Conversation with Geoff Dyer
Geoff Dyer is the author of three
novels: The Color of Memory, The Search, and Paris Trance;
a critical study of John Berger, Ways of Telling; and three genre-defying
titles: But Beautiful (winner of the 1972 Somerset Maugham Prize), The
Missing of the Somme, and Out of Sheer Rage (a National Book Critics
Circle finalist). His latest, Yoga for People Who Canít be Bothered to Do
It, was released by Pantheon in January, 2003.
He lives in London, where he spends much of his time wishing he lived in
Itís actually something a stoner
friend of mine said. I stored it away and, exactly as one would hope, years
later, when I told him the title of my new book, he had no recollection of
having said it. Writers need friends like that. It feels very contemporary, the
expression of some kind of zeitgeisty ideal. Obviously, the title of the book is
also the title of what is the pivotal piece in the book. That story is a real
highpoint for the ĎIí character or narrator or whatever you want to call
him; after that itís pretty much downhill. Also, since so much of the book is
about failing to do things, it seems appropriate. I mean one of the main things
in the book is the way that I-- Iíll dispense with the inverted commas but
maybe we can just assume theyíre there-- failed to write a book about ruins
because I fell into ruin myself. More personally, I am very prone to the ĎI
canít be botheredí attitude to life. But this brings no contentment. On the
contrary. It ends up, in a fantastically inefficient way, goading me into
action, into bothering.
Itís like a tendency that I share.
Iíve been to all the places in the book and the ĎIí of the book bears a
pretty close resemblance to me but the book is not reliable in the way that an
atlas is expected to be. Or a work of nonfiction for that matter.
Oh, itís a distinction that means
absolutely nothing to me. I like to write stuff thatís only an inch from life,
from what really happened, but all the art is of course in that inch. My books
tend not to have the narrative and story you associate with fiction but at the
same time they are arranged and structured, to put it somewhat pompously, as
works of art rather than as an accumulation of information. To that extent I
like to think they are more novel than many novels.
The most satisfying experience of this Iíve had was in London when I saw my jazz book in the best-sellers section. I knew the manager of the store a little and asked him if it was true. ĎNo, of course not,í he said. ĎBut we didnít know where else to put it.í Actually, jazz is quite useful as an analogy in this context. Jazz as jazz-- jazzy jazz-- is pretty well finished. The interesting stuff is all happening on the fringes of the form where there are elements of jazz and elements of all sorts of other things as well. Jazz is a trace but itís not a defining trace. I think something similar is happening in writing. Although great novels-- novelly novels-- are still being written, a lot of the most interesting things are happening on the fringes of several forms. I say this and then, on reflection, I realize that such books have been around for a long time. Take, for example, my favorite book of the twentieth century, Rebecca Westís Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. What kind of book is that? If I had to sum it up Iíd say it was a very long book about Yugoslavia, but that wouldnít quite do it justice.
So this non-category category is
quite well established. As for this new book of mine, well, I donít know.
Travel? A rather lowly genre for the most part. Comedy? An interesting category
in that most of the stuff you find in it is so resolutely unfunny. Self-help?
Maybe a sub-set of that: How to survive while going completely to pieces... I
should also add that that issue of what kind of book it is also applies,
hopefully, at the level of the individual pieces. Are they stories? Well, sort
of, but theyíre not like any stories I know of. Some of them are essays with
lots of dialogue.
Itís both a collection of
self-contained pieces and a fully-formed book in its own right. All sorts of
little things link the individual pieces. But it really needs to be read in
sequence. In a book of stories thatís usually optional but here I think itís
necessary. Thereís a definite logic in the structure even if itís not a
straightforward narrative or chronological progression.
I think the books have all been
pretty self-centered, as it were. This is the wager, isnít it? Itís by
remaining faithful to the contingencies and peculiarities of your own experience
and the vagaries of your own nature that you stand the greatest chance of
conveying something universal-- especially if, like me, youíre not
particularly interested in character and story...
Tone. I like tone a lot. Tone is
nearly always what clinches it for me with a writer. The struggle for me with
books like this one or Out of Sheer Rage was to find a tone that could
encompass all sorts of things: comedy, narrative (of sorts), lyricism and a kind
of analytical, more essayistic, discursive way of writing-- a tone that would
enable me to move between various registers without any crunching of gears. Oh,
and I like ideas. Thatís something Iíve noticed recently: the way that quite
a lot of highly regarded so-called literary fiction is actually completely
brainless. By contrast, what first turned me on to John Berger, for example, was
the abundance of ideas in his books. Having said that, Iím not arguing for the
kind of elaborately argued debate that I imagine you get in Iris Murdoch; I like
the quick flicker or glimmer or-- as in Nietzsche-- the lightning flash.
Thereís lots of Nietzsche in the book, obviously. Thatís the thing about the
Eternal Recurrence: it keeps cropping up.
Well, I prefer a more modest word--
hobbies or interests. Iíve had lots of them. Iíve tended to write books
about things Iíve been very interested in-- jazz, the First World War, or
Lawrence or whatever-- and then once Iíve found out what I wanted to know--
once Iíve found out why these things have interested me, I tend to lose
interest. Each book is the record of a process of inquiry that is concluded with
the last sentence. So the books are very different to each other not just in
content, but form, too. (By the way, have you noticed the way that writers
always say their books are all very different, even when theyíre exactly the
same?) But this variegation masks some underlying continuities. I think if you
had to isolate one thing that runs through them all it would be a huge,
overwhelming sense of purposelessness. Perhaps obsessiveness is the corollary of
that. Now that might just be a personal indisposition but-- in keeping with
something we were saying earlier-- it would not be at all surprising if this
purposelessness were a more general condition. Maybe, in self-help style I
should put this more positively: the books explore ways of finding how to
keeping going when there is no larger narrative or purpose. What can take its
place? Incremental enthusiasms. Peak experiences. Moments...
Itís partly because Iím in decline, I think. I used to be so clever and now Iím becoming rather stupid. The surprising thing is that Iím actually quite enjoying it. Who knows-- maybe itís a pre-echo of enlightenment?
Maybe Iím more interested in ruin than decline. As the Leptis Magna and Detroit pieces make plain, in some ways places and people achieve their highest expression in ruination. My favorite novel of all time is probably Tender is the Night. Paris Trance was in some ways a version of Tender: about someone who, against all temptations to the contrary, managed to be true to his destiny, which was to fail. A friend said that if Paris Trance was a version of Tender then the new book was a version of The Crack-Up!
On the other hand, though, and set
against this are the peak experiences that make everything else irrelevant,
which actually make life worth living-- Nietzsche again-- and Iíve found that
ruins, places where time has stood its ground, are extremely conducive to these
peak experiences. And there are quite a lot of those moments in the book.
Thereís something almost impersonal about these moments, moments which can
take many forms: at parties or at ancient monuments. I am drawn to places which
exert this possibility. Places like this have something of the Zone-- from
Tarkovskyís Stalker-- about them. The book is a journey towards the Zone.
Which is why it ends up at Black Rock City, at Burning Man.
Burning Man is the greatest thing on the planet! Itís also, for me personally, been something of a disaster in that for several years all I cared about was Burning Man. It was so all-encompassing and all-consuming. It almost finished me as a writer because it so exceeded anything I could ever imagine or invent. Some nights I just lie in bed and say the words to myself over and over: Burning Man, Burning Man, Burning Man... In terms of Burning Man I suppose thatís the question critics need to address: does this book count as a form of participation? But itís best to not get me started on Burning Man. I become evangelical.
What is Burning Man? Click here: http://www.burningman.com/
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