Working The Room: Essays and Reviews 1999-2010, by Geoff Dyer, Canongate RRP£20, 358 pages
With its seductively straightforward price point of £20, Geoff Dyer’s second miscellany of his literary jobbing wears its heart next to its barcode, for he is a seductively straightforward writer – and that’s a very English thing. Like Orwell, Dyer’s slightly planed-down declarative statements readily manufacture assent, “Critics are always working the room,” he proposes in the essay on Susan Sontag that provides him with his title “Um, yes, I suppose so,” before troubling to follow the thought anywhere else.
There are countless other examples. “It is possible to gain a reputation as a serious and important artist on the basis of work devoid of seriousness or importance,” Dyer contends, instancing Tracey Emin’s meerkat manor proposal for Trafalgar Square’s fourth plinth; or: “A journey through ‘the vast bulk of England’ is now a journey through the almost unrelieved ugliness of post-industrial homogenisation,” he asseverates, responding to DH Lawrence’s gloomy prognostications in Lady Chatterley’s Lover.
There is some truth in all these statements, but it’s Dyer’s genius to make one feel that denying them less than the full quotient would be infra dig. Odd that a writer who seems so strident about so many things, from the virtues of mind-altering drugs (in moderation), to the importance – at least for him – of remaining childless, to the stultifying effects of jobs, should nonetheless retain an entirely even tone. If I imagine Dyer’s authorial voice thrown into my inner ear, it sounds calm and supremely well-mannered. In part this is what makes him such a good comic writer – his deadpan is effortless, he never corpses; but even in cultural criticism – and especially in memoir – the psyche longs for the purchase provided by the scumbled thought, the draggled insight and the maculate metaphor.
In pieces from worthy takes on literary greats, to cultural overviews of such things as the Paris couture shows and the Beijing Olympics, to seemingly personal excavations Dyer maintains his tidy line – which is not to say this collection is anodyne or overly user-friendly; indeed, it takes some balls to front up such a volume with a cool 100 pages of writing about photography. Dyer is a prize-winner in this area, and his first book was a homage to John Berger, another snapper-clapper. He does write very well about this stuff – for included here are only one or two representative images, while besides, to be frank, my appetite for reading about a Czech weirdo who pervs after women in bikinis with a homemade telephoto lens is next to zero.
Which makes it all the more notable that I had no difficulty in lapping up page after paragraph of this fare; Dyer writes engagingly on everything from his love of doughnuts to his sequestrated working class childhood in Swindon, and so I found myself sitting up later than intended, keeping up a mantra of agreement – um, yes, I suppose so – punctuated by the occasional bray of laughter. For a self-confessed lazy man, who has organised his life so he can slip away from responsibility and slide out from under commitment, he’s a notably diligent researcher whose writing bespeaks a confident – although never showy – erudition.
If overall this collection doesn’t quite pack a heavyweight punch, it’s perhaps because of the subject matter: there’s virtually no politics here, nor philosophy, beyond the kind that assumes consumer choice to be a universal desideratum. Dyer, who makes much of his writerly lifestyle, revolving through the world high and unanchored, still going to alternative festivals in his forties, sometimes strikes me as a sort of kidult sage – but then that would be an oxymoron.
Will Self’s latest book is ‘Walking to Hollywood’ (Bloomsbury)