The highbrow humour of Geoff Dyer

'Indescribable' is Geoff Dyer's trademark term. Ranked among Alain De Botton's favourite contemporary writers and dubbed 'the best living writer in Britain' by the Telegraph, his new book captures literal and metaphorical travels with irascible wit

Article by Alan Bett | 23 Jun 2016

Talking with Geoff Dyer could be kind of intimidating. He’s written feature length books on D.H. Lawrence and John Berger. His award-winning criticism tackled Sontag and Fitzgerald. Then again, that obsession with Lawrence is matched by those of doughnuts, cappucinnos and croissants. “The croissant is sort of a lost cause now,” he states, late in our conversation, lamenting its loss like the fall of Rome or the death of disco. So, what to expect?

Well, punctuality, of course. A trait claimed throughout his work. And while his writing often separates truth from fiction with a permeable membrane, his hero Berger suggested: 'To separate fact and imagination, event and feeling, protagonist and narrator, is to stay on dry land and never put to sea.' He provides stone cold proof of his timekeeping by calling in from LA at our agreed 5pm, proclaiming, "I’m ready,” before the clock can edge to a minute past.

Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? was the original title of Dyer's new book. “Yeah, that’s right,” he confirms. “Right up until the last moment, in the teeth of considerable opposition from my publishers in the US, I was insisting on calling it after the Gauguin painting.” (Whose epic themes dominate the book's first section, and in many ways all after.) Perhaps it was overlong for a work which also sports the subtitle Experiences from the Outside World. The marketing department would surely be pissed with something which barely fits on the cover. “I’ve never felt it was my job in life to make my publishers happy,” he replies only in partial jest, a claim his unconventional backlist testifies to.The new book however, is now titled White Sands.

Where Does He Come From? 

Born in Cheltenham in 1958 to a sheet metal worker father and school dinner lady mother, Dyer is a working class intellectual who grew up in a house “without books and serious music and all that kind of stuff.” Yet his academic destination was Oxford. Returning to the family home one day, his parents presented him with a cake iced into the shape of a book, with his college name, Corpus Christi, emblazoned across it. ‘It seems the proudest thing in the world – and the saddest,’ he admits in his essay On Being an Only Child, frustration bubbling from the cultural void expanding between them; tempered, however, by his unconditional love. But this upbringing made possible “the thrill of the sense of transformation, of discovery… So I’m glad that I hadn’t had all the riches of the world’s culture spoon fed to me at an early age.”

Dyer admits his absolute passivity in the academic process which enabled him. He simply passed exams. “I was sort of pulled really, just pulled along by the invisible, imperceptible escalator of the English educational system. It’s just so incredible looking back on that, the fact that it was all free!” So he's always offered full credit to this post-war system, intended to lift working class kids into higher education. Our most recent general election results, he feels, will inherently diminish this essential ingredient of social mobility. “Oh my god. It’s great for Scotland but a disaster for England. It’s something that Scotland can be really proud of, trying to cling on to what is a nearly obsolete idea of affordable education.” The offending agent is obvious to him: “The existence of public schools in Britain is one of the most egregious things for continuing social inequality.”

What Is He? 

With his refusal to conform to literary norms, Dyer is in many ways a contrarian. But contrary to, say, that lauded contrarian Christopher Hitchens, not in the antagonistic arsehole fashion. Which perhaps makes him more contrary still. He is a man who, in White Sands, punctures the bubbles of pretention around Gauguin and Theodor Adorno, while simultaneously blowing his own. If you read certain of Dyer’s sentences in isolation his words can form into intellectual vapour, or the salt of the earth. And like Adorno, who Dyer proclaims a ‘badge author’ – someone he once chose as a Guardian book pick, to “egotistically advertise myself as someone who read Adorno” – it is also flattering to be caught reading Dyer on the train; intellectual brownie points.

