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Geoff Dyer’s Renovation of Contemporary Nonfiction

Before 2013 begins, catch up on the best of 2012. From now until the New Year, we will be re-posting some of The New Republic’s most thought-provoking pieces of the year. Enjoy.

By Geoff Dyer
(Pantheon, 228 pp., $24)

NEVER MIND the writing, as superb as it so often is: as agile, as subtle, as witty, as funny, as brilliantly insightful. Never mind the breadth—a book about jazz, a book about photography, a book about a film, a book about D.H. Lawrence, a set of travel pieces, a study of John Berger, a book about the apparatus of memory that surrounds the Great War, four novels, and a couple of bushels of journalism. What I really admire about Geoff Dyer’s work is Geoff Dyer. Here is a man who decided a long time ago that he was going to follow the muse of his own curiosity, let the rest of the world be damned, and by God, he’s made it stick. No institutions, no apologies. A freelance, a vagabond, an aesthete, a latter-day bohemian and man of letters: I call that courage. I also call it culture.

Berger and Lawrence are obvious models. The former, the subject of Dyer’s first volume and the author of a long series of idiosyncratic works, many of them hybrids of criticism and personal reflection, showed him the kind of writer he wanted to be. “If something occurs that moves me deeply—the kind of experience that might provide inspiration for a poet—my instinct is to articulate and analyze it in an essay,” Dyer has written. With Lawrence, the kinship is a matter of background and temperament. Dyer also grew up working-class; his grandfathers were farm laborers, his father a sheet-metal worker, his mother a lunch lady at a local school. A scholarship boy at Oxford who has said that his real education began after graduation, when he was on the dole in Brixton and reading everything he could lay his hands on, Dyer has Lawrence’s restlessness, willfulness, truculence, and unapologetic sensuality. Not surprisingly, he also has the older writer’s rancor for their native country. England, to both, is a damp and hateful little rock to break the spirit on. Better to light out for more erotic latitudes, as Dyer, following Lawrence’s global trajectory, has done. Paris, Rome, North Africa, India, Southeast Asia—above all, as for Lawrence, America, especially the rawness and vastness of its western reaches.

But Dyer’s highest ideal can be found, I think, in a more obscure figure, the American photographer William Gedney, who died of AIDS in 1989. Gedney read incessantly, not only kept but physically produced his own notebooks, and exhibited relatively little of his work, even after he achieved success. In an introduction to a collection of his photographs and journals, Dyer writes of Gedney’s “program of intensely private, creative self-sufficiency,” which was driven by an autodidact’s appetite for illumination. “He lived out the ideal of the artist who produces—who works—for his or her own sake; more exactly, for the sake of the task itself.” Introducing a collection of his own work, Dyer echoes the sentiment: “I have always written without any regard for the presumed audience of a given publication.” His wandering career (a word he hates, by the way) is the itinerary of a mind moving freely through the world.

Out of Sheer Rage, Dyer’s book about Lawrence, takes a swipe at the yoga cult; a subsequent volume, the collection of travel pieces, was titled Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It. But Beautiful, his book about jazz, is built as much from photographs as music; later he wrote The Ongoing Moment, which bushwhacks a path through the history of the former medium. Both Yoga and The Ongoing Moment mention Andrei Tarkovsky’s movie Stalker, the subject of Dyer’s latest volume, Zona. One book draws forth another; one thought brings on the next. “Increasingly at ease with the vagaries of my nature, I came to relish the way that getting interested in one thing led to my becoming very interested in something else,” he remarks. “I’ve done pretty much as I pleased, letting life find its own rhythm, working when I felt like it, not working when I didn’t.”

