The MacGuffinist

No one is better than Geoff Dyer at not writing about what he’s writing about.

Illustration by Liana Finck.

Illustration by Liana Finck

I was in a bookshop a couple of months ago, browsing the nonfiction section, when the idle rightward flick of my gaze was brought to a halt by the hardback spine of a new Geoff Dyer book. It was called The Contest of the Century: The New Era of Competition With China. My initial pleasure at discovering that Dyer had a new book out was quickly undercut by a creeping sense of doubt about the title and the topic, both of which seemed fundamentally un-Dyeresque. I then immediately dismissed this doubt, because Dyer is exactly the kind of writer—perhaps the writer—for whom no topic or title could be said to be out of sync with its predecessors, precisely for the reason that each of his books is out of sync with every other. Being fundamentally un-Dyeresque is, to put it maybe a little too Dyeresquely, the most fundamentally Dyeresque thing a Dyer book could possibly be.

It’s hard to think of any contemporary writer whose bibliography is as meanderingly various: There’s a book about jazz, a book about World War I, a book about a single Tarkovsky film, a collection of travel pieces, a critical study of the work of John Berger, a book about a failure to write a book about D.H. Lawrence, a book about photography, a handful of collections of essays and reviews, and a comparably sized handful of novels. Dyer’s career has been consistently and resolutely all over the shop. This is not simply a figure of speech: In a hypothetical Platonic-ideal bookseller that stocked all of Geoff Dyer’s books, you’d have to go all over the shop—Music, Fiction, Criticism, Memoir, Film, Travel, etc.—in order to fill your canvas tote bag with his oeuvre.

So why not a book for the International Business section about the complex relationship between the West and China? I tried to imagine what this book’s inevitable idiosyncrasies might be, how it might deviate from the topic at hand. An elaborate diversion on the difficulties of scoring weed in Shenzhen? An entire chapter on Dyer’s preoccupation with a sexy young bureaucrat at the Chinese-British Chamber of Commerce? I was enjoying it already!

But why would he give this book such a bluntly utilitarian title? And surely I would have heard something about a new Geoff Dyer book being in the pipeline. I plucked it from the shelf and read the first page, which was jarringly un-Dyeresque. There were no references to pastries or cappuccinos, no jocular evocations of a charmed and dissolute existence, no talk of tennis or recreational drug use or Burning Man, and no sidelong allusions to a wife with an uncanny resemblance to the film actress Natascha McElhone.

To make a long story short—or, rather, to prevent a nonstory from becoming any longer—I turned to the rear flyleaf and discovered that this Geoff Dyer, the one whose China-based book I now held in my hands, seemed to be an entirely different person from the Geoff Dyer I’d been thinking of (and whose work I will, I assure you, eventually come to consider in this essay). This guy—this whole other Geoff Dyer—was apparently a former Beijing bureau chief with the Financial Times. I became briefly preoccupied with him, or with the idea of him; I imagined what a curse it must be to share a name, and therefore be forced to compete in Amazon searches, with a writer so much more widely known and celebrated than oneself, not to mention one who wrote in so many different genres and on so many topics that a casual book-browser would have no good reason not to assume that he had written a book that was in fact by you. I wondered whether this other Geoff Dyer had considered changing his name, or even just tweaking it—to Geoffrey Dyer, say, or Geoff Q. Dyer—and whether his decision not to might have been based on the famous gift-horse/mouth principle, because sales had actually started to pick up on account of these same confused book-browsers. (I even considered buying the book out of an obscure compassion for this lesser-spotted Geoff Dyer but then decided against it on the grounds that, a, I would almost certainly never read it, and b, a former Beijing bureau chief with the Financial Times probably didn’t need any handouts from the likes of me anyway.)

