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Another Great Day at Sea: Life Aboard the USS George HW Bush, by Geoff Dyer, Visual Editions RRP£25/Pantheon RRP$25.95, 208 pages
It’s hard to imagine a writer less suited to the challenge of spending two weeks aboard an American aircraft carrier than Geoff Dyer. No matter that as a child he loved to build model fighter planes or that he was weaned on television series such as The World At War; in his essays and essayistic fictions he often makes comic capital out of being bothersomely tall, a fussy eater, a free spirit, someone who likes the idea of knowing about real things (bookkeeping, jam-making, shelf-building) but, in reality, whiles away his days scoffing doughnuts, playing table tennis or watching Russian art house films.
Luckily, Alain de Botton thinks otherwise. The philosopher is the founder of Writers in Residence, an association that places writers and photographers from the Magnum agency in institutions (such as the IMF or Bell Labs) that shape the imagination and infrastructures of the modern world. He knows that Dyer has a rare talent to take almost any topic – Indian classical music, a missing hat, a Rodin sculpture – and imbue it with gravity and grace, tenderness and also tetchiness. Time is his central concern and his books, often slender, seem to elongate it. They are full of snapshots that linger, passing thoughts that have a philosophical heft, casual but resonant encounters.
Another Great Day at Sea, the first in the Writers in Residence series, is a work of embedded documentary that starts out like science fiction. Dyer is flown from a US navy base in Bahrain to the USS George HW Bush, a carrier that strikes him as so huge, so infernally noisy, so full of oil (“we were in the middle of the sea and it smelled like a garage with fifty thousand cars in it”) that he describes it as “another world”. It’s a realm as rigorous and machinic as Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Its 5,000 workers speak a vocational jargon that he finds alternately mysterious and remote.
Armed with a school exercise book and a tape recorder, Dyer shows due diligence in trying to make sense of this extraordinary ecology. He interviews lots of staff – among them a chaplain, a dentist, a petty officer and a medic – whose courteous but hardly revelatory comments he writes up over the course of 45 small segments that move between documentation, diary entry and riff. Doubt plagues him: “So there I was: a tourist with a notebook, a marine anthropologist whose data was so thoroughly and distortingly mixed up with the means of obtaining it that it probably had no value as data, only as a memoir or a collection of camera-less holiday snaps.”
It’s true that in recent years a number of other artists have studied maritime life both more forensically and ideologically than Dyer. Whether it’s Allan Sekula’s 1995 Fish Story (later the basis of 2010 film The Forgotten Space, which he made with Noël Burch), Rose George’s Deep Sea and Foreign Going (2013) about life aboard a container ship, or the Mumbai-based Camp collective’s From Gulf to Gulf to Gulf (2013), in which Asian seafarers are given mobile phones to record themselves ferrying goods across the Arabian Sea, the tendency is to depict those who labour at sea as members of a liquid precariat, a global undercommons.
Dyer is hardly clueless about the purpose of his temporary home. Describing the skills involved in getting planes to land and take off without mishap, he writes: “The elaborate, hypnotic choreography on display was devoted entirely to safety, to the safe unleashing of extreme violence.” He says he would have liked to point out to a bullish Lieutenant Commander that many Americans join the navy not out of patriotism so much as because they can’t otherwise afford college or decent healthcare, but decided to bite his lip.
That’s not really a problem when Dyer, who says he believes in the “aesthetic intoxication of military jets”, can liken a distant oil well to “a dream of the astrophysical future when the sun had used itself up, run out of gas, was just an ember of its former self”. Or when he quotes a pilot recounting how it feels to be flying on a clear night at an altitude of 30,000ft: “It’s like flying through space. You see stars that you never thought you’d see before. Especially if you’re over water – that’s like flying in deep space.”
Dyer fans will warm to his comic digressions on moustaches, deliriously sentimental reveries about what it might have been like to be a Battle of Britain pilot, semi-embarrassing stories about jokingly asking the carrier’s gym boss where he might score steroids, and meditations on the similarities between writing and piloting a plane. Readers of the book’s UK edition are lucky: it’s more handsome (and expensive) than the US edition – featuring more photographs from Chris Steele-Perkins (dubbed “the snapper”) distributed throughout the volume rather than compacted into an insert.
By the end of Another Great Day at Sea, the carrier is no longer forbiddingly otherworldly. Dyer has managed to get his hands on seared chicken breast with grilled courgettes. He’s been overwhelmed by the bravery and eloquence of a man called Clinton Stonewall III, from Birmingham, Alabama. He’s moved from being a dispassionate observer to someone who prays for those who go to sea in ships.
Sukhdev Sandhu is author of ‘Night Haunts: A Journey Through the London Night’ (Verso)