This book (also beautifully bound by the way) confirms Dyer's nonchalant mastery of the essay form, managing to make his insights seem effortless and conversational, while also being profound, and more than in his previous books, deeply moving. I've been enjoying Dyer since one of his early columns in the mid-1990s about Paris, women, shirts, cigarettes, apple tarts and of course cappuccino had me crying with laughter such that I was physically unable to read it out to explain what was so funny.
As well as the gags, I think he has also shown a new way to respond to art that, not unlike his mentor John Berger, but in a way that is wholly his own, manages to find the universal and even timeless in what is subjective and particular.
Geoff Dyer is a lucky man. Not only can he 'write about whatever happens to interest' him (and get it published), he can also look back on a life fuelled by 'books...films...parties...drugs...women...sex...laughing...[and] drinking'. This isn't arrogance on Dyer's part, merely a bemused assessment of his own good fortune. Nevertheless, such admissions could easily become annoying, but they don't, as Dyer is good company, and that is surely the greatest asset of any essayist. Refreshingly, his non-academic approach perks up the articles and essays gathered here, a collection that rarely fails to sing.
There can be no doubt that Dyer has range. In fact, it is quite remarkable. Working the Room houses a veritable hotchpotch of subjects, and the pieces oscillate between art and music, literary criticism and memoir. Although the book is divided into sections - 'Visuals', 'Verbals', 'Variables', and 'Personals' - there is a 'fair bit of seepage between the various categories'. And so, in a foreword on Enrique Metinides, Dyer will bring in Don DeLillo (an obvious touchstone) to make a point. This is a successful (and subtle) tactic, and one that illuminates Dyer's lithe handling of the various art forms.
It is, however, as a memoirist that Dyer ultimately succeeds. 'On Being an Only Child' acknowledges the estranging effects an Oxford education had on his relationship with his parents, while 'On the Roof' recounts his Brixton days on the dole, a blissful scene deepened by a 'quality of study' missing at university. For all their greatness, though, it is 'Of Course' that represents the collection's stunning denouement. A short account of how Dyer met his wife, it is a lovely homage, and one that describes their marriage as feeling 'like doing something right without being sure why'. Is there a lovelier description of marriage?
Dyer's prose is imbued with a colloquial lucidity. Who else would claim that D.H. Lawrence 'probably believed and said more stupid things than any other novelist in history'? The tone may be irreverent, but it's true. He also has a discerning eye for the writer's craft: 'Good, bad or great, all writers are like inept criminals: they leave their prints on everything they touch'. Yet it is when discussing F. Scott Fitzgerald that Dyer comes closest to explaining his own style: 'Writing often works best when you are oblivious to it, when you respond to its effects without being conscious of how they are achieved'. Albeit indirectly, this sentence perfectly encapsulates Dyer's abundant gifts. He is a lucky man.
A collection of essays, what's more - a serious collection of essays - is not going to waft its way up to the literary best-seller list, more's the pity, because this is a collection of treasurable writings. Not all of it will engage because Dyer's interests are multifarious and sometimes very specialist (I'm thinking of his writings on jazz music. You are either an aficionado or not. Or early American photography - again, maybe not). But from around 100 pages in, you will come across some marvellous writing about art, including Turner, Rodin, and early American pastoral art. Similarly with literature. His exposition of the significance of D H Lawrence's work is entirely satisfactory. Other literary interests include James Salter, Tobias Wolff and F Scott Fitzgerald. I was gratified to find one of my favourite unsung novels commented upon, Denis Johnson's Tree of Smoke which is about the Vietnamese War bringing in so many perspectives from Viet-cong to CIA, and personalising these perspectives brilliantly. After reading what he has to say about Rebecca West, I want to read her seminal novel about the Balkans, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey Through Yugoslavia.
Dyer's essay on The Moral Art of War name-checks many of the non-fiction works that have attempted to make sense of recent conflicts. It is a reading list and a summary, and I now want to read some of these books, especially Dexter Filkins, The Forever War: Dispatches from the War on Terror.
The more personal essays endorse much of the same kind of charming wastrelship as a way of life as in his fiction. I was depressed by the New York donut piece, I'm not completely sure why. It seemed empty of meaning - even if funny, it left me without the energy to laugh. I thought it might be about some kind of breakdown, but he left out rational explanation. I felt something in the background was being ignored. In fact, contrary to other books of his, I wanted more seriousness, less of a sense that life is hardly worth living, so absent are the saving moments, the joy and the love. Cappuccini? Donuts? Maybe it's me that's depressed? Still, I drag myself back to what I love in Dyer's writing. It's all done for the hell of it, even when it's serious.
Reading books like this just reminds me of how much I really enjoy tucking into a collection of essays, especially ones as diverse and well written as this. Amongst my favourites here were the intense “Ryszard Kapuscinski’s African Life” and the confessional “Sacked”, "On The Roof" and “On Being An Only Child”.
All in Dyer seems to pull off a lovely balance between informed art critic/bibliophile and all round good bloke, you could sit down the pub with and get lost in meaty, rambling chats about almost anything. He writes with intimacy, sensitivity and honesty but also with humour, insight and intelligence covering a whole number of engaging subjects in a number of refreshing ways. I didn’t enjoy all of them but even when reading about subjects I wouldn’t normally read I still felt like I discovered something new or interesting. I also came away from this collection with a long list of photographers and writers (many I had never heard of before) to check out in the future.
It is not the sort of thing you will find in the airport shop but for someone who wants to think it is an engaging collection of occasional essays.'The Moral Art of War', is a reply to Martin Amis's claims in The Moronic Inferno that non-fiction lacks "moral imagination". It can be rather pretentious but if you go with the flow you will be rewarded with some interesting ideas and new points of view.
This is a great read, great insight to a variety of artists. An amazing selection of artist from Alec Soth to JMW Turner. The essays are short and hold a very personal feel from Geoff Dyer, making them easy to read and thought provoking.
This book would be great for any student looking for inspiration.