ALL THIS HAS MADE for a great deal of very good criticism. Since he really doesn’t seem to care what people think, Dyer looks at the book or the photograph, not over his shoulder. There’s no pretense and no pretentiousness. He isn’t worried about having the right opinions or scoring points off the conventional wisdom. He confesses unabashedly to skimming, and doesn’t mind if we know that he has never seen The Wizard of Oz. He’s clever, but he’s never “clever.” His writing is dense with quotations and allusions—you sometimes feel them stacked above the argument, like planes waiting to land—but not because he is trying to impress us. It’s just the way he thinks: with and through the totality of everything he has read, heard, and seen. “It is not easy to be unpretentious, simple, direct, honest and yet intelligent,” he quotes from Gedney’s notebooks—but Dyer consistently manages it.

His irony tends the same way. Coming at last to Lawrence’s house in Sicily, he writes: “We had found it. We stood silently. I knew this moment well from previous literary pilgrimages: you look and look and try to summon up feelings which don’t exist.” Culture, he knows, must continuously push against the carapace of its own extrusions. One person’s fresh response becomes the mental reflex of the self-respecting millions. A few pages later, “We went out on to the balcony: a lovely view of the bay, the sea and the sky. We looked at the view. That is exactly what we did; we did not look at the sea and sky, we looked at the view.” Relieving us of the burden of “culture”—the received ideas, the approved emotions—he helps to make a genuine culture, which is nothing, after all, but the effort to see clearly and feel directly.

Freedom from conventional and institutional expectations—freedom even from his audience—means that Dyer is also free to make it up, like jazz, as he goes along. Every book is different, and every book is different from everybody else’s books. Zona is a running commentary, almost shot-by-shot, on a single film. But Beautiful consists of a series of quasi-imagined episodes—vivid, textured, saturated with feeling—from the lives of the jazz greats. Out of Sheer Rage is memoir, travelogue, criticism—“about” Lawrence in the physical sense of the word: spinning around and around him with a manic, comic, centrifugal energy. The Ongoing Moment makes a poem of the history of photography by considering not artists or schools, technics or techniques, but, improbably, subjects (hats, benches, stairs): a ridiculous idea, it seems, until you figure out that Dyer’s real quarry is the relationships we have with those quotidian objects, the way they can be made to stand for the lives that move among them. “Spare me the drudgery of systematic examinations,” he writes in Out of Sheer Rage, “and give me the lightning flashes of those wild books in which there is no attempt to cover the ground thoroughly or reasonably.”

He is passionate or giddy, lyrical or cheeky, he can don a docent’s coat or come to us in pj’s, but he always writes from the self, from the whole of the self. If, as he says in But Beautiful, “an artist is someone who turns everything that happens to him to advantage,” then that is what he is. It comes to this: Dyer refuses to unbraid in his writing what is braided together in life, to take sensations out of thoughts or stories out of arguments. Friends, movies, crotchets, cappuccinos; flickers of annoyance and of memory, old loves and new epiphanies: all pass together through his writing, as they pass through our consciousness in daily life.

STILL, THERE’S a problem with doing exactly what you want, as Dyer seems to have discovered in his mid-thirties, which is that it leaves you at the mercy of yourself. That dilemma is the true subject of Out of Sheer Rage, his sixth book and the one on which his oeuvre turns. As the story opens, he is trying to figure out whether he wants to start a novel or get going on the study of Lawrence he’s been telling himself to write for a long time. He is also trying to decide whether he should stay in Paris. “I could live anywhere,” he says, “all I had to do was choose—but it was impossible to choose because I could live anywhere.” The paradox that sentence enacts becomes the narrative’s master trope; its structure of self-cancellation, its governing scheme. The prose unspools in long loops of self-undoing—like Penelope, he weaves and unweaves—that wind him right back where he started:

The longer I stayed the more powerful it became, this feeling that I was just passing through.... Obviously the way to make myself more settled was to acquire some of the trappings of permanence but there never seemed any point acquiring the aptly named trappings of permanence when in a couple of months I might be moving on, might well be moving on, would almost certainly be moving on, because there was nothing to keep me where I was. Had I acquired some of the trappings of permanence I might have stayed put but I never acquired any of the trappings of permanence as I knew that the moment these trappings had been acquired I would be seized with a desire to leave, to move on, and I would then have to free myself from these trappings. And so, lacking any of the trappings of permanence, I was perpetually on the brink of potential departure. That was the only way I could remain anywhere: to be constantly on the brink not of actual but of potential departure. If I felt settled I would want to leave, but if I was on the brink of leaving then I could stay, indefinitely, even though staying would fill me with still further anxiety because, since I appeared to be staying, what was the point in living as though I were not staying but merely passing through?

