounds
• The smells
• The lavatories (containing subthemes of the above)
• Crime and punishment, onboard at least
• Dentistry

There is a natural temptation to write a review in the form of a lament on how hard it is to review Geoff Dyer, which it is, but this would be difficult as well as cheap (since he is famous for having written a book, Out of Sheer Rage, about how hard it was to write the book). That might have looked like some easy way out of writer’s block, but I suspect it was not; brilliant writing never is. (Anyway, there’s no such thing as writer’s block, according to Dyer, and no matter what an aching bitch of a time writing can give you, he’s right: “I think it’s just a lazy-thinking kind of cliche, this idea of writer’s block,” as he put it in an interview with The paris Review.) It is hard because one wants to love every last word of this book, instead of just seven-eighths of them. It must be taken into account that the author spent all of two weeks experiencing what he then made into a unique experiential chronicle.  Just think what he might have done in two months.

Another Great Day at Sea is published on May 20 by Pantheon, and on the same day Graywolf reissues for the first time in the U.S. Dyer’s first two novels, The Colour of Memory and The Search.