Tuesday, May 05, 2009

First Impressions: Geoff Dyer

Peter Wilson meets Geoff Dyer, writer and reader May 02, 2009
Article from: The Australian

Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi by Geoff Dyer (Text Publishing A$32.95), was released on Monday.

It can be quite hard to understand Geoff Dyer and his career.
On the one hand he is known as the "Slacker Laureate", a talented but laid-back writer who learned his craft living on the dole, smoking dope and sharing a group house with six friends in low-rent inner-London Brixton. Now 50, he likes to cast himself as a "drop-out loser type" who found a way to make a living out of his relaxed, almost aimless lifestyle.

Talking to Dyer in his terrace house in a slightly shabby part of Camden, in north London, it is impossible to block out the occasional echo of Neil, the lanky hippie from the television series The Young Ones, as the equally tall author explains he still likes to smoke dope, has never needed much money and could exist happily on rice and vegetables.
But a real slacker doesn't publish 11 books and hundreds of essay and articles, especially when the books have a bewildering range of topics and have tended to require intense research and earned glowing reviews. He has written only four novels and complains he is no good at plot and characterisation but others are happy to overlook those defects. Britain's The Sunday Telegraph has called him "England's greatest, if most reluctant, novelist".

Dyer's nonfiction topics have bounced from jazz to the work of D.H. Lawrence, from photography to World War I, an oeuvre far too diverse to build a following, even though writer Zadie Smith agrees "his prose is the equal of anyone in the country".
"Yes, I suppose it has created a problem in terms of developing a readership," Dyer concedes. "The 'smart' thing to do would be to build on the jazz book (But Beautiful, hailed by some as the best ever written on the topic) by writing another jazz book, but by the time I had finished the first one my interest had moved on ... as it tends to."

His agents, he says, are more resigned than frustrated by his working habits. And when it comes to Dyer's natural writing style -- part essay, part travelogue, part reportage, lots of facts and literary references and a dash of fiction -- his genre-bending can leave baffled bookshop staff placing the same title on the fiction, nonfiction and travel shelves.

His latest novel, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, has such an unusual structure that its two most prominent reviewers, Jan Morris and Lionel Shriver, managed to misunderstand a basic premise of the book. They assumed the first-person protagonist in the second half of the tome is the main character from the first half: a tall, greying, slightly aimless London-based writer who has an awful lot in common with Dyer but is named Jeff with a "J".
Read the full piece at The Australian online.

1 comment:

bob zimway said...

Bastard Dyer
He came to the US, to Portland's Powells Books a few days I'd seen Venice/Varanasi touted in the New Yorker. You live in the canals and you die by the Ganges. I went straight to the Varanasi novella. On about page four of Varanasi he described sitting in a molded red chair at Assi Ghat. I'd sat in several of those red chairs on that patio looking out at the Ganges two years ago, and the last time, I recall, thinking of whether to jump off the bridge upstream a couple of clicks.

Suicide comes in on cats paws and leaves being dragged out by large blackbirds. You would think it was the other way around, but the decision is always freshened by the quiet hope of your escape while the choice to live is shouldered like a gloomy backpack to bed or to a bar, where oblivion comes up like a tinted window and you can finally hear music or the soothing inner voice that says, later.

It was partly over a woman, partly money, partly boredom, the usual for a 61 year old guy on a motorcycle in India, out there on the last edge, on Highway 61, I called that time, which was also the name of Bob Dylan's breakout rock album. I wasn't really rocking but the bike had a throaty roar that brought entire villages out to watch me ride past, and they would wave. There goes the adventurer they would think, while I was all the time sitting still as a Buddha, desireless, bored, and wise.

Dyer walked to the lecturn, a lanky ectomorph, as I am, spoke deferentially about the British, alluded to his drinking habit modestly and proceeded to read quotes from the book that portrayed the most acid tongued, aggressive features of his characters. He was trying to impress the rustics with his manliness! There he was, a preppy slacker drenched in the weariness, the cynicism! of the British elite who wear the burden that there is no higher place to go than where he is born and schooled, yet rendered useless to the calling of his peers - probably London bankers - by his dope habit, and reduced to non-commital commentary on life, brilliant in its knowing where to dab, where to stop, with curious reversals of ruminative logic that rang true every fucking time.

No wonder there is no plot to his work; set the bastard down anywhere and he paints his mind's reactions like it was Proust's bedroom. He has no need for plot.

So he could write a story of the spirit city of Varanasi and even apprehend its airs of, not of death except a certain gravity, but the living that flames up out of it. He gets the alchemy of those funeral pyres as I do, but he the bastard can write about it and fly around and f^^k anyone he wants to and be famous, while I am dragged by my preacherly appalachian prebyterianism to the grave of my hopes for earthly success and remain in the shadow world beween really knowing and clueless obliviousness. If I really knew, I could rule the world, heal, walk on water, turn it to wine, make love in every way and bring happiness to everyone as I did.

I must stop here. Stamp twice if you want more.