This is part Chaplin, part Proust: mental pratfalls, psychological slapstick, the bathos and pathos of the self-defeating will.

At last, with a jerk, he bolts for Rome. But Rome is too hot (“we spent our waking hours dozing and our sleeping hours lying awake”), so he flees to a Greek island, which is too small (“there was nothing to do and for that reason it was impossible to get any work done”). Travel becomes the outward sign of inner torment. Before, he was paralyzed; now, he is running in circles. Eventually the aimless momentum is arrested when he and his girlfriend, tearing around on a moped to alleviate their dreadful boredom, go crashing into a cliff. A taxi stops beside their sprawling forms. “‘I can’t move,’ I said, moving towards the taxi.”

Finally, with epic vacillation, needless to say, and buckets of brilliant observation, as delicious as granita, on the comedy of life in Italy, Dyer goes back to England, gets down to Lawrence, and prepares to pull the rabbit of sublimity from the top hat of the ridiculous. It’s not the older writer’s novels that he cares about, not the poems, but finally only the letters: Lawrence’s notation of the daily flux of his own pence and peeves and indecisions, the last of which included, quite conspicuously, an equally relentless temporizing about where on Earth to live. But what is the alternative, Dyer wonders as he looks around himself in England, a country where “all anyone did ... was have children.” The alternative is self-deception, self-defeat. Christmases, in-laws, obligations: “People need to feel that they have been thwarted by circumstances from pursuing the life which, had they led it, they would not have wanted; whereas the life they really want is precisely a compound of all those thwarting circumstances.”

Better, at last, to burn. Nietzsche and Rilke are also guiding spirits here. The former tells him of “the dangerous privilege of living experimentally.” The latter turns him from anticipations of contentment, the capacity for which is in any case “diminished by the flight into adventure.” Like Lawrence, Dyer decides to renounce serenity and the desire for serenity in favor of a “bottomless capacity for change.” No yoga, no meditation, no Zen, no self-help or DIY self-reconstruction: no home, no rest, and no return. Instead of surrendering, like the parents, to the impedimenta of circumstance, Dyer will achieve his destiny by embracing his capacity for “energetic self-contradiction,” however much it hurts. “Let a man go to the bottom of what he is,” he quotes from Lawrence, “and believe in that.”

THE BOOK we are reading, Dyer tells us, squaring the circle of paradox, is “not a history of how I recovered from a breakdown but of how breaking down became a means of continuing.” And not just a history, but a record. From the failure to write his study of Lawrence he produces something much more interesting, something uniquely his own. More than that, he produces himself. Out of Sheer Rage is the work in which Dyer discovered his voice and his subject. His previous nonfiction books, the ones on John Berger, jazz, and the Great War and British memory, however fine they were (and the second two, But Beautiful and The Missing of the Somme, were very fine), had been studiously earnest and sober. The last, indeed, with its patient sifting of visual and literary materials and the insistent moral pressure that pervades its prose, was particularly Bergeresque. Now, having worked his way out of his spiritual impasse—or rather, jammed himself more firmly into it—Dyer emerged with his own sound and his own ethos: an informal, improvisational style that bespoke an allegiance to the impulsive and the quotidian. Desire, will, the follies of freedom, the way that intention goes missing in everyday life—these henceforth would be among his underlying themes.