The point is that Geoff Dyer is not just the kind of writer whose shadow you’d hate to have looming so insistently over your career, but also the kind of writer who—if you’d just read a cluster of his books in quick succession, as I have—might lead you to believe it was perfectly OK, even perhaps outright advisable, to get 800 words into a book review without mentioning the actual book you’re supposed to be reviewing. Or, in this particular case, without mentioning any of the three books you’re supposed to be reviewing. (Emboldened by my extended exposure to Dyer’s off-topic ethos, I emailed my editor to say that I was going long with this thing, and that it would encompass matters whose relevance would not be immediately obvious, but that given his editorial blessing I was about 70 percent certain I could pull it off. I imagine Dyer himself has had versions of this exchange on quite a few occasions.)

Dyer’s first two novels, The Colour of Memory and The Search, have now been published for the first time in the U.S., on the same day as his latest nonfiction excursion, Another Great Day at Sea. It’s difficult to imagine three books by the same author having less in common. In fact, it’s difficult enough to imagine three books by different authors having less in common.

The Colour of Memory is a novel—basically plotless, basically autobiographical—set in the 1980s about a group of friends drifting together through their mid-20s on an easeful eddy of booze, weed, and social welfare. The Search, which is also a novel—at first heavily dependent on plot, and then quickly not at all—is about a private detective trying to find the missing husband of a woman he badly wants to have sex with. And Another Great Day at Sea is an account of Dyer’s 2011 experience as a writer in residence onboard the USS George H.W. Bush aircraft carrier, off the coast of Bahrain. The only thing these books really have in common is the fact that nothing much happens in any of them. Which is to say that what happens in these books is, primarily, Geoff Dyer’s writing. One of his more impressive gifts is the ability to create a sense of momentum within essentially static narratives; the way in which nothing happens, in his work, can often have the aura of spectacle. And this has everything to do with the charisma of his voice, with the leisurely sharpness of his prose. Whatever it is he happens to be writing about, and whatever genre he happens to be avoiding doing it in, Dyer has become one of the most reliably entertaining of contemporary writers. His own hypersusceptibility to being bored has turned out to be an effective inoculation against being boring himself.

From the very start of his career, Dyer has been getting away with having nothing happen in his books. (One measure of talent would be the extent of what you can get away with.) The Colour of Memory, first published in 1989, is, in ways, very obviously a first novel, in that it draws heavily on the experiences of its author’s early adulthood, and is more or less openly indebted to some prominent predecessors. There’s a lot of Fitzgerald, for one thing, and a fair amount of Waugh, in its elegiac evocations of a doomed leisure class. The youthful wasters at the center of this novel are not wealthy layabouts, though, but the post-collegiate electively unemployed who were once broadly accommodated by Britain’s social welfare system. (In one of the earlier of the novel’s numerous party scenes, one of the characters holds forth on the literary romance of the so-called lost generation: “It’s meaningless,” he says. “Every generation wants to think it’s lost. Take us. Who could have been more lost than us? We’re so lost we’re virtually extinct.”)

As a thin substitute for anything remotely resembling a plot, Dyer numbers his short chapters in descending order, counting down from 060 toward 000. This is meant to evoke a steady diminution of time; not a countdown to any conclusive event, but rather the passing of youth itself, which is the ongoing event at the center of the novel. There are whole chapters that are entirely composed of descriptions of scene, pure narrative still life. As the novel progresses, the consciousness of passing time is increasingly countered by a preservational instinct:

In a window was a well-tended pot plant. The window was very clean and because of the darkness of the balcony the room looked exceptionally bright. There was a stillness about the interior that made it look like one of those installations in museums showing rooms and furniture from different periods of history. It was easy to imagine a small discreetly printed placard just below the windowsill: ‘Young Woman’s Bedroom, Council Flat, South London: Late Twentieth Century.’

This works as a sort of casual mise en abyme, as an internal figuring of the novel’s own methods and motivations, its artful eulogizing of a life of nothing much—of hanging out in flats and on rooftops and at agreeably boring parties, drinking and getting stoned and fancying your best mate’s girlfriend.

