Geoff Dyer is a man who knows the value of an unconventional job title. Rather than sauntering through life as a simple novelist, critic, travel writer, historian or essayist, Dyer has tried his hand at many different forms and somehow evaded becoming particularly associated with any of them. Geoff Dyer is not a novelist who writes criticism or a travel writer who produces novels, he is all of these things and yet none of them. Like a Renaissance princeling or Imperial Khan, his name is habitually appended with an ever-growing succession of baroque and idiosyncratic job titles ranging from the mundane (writer) and the old fashioned (intellectual) to the endearingly preposterous (intellectual gate-crasher). Frankly, if Dyer began describing himself as a servant of the Secret Fire and wielder of the Flame of Anor I doubt that anyone would be particularly surprised. Dyer evades encapsulation in the same way as Pynchon evades publicity… his elusiveness is central to his charm.
In a typically warm, insightful and engaging interview conducted by Colin Marshall, Dyer explains the reasoning behind his steadfast refusal to either commit to any particular form or abide by the rules of any of the forms he operates in. Dyer’s end game is to create a body of work whose allure bears no relation to its actual subject matter. For example, you may have no interest in the life and work of D.H. Lawrence but this should not prevent you from being entertained by Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage (1997), a book about trying to write a book about D.H. Lawrence. Similarly, you might prefer the idea of burying your face in an ants nest to reading another novel about spiritually disaffected upper-middle class people but this should in no way prevent you from enjoying Dyer’s Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi (2009).
With no apparent form or subject matter to call his own, the seat of Dyer’s charm is… well… Dyer himself. As Michael Silverblatt put it when he interviewed Dyer, there is something decidedly likeable about a man who travels the world only to obsess over finding the correct local iteration of his preferred breakfast. There is something instantly recognisable about a man who loves books and films but never the ones that he is supposed to be reading at any given moment. As in the works of J.G. Ballard, this persona may change slightly from book to book and from article to article but that voice and that character are present in everything that Dyer writes. Chances are that if you like the persona that Dyer presents in all of his writings then you will happily read anything that Dyer has to say as the true subject of Dyer’s books and articles is invariably himself.
Those immune to Dyer’s charms may well view Dyer’s methodology as supremely egocentric and dishonest. Indeed, how many people have purchased Out of Sheer Rage expecting an award-winning biography of Lawrence only to discover that the book is actually the amusing tale of a hapless writer who scoffs almond croissants goes on holiday and crashes his moped? These un-named and potentially fictitious critics may well be completely right about Dyer but they are also missing the point.
There are many reasons for deciding to read a particular book (plot, characterisation, social commentary, prose style) but one of the most compelling is that the process of reading someone else’s thoughts allows you to gain access to that person’s headspace for extended periods of time. To read a book is to experience something – a time, a place, a film, a relationship – through the eyes of an author and when that author has a set of sensibilities as distinct and engaging as those of Geoff Dyer then sharing that author’s headspace can become an end in itself. If the point of Dyer’s writing is to allow us to hear the world described by his voice then his latest work Zona (2012) is his most successful to date.