After Rage came Yoga. The book appears at first to be no more than a collection of travel pieces, dispatches from a life of indolence and pleasure. But as we watch the author bounce around the globe—having sex in New Orleans, getting stoned in Paris, playing catch on the edge of a Balinese waterfall—something larger begins to emerge. (The effect is characteristic of Dyer’s disinvoltura. As you go through Rage it looks like notes and jottings, scattered stones; when you glance back, it’s a temple.) “Chances are,” the first piece finishes, “he has blown his brains out by now.” Near the close of the second we read, “it was already too late to do anything about it even though there was still time to do so.” The third one ends on the word “forever.” On the final page of the fifth, we find the following: “Everything was a memory, and everything was still happening in some extended present, and everything was still to come.”

Yoga is a travel book, but its subject isn’t space, but time. Pleasure, it seems, creates a desire for that which lies beyond it. The putter, the languor, the flux—these, it turns out, are only the start of a larger dialectic. Without renouncing them, Dyer reaches out from the quotidian for something higher, in search not of lost time but of a time that can’t be lost, a time outside of time. The volume’s first epigraph speaks of the uniqueness of every event; its second quotes from Nietzsche’s theory of eternal recurrence.

In its midmost section, at the center of the book, Dyer brings us back to Rome. It is summer. Gradually the city empties out. Now it is August, “the month of stalled pendulums.” Even the shadows have gone to sleep. “Nothing moved and there was nothing to do.” He drifts among the ruins, praying to be “rid of time.” Alone in the Eternal City, umbilicus mundi, the still point of the turning world, he contemplates his navel, as it were, listening for the sound of one hand clapping. “I wanted to enter the dead time of statues and see things through their unpupiled eyes.” This is anti-travel: the impulse not to keep moving, through space or time, but to stay put. “The only place I really wanted to go was Rome, and I was already there.” Paradox here collapses in upon itself, the scrimmage of contending urges quieting, if not to serenity, then at least to stasis. He had planned to write a book about the ruins of antiquity, he thinks among the ruins of antiquity, but now he knows he never will. “I had been drifting for years, and now,” he says, “I had drifted to a standstill.”

We have reached, once again, the enabling moment for Dyer. Yoga, like Rage, is built on the wreck of a different project, a counter-book the negation of which makes it possible. By not writing, or not-writing, Dyer clears the space to write, just as not-being the person he’s supposed to be enables him to be himself. Lawrence pursued his fate with high passion. By not-pursuing his, not-going to the place where he already finds himself and so arriving at a moment of stillness, Dyer lets it come to him. “How one becomes what one is,” reads the subtitle of Ecce Homo. Dyer becomes himself by not-becoming all the things he might have been.

He continues, as the book resumes, to circle back to ruins, intersections of time and eternity. Some are in Libya; some are in Detroit. All are understood as places where time has stopped, places that have lost their placeness. Neither quenching desire nor arousing it, like the dead calm of the Roman August they quell his impulse to be somewhere else. The self is arrested, the blabbing, babbling mind. “I liked it here,” he says about a desolate crossroads. “I was happy where I was.” Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It really isyoga for people who can’t be bothered to do it.

THAT LOCUS of sanctity and stillness, where you feel you have arrived, in Lawrence’s words, at “something final”—a place, Dyer says, that gives you access to “the dream space of the past”—Dyer calls the Zone. The name comes from Stalker, a film that depicts, with slow and ragged beauty, a strange, looping, thwarted journey, ambiguous and ambivalent, to a place, a room, that is said to grant one’s deepest wishes, and that turns out to look like a ruin. Dyer has long been obsessed with the film, as he has with the annual attempt to realize the promise it imagines: the Burning Man festival in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. The latter forms the subject of Yoga’s final chapter, the volume’s ultimate destination. Burning Man began, Dyer tells us, as a “Zone Trip,” both a kind of reenactment of the film and an effort to establish a “Temporary Autonomous Zone,” a space of free creativity, imaginatively liberated from state power.