The most striking thing about The Search, first published in 1993, is how it both does and doesn’t default on this loiterly ethos. The machinery of plot is vanishingly minimal here (private detective/good-looking dame/missing husband), but it’s sufficient to drive the narrative, such as it is. Dyer’s protagonist, the functionally named Walker, tracks Malory (missing husband) through a lengthy succession of imaginary and increasingly strange locations. Malory is a classic MacGuffin; in fact, the entire narrative is a MacGuffin, a pretext for describing a Calvinoesque series of strange imaginary locations.

There’s a town that’s all one gigantic building, where the streets are corridors and the houses are rooms. There’s a town where everyone is frozen in midgesture, like a vast three-dimensional photograph. Particularly rich is the stultifying American nowheresville of Despond, in which Walker finds himself sinking into a general lethargy of spirit, leaving him profoundly disinclined to continue his pursuit of Malory.

Although my interest in The Search was beginning to dwindle well before the end of its 159 pages, the novel’s heavily MacGuffinized setup made me consider the extent to which the MacGuffin is a central presence in Dyer’s career as a whole. Because the thing about Geoff Dyer is that the subjects of his books are never really the point anyway. The subject of a Geoff Dyer book is only ever the pretext, the flimsiest excuse, for a book by Geoff Dyer. In books like Out of Sheer Rage and Zona, for instance, the topic itself—D.H. Lawrence, Tarkovsky’s film Stalker—is always essentially in service of the writing, which is exactly the opposite of how nonfiction is set up to operate. And so it’s just about conceivable that he could write a book on Chinese economic policy, though no expert in Chinese economic policy would find it satisfactory.

And you get this feeling very early on with Another Day at Sea­—the feeling that spending two weeks as writer in residence on an aircraft carrier just happened to be Geoff Dyer’s excuse for a new Geoff Dyer book, that it could just as well have been any number of other things. (The book is, in fact, the first in a series of volumes resulting from the work of a nonprofit organization called Writers in Residence, set up by Alain de Botton with the goal of “recording and describing key institutions of the modern world—through the talent of some of the greatest writers on the planet.”)

But it turns out to be a very strong excuse. For one thing, the book is as concentratedly funny as anything he’s written. The situation provides plenty of occasion to exercise the comic persona he’s been consolidating for most of his career. There’s a wonderful diversion in the opening pages, where Dyer point-blank refuses to accept the suboptimal sleeping arrangements on this supercarrier with a crew of well over 5,000. Not getting his own room is entirely out of the question, as far as he’s concerned: “But we writers need a room of one’s own, I claimed, trusting that any grammatical damage would be more than offset—in the eyes of the Navy—by the Virginia Woolf allusion.” This tenacity pays off, and he gets his room of one’s own. “I had taken on the might of the US Navy and won,” he gloats. The room itself is, as he puts it, “practically the honeymoon suite, a place where a man could devote himself single-handed to the maritime art of masturbation.”

Thankfully, Dyer doesn’t go down this route, possibly because he’s saving that subject for a whole other project—perhaps a sequel to his magnificent essay about sex in hotel rooms. Instead, he spends the majority of the book being escorted around the vast carrier, talking to people about their various roles and their lives at sea. This might make it sound like a conventional work of journalism or reportage, but Dyer frequently makes it obvious that he’s nothing like a proper journalist. He keeps forgetting and mixing up people’s names, for example, and is not immune to getting bored with what they’re telling him and losing the thread of interviews. It isn’t these lapses per se that separate him from your typical journalist, so much as his willingness to admit to them, to make of them his own peculiar literary virtue. Dyer has always been doggedly committed to making a virtue of his own weaknesses. As he put it in a short piece in the Dublin Review last year, “A writer’s only possible relation to his or her failings has to be one of gratitude. First because there are hundreds of other writers out there whose strengths lie precisely in these areas of weakness. Second because these weaknesses oblige us to concentrate on the one or two little areas that are uniquely—and, as far as every other writer is concerned, undesirably—our own.”

