You might not be familiar with Geoff Dyer. He’s a writer. A few weeks ago I hadn’t heard of him. Then I started coming across articles like this hugely complimentary review of his new book, and this interview. He seemed pretty interesting: a writer who had made a successful career of writing about whatever he felt like – jazz, photography and travel mostly, but lots of other journalism, criticism, and four novels. Check here for a good overview of his career, including the latest book, that quotes the good bits generously, as in these excerpts from his jazz book But Beautiful:
This is how Dyer begins his section on Mingus:
America was a gale blowing constantly in his face. By America he meant White America and by White America he meant anything about America he didn’t like. The wind hit him harder than it did small men; they thought America was a breeze but he heard it rage, even when branches were still and the American flag hung down the side of buildings like a star-spangled scarf—even then he could hear it rage. His response was to rant back, to rush at it with all the intensity that he felt it rushing at him, two juggernauts hurtling toward each other on a road the size of a continent.
Here is Monk strolling in Manhattan, gazing over the Hudson:
As he looked out across the river a smear of yellow-brown light welled up over the skyline like paint squeezed from a tube. For a few minutes the sky was a blaze of dirty yellow until the light faded and oil-spill clouds sagged again over New Jersey. He thought about heading back to the apartment but stayed on in the sad twilight and watched dark boats crawl over the water, the grief of gulls breaking over them.
Then it turned out the man himself was due to make an appearance in San Francisco on Monday night and people we knew were going! Dammit, it seemed meant. So, along we went. The event took the form of an extended interview with Dyer, interspersed with him reading from a couple of his books. He’s as charming in person as you would expect of someone who has devoted his life to talking, thinking and writing about such pleasant things as jazz, photography and travel, while living in a sort of idly hedonistic fashion (see this excerpt from the Nation review: “Open a Dyer book and you will see him wandering through Paris with a joint in one hand and a desirable woman in the other; enjoying himself on the beaches of Mexico and Thailand; reading a book on the waterfront of New Orleans; strolling through the Pushkin Museum in search of works by Gauguin…”). He’s got the self-deprecating Englishness thing down so well that he readily admits it’s sort of an act: as he says, his self-deprecation “sits very easily with an almost total lack of insecurity.”
We picked up the new book afterwards and waited in the queue for him to sign it. I said to Mette that I had never had a book signed by its author before. I also said that I was thinking of saying something to him, but thought it would sound kind of rude, so I wouldn’t. The thing I was thinking of saying is pretty much what I began this blog post with: that I hadn’t heard of him until a few weeks ago, but was now very much intrigued by his work. Mette agreed that I shouldn’t say this, as it was indeed rude. We continued to wait. Shortly we were approached by one of the people working at the event, who asked for our names. This was so she could write them on a post-it note and stick it in the book, so he’d know what to write when he signed. This was handy, as Mette’s always having to spell her name for people.
It turned out that the people immediately in front of us in the queue knew him, so they chatted a bit and he got up to hug them and introduced them to someone who I assumed was his agent. Finally he sat back down and there we were. There was a moment’s silence. I didn’t know who was supposed to speak first, or what they were supposed to say. I said “Hello” a bit too loudly. Then I sort of gestured towards him with the book I’d just bought and mangled out a sentence requesting that he sign it. It immediately occurred to me that I ought to have made some sort of polite (ideally complimentary) small talk before making this request. The encounter was not going well. He took the book, opened it to the title page and reviewed the post-it note. He began writing. I wanted to say something, but the only thing in my mind was the sentence Mette and I had just agreed I wouldn’t say. “Um, a few weeks ago I didn’t know anything about you.” Christ. He stopped writing. “And then I saw all these really great reviews and interviews and I really enjoyed the event and.” I’m afraid I don’t recall the exact form of words with which I tied off this abomination. Dyer’s brows lifted and he managed a smile and to say something about buses which I didn’t catch, so I had to ask him to repeat it and it turned out to be something like it was a good thing I was finally on the bus now, which struck me as the sentence of someone struggling to comprehend the idiocy of someone buying a book and waiting in line to meet its author only to insult him, which would be understandable in the circumstances. I sort of laughed and said something like “great.” I was at a loss. Mette’s smile was fixed. I really didn’t want to do this because I knew it made only marginal sense, but we had been talking about it before, so I asked him if he’d ever been compared to David Foster Wallace. By now, surely, his surprise was complete, and we struggled through a minute or so of my explaining that I don’t really read essayists so I didn’t have a frame of reference, but the reading he did from an essay about his visit to Paris to learn about the world of couture had reminded me of Foster Wallace’s essay on the Adult Video News Awards in the sense that each was about an ingenue being thrust into a totally alien world and trying to comprehend it. He explained that these kinds of essays are commissioned quite often and that he wasn’t really like DFW because DFW was such a maximalist and all that. It seemed that my attempt at delivering an outrageous compliment to balance the bizarre insult had failed. He signed his name in the book and gave it back, meaning we could finally leave.
Which is why I probably shouldn’t meet people who I admire. Sorry, Geoff Dyer, for being so rude. Yesterday, exactly 50 people visited this blog. Maybe if 50 people visit again today and all of them go and buy one of your books, things will be OK again.