How exactly this works in practice is not clear from Dyer’s writing. Yoga’s description of Burning Man is fragmentary, more suggestive than circumstantial. I suspect, given the way his books tend to adumbrate their successors, that we will get a fuller version in the future. At least I hope so. Still, the festival is not the only image he has offered of a realm of creative autonomy. The life that he’s made for himself is another—that bohemian existence of vagrant curiosity, where the only rule is “Do what you will”—and so, in his account, is the thing that life revolves around. The true Zone, in other words, is art.

In jazz, in photography, in all the media to which he turns his omnivorous critical attention, Dyer seeks exactly what he found in Rome: the suspension of time. Tradition, and the place of the individual creator in relation to tradition, is always at the forefront of his mind. But though he mentions Harold Bloom in this connection, he is closer here to E.M. Forster, who asks us, in Aspects of the Novel, to imagine the English novelists, not as floating down the stream of time, “but as seated together in a room, a circular room ... all writing their novels simultaneously.”

So it is in The Ongoing Moment, Dyer’s book about photography. Robert Frank, Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange: these and many others spend the volume trading subjects back and forth—re-framing a doorway, changing the angle on a pair of hands, putting a fence or a person in a new light. “Photographers sometimes take pictures of each other; occasionally they take pictures of each other at work; more usually they take photographs—or versions—of each other’s work. Consciously or not they are constantly in dialogue with their contemporaries and predecessors.” The book itself assumes the same form, circling back and back to certain nodal images where paths through photographic history cross. “We will encounter him again.” “We will come back to that coat.” “We will return to this. In the circumstances, how can we not?”

But it is more than that. Again and again, with uncanny sensitivity and acumen, Dyer finds the temporal within the static image. Photography, like jazz (like Dyer’s own life), is entirely “in the moment,” but it is, precisely, an ongoing moment, one that can extend itself through time. “This picture,” he says of a photograph of a woman by Lartigue, “depicts the moment when you fall in love,” and if Lartigue has already been with her for ten years, “it actually proves my point: that look, that meeting of the eyes, still contains the charge of the first unphotographed look from way back when.” Of Michael Ackerman’s blurred and haunting pictures, he says that it is “as if what we are seeing is the record not of a moment but of the way it lingers in the memory and becomes changed by its association with other moments, other memories.” Dyer is especially drawn, of course, to pictures of ruins (including the ones we call faces), objects that embody the past and foretell the future.

For Dyer, we, too, are contained, by works of art, in time. We are not atemporal beings contemplating timeless artifacts. Our viewing—or reading, or listening—is conditioned by everything that’s intervened, including everybody else’s viewing. The most vital art, Dyer suggests, acknowledges this gap and takes it into itself, takes us into itself. The Ongoing Moment speaks of “the distinctive temporal concentration of Evans’s photographs—their sense of being able to contain the time when they are being looked at, when what they depict has become a part of the past.” But Beautiful imagines Duke Ellington composing a piece that anticipates its own future, “looking ahead to someone looking back: the way the music might sound thirty or forty years from now.” We are also part of the tradition. We are also sitting in the room. “Everything was a memory, and everything was still happening in some extended present, and everything was still to come.”

TIME AND ETERNITY, desire and release, the stream and the circle: Dyer’s fullest expression of the energetic contradiction that powers his work is Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, the novel he published three years ago. The title suggests the nature of the story’s self-division, as well as the identity of the predecessor it refracts. Jeff is in Venice for the opening of the Biennale, soaking up the cocktails and the art, and his experience could hardly be more different from Aschenbach’s. Instead of dwindling from a furtive, unrequited yearning, he has great sex (and copious amounts of blow) with a hot young American. Dyer’s erotic writing is always frank, fun, sensuous, and unselfconscious. For him, lack of virtue is its own reward. The only problem’s that, like everything else that lives in time, Jeff’s affair with Laura has to end.