 Author Geoff Dyer.
Author Geoff Dyer.

Photo by Jason Oddy

Many of the book’s best moments—and it is full of great moments—are generated not by Dyer’s attempts to honor his basic journalistic obligations, but by his hanging back and noticing the things that a typical reporter would likely deem irrelevant. He’s at his most interesting here, as he always is, when he’s insisting on the importance of trivialities. Here he is, for instance, watching members of the ground crew hanging about on deck during a quiet moment between launches: “John Updike asks, in one of his books about art, if there is such a thing as an American face. I don’t know, but looking at the guys on the flight deck, unfaced by cranials and vizors, persuaded me that there is such a thing as an American walk. Even overweight cops have it: an ease and grace, a subdued swagger. It used to be identified mainly with race—a black thing—but now it seems a cultural and national quality.” A good writer, like a good standup comic, makes a point of mentioning things you yourself are likely to have noticed, but which you, unlike that writer or comic, are unlikely to have noticed yourself noticing. And like a good standup comic, Dyer is consistently alert to the comic potency of rhythmical accumulation. He is irrefutably one of contemporary literature’s finest purveyors of face-melting riffs. Here, for instance, he takes his cue from a phrase used by the sailor from Florida who gives him a tour around one of the ship’s many stores of explosives:

‘OK,’ said Dave when we had completed our descent. ‘This is where the rubber meets the road.’ How Americans love places where the rubber meets the road! He was right, of course, the rubber met the road here, but this was not the only time and place on the carrier where such a claim was made. The rubber seemed to meet the road all over the ship. But then America is the place where the rubber dreams of meeting the road––and vice versa. Certainly the rubber doesn’t meet the road with anything like the same frequency or enthusiasm in England. In many ways England is the place where, rubber-and-road-wise, never the twain shall meet.

Dyer’s method of writing around rather than about his subject is typically one of his great strengths, but there are moments in Another Great Day at Sea when you wonder whether he should be doing more than nodding in the direction of the vast looming context of his immediate situation. About a third of the way through the book, I began to feel uneasy about his refusal to engage the military power of which this gigantic ship is both symbol and vessel—his apparent lack of interest in the question of what this aircraft carrier is doing off the coast of Bahrain in the first place, what this booming industry of launching and landing is ultimately in service of. As brilliantly as he writes about the things he is interested in, and as worthy of consideration as he proves them to be, the largely unacknowledged presence of that context exerts a cumulative pressure on the book. In that short, jocular chapter in which Dyer browses the ship’s explosives and lays down that rubber/road riff, I kept pausing between chuckles to wonder when the actual function of this “IKEA of munitions”  was going to be addressed. I was wondering about the people for whom these munitions were laying in wait. There is real warmth in Dyer’s portrayal of the young Americans who have become his unlikely shipmates—“the warmth,” as he puts it, “that comes from being in the presence of good people.” But he doesn’t examine what this basic goodness means—what it counts for, and what it’s up against—in the moral context of the vast operation in which they’re engaged.

I’m not going to completely contradict myself here by saying that this doesn’t much matter in the end—clearly I’ve gone on about it enough to suggest that it does matter—but this evasion of a pressingly relevant issue is part of the whole point of Geoff Dyer. You read him for the pleasure, and sometimes frustration, of following his meanderings around and away from his proper subject. You read him for his ability to turn every topic, no matter how unpromising, into another excellent excuse for a book by Geoff Dyer.

The Colour of Memory  and The Search by Geoff Dyer. Graywolf Press.
Another Great Day at Sea: Life Aboard the USS George H.W. Bush by Geoff Dyer. Pantheon.

See all the pieces in this month’s Slate Book Review.
Sign up for the
Slate Book Review monthly newsletter.