To ask whether the unnamed narrator of the novel’s second half is also Jeff is to miss the point. He is and he isn’t, just as Jeff is and is not Geoff. Whoever he is, he is in Varanasi, the holy city on the Ganges, where the dead are burned by the riverbank. Mann’s scenario is once again displaced: this time there is an obscure object of desire, a hippie girl named Isobel, but she is notably peripheral. There is a love affair as well—for a different couple. The point is, the narrator’s out of it—the traffic of desire, the bonfire of identity—more and more, as time goes on, or rather, rambles to a halt. The novel’s Venice half is compressed into a few days of assignations and urgency; its Varanasi section distends itself into a series of unconnected episodes, discrete encounters: a monkey, a goat, a holy man, a temple. Step by step, in one remarkable set piece after another, the narrator slowly goes native, shedding all attachments—even, at last, to himself.

The real miracle is that Dyer manages to pull it off without smirkiness or sanctimony. The narrator isn’t losing his mind; he is learning to enter the dead time of sadhus and see through their unpupiled eyes. Logic is set aside. “‘Passing through, staying put,’ I chanted to myself. ‘Passing put, staying through.’” Geoff is Jeff is the narrator, each a reincarnation of the others. On the one hand, there is Venice, on the other, Varanasi, two antithetical ways of being. On the third hand, there is only one hand. Venice is Varanasi and Varanasi is Venice, both eternally becoming their opposites.

I worry, though, that Dyer’s approach to life and writing, as attractive as it is in many ways, has begun to produce diminishing returns, particularly with respect to his nonfiction. The Ongoing Moment (2005), while consistently incisive, lacks the ambition and intensity, the artistry, of But Beautiful (1991). Much of the work collected last year in Otherwise Known As the Human Condition, especially some of the later personal essays, is slack and banal. Most disappointing is Zona, the Stalker book. The shot-by-shot structure is lazy and keeps us intellectually low to the ground. The long, digressive footnotes, which promise wider perspectives, tend to fizzle. (One of them tells us that formative experiences are ... formative.) Superlatives assume the place of argument. Dyer lets us know incessantly how great the movie is, but he doesn’t put in the work to make us feel it. The book is convincing if you are already convinced, informative only if you already know what it says.

Dyer, it seems, has gotten too comfortable with himself. The old sense of struggle is gone. Unlike Rage or Yoga, Zona has no counter-book, no vitalizing doubt. Most of the personal writing in Otherwise Known As the Human Condition is boring and self-indulgent. Where once he specialized in finding the profound in trivialities, now he seems to think that trivialities—or at least his trivialities—embody profundity all on their own. Emblematic is the title piece, which turns out to describe his ongoing quest for his favorite doughnut. Life, you know, is like that: you’re always trudging up and down the street, looking for a place that sells your favorite doughnut. Once this might have worked; now it represents the quotidian ideal in a state of decadence.

There tends to be a weightlessness to Dyer’s writing, so intent is he on traveling light. Everything slides off his back, which means that, at a certain level, nothing really matters. His deepest insights—into class, or pain, or death—fail to deliver their full complement of emotional force. He’s always going to be OK, always going to do precisely as he likes. He is interested in everything but committed to nothing. You sometimes wonder just how serious he is, beneath it all. Was that a revelation he just had, or is he simply stoned? Does Burning Man embody a new paradigm of human liberation, or is it really only a gigantic party? Dyer has lots of experiences, but they never seem to accumulate. For all his personal candor, all the talk of his background, he is present in his writing only as a sensibility, never as a self—which is to say, a being who’s conditioned, whose freedom is limited, by the world in which he lives and the choices that he’s made. Dyer is aware of time, but not, it seems, of history.

William Deresiewicz is a contributing editor at The New Republic and author of A Jane Austen Education. This article appeared in the December 20, 2012 issue of the magazine under the headline “Be Here Now.”