But there's a bone to pick regarding Teddy Adorno, a man who railed against popular music and its interchangeable parts. “Oh yeah?” Dyer questions. Revisiting his work on White Sand’s recommendation, I admit to promptly tying myself in knots. “Ha,” he laughs, “it really is pretty intense.” Demonstrating the necessity of making him palatable. “When somebody is so unremittingly, unrelentlessly serious like that there’s always going to be scope for comedy.”

This same voice was adopted for Zona, Dyer's masterful retelling of the Russian film Stalker. “It’s something I became really conscious of in the Tarkovsky book. Here’s this film director treated with such seriousness and reverence. One of the important discoveries for me was that reverence as an analytical tool and as an investigative mechanism or tone is kind of worthless really. When you’re being reverential, all you can do is revere.” While Dyer’s published criticism is admired for that purpose, his writing can rarely be so easily compartmentalised. As he quotes from Don Paterson in an essay on Sontag: ‘Well, critic: fair criticism. But at the end of the day, she did; you didn’t.’ Dyer does. The ‘glum majesty’ (Mark Cousins' term) of Stalker simply offers reference points along Dyer's meandering cultural journey, bursting notions of genre inside-out like popcorn. The book has a touch as light as the film’s is heavy. “It’s been one of the fun things for me,” he says, “writing and discovering forms that are appropriate to the subject. But it’s not like I was ever doing it as some anarchist, teenage ‘fuck you’ manifesto kind of thing.”

The thing to remember amongst all this worthy highbrow subject matter is that Dyer is funny, his ever-evident humour allowing the reader to overlook the fact that he’s a celebrated academic. Surely the most backhanded of compliments? And there are more. In quickfire fashion I shoot well-worn accusations his way. His slacker tag: “Never really made much sense to me because that always felt like an American import. Also, during the so-called slacking years I was always quite industrious.” The irritable Englishman abroad: “At the risk of replicating the irritability of which I’m accused, it’s incredibly irritating that people can mention that without mentioning in the same breath that it’s funny.” Then the most damning accusation, from Zadie Smith, of being a national treasure: “Ha, yeah. That should be inter-national. It’s just got such a weary, old, dusty crown jewels kinda feel to it. Something nobody bothers visiting.”

Where Is He Going?

We approach his unwritten masterwork, tackling his obsession, which elicits a giggle. “That’s right, Great Pastries of the World: A Personal View… the key to all mythologies, which would demand so much research it’s unfinishable.” Sadly, his practical research has been curtailed, those beloved doughnuts denied him since a minor stroke in 2014; its effects described to his wife in White Sands as ‘well trippy’. As a qualified dabbler in drug taking, he can compare it to a narcotic experience with accuracy. “That’s right, it really was,” he exclaims, describing his brain struggling to cope with this adjustment. “Isn’t it the case, that quite often with psychedelics it’s the brain rerouting itself or whatever? So that’s pretty much what was going on there. It was a very strange experience, strange and very interesting, and at the time incredibly scary.”

This all took place in LA, the city Dyer now calls home – one he approaches twice in White Sands through the off-piste subject matter of the Watts Towers and, of course, Adorno and his fellow German intellectual emigrants fleeing Nazism in the 30s (the squabbling expat community of Adorno, Thomas Mann, Bertold Brecht et al comes across as the most surreal but wonderful sitcom pitch). They viewed LA as America in its purest form, a crystal ball view of capitalism’s future ‘unaware of the peculiarities that made it exceptional rather than representative.’ Dyer finds life there incredibly nice, what with the weather and opportunity to pursue his love of tennis. It’s also offered closer inspection of those aforementioned peculiarities.“It’s funny, LA. Because it’s so vast and sprawling, one leads a life that is inherently ghettoised in the sense that everybody likes to stay in their neighbourhoods. I think it’s something that’s very specific to America really. There’s rough bits of London obviously, but I can’t remember there ever being a part you really wouldn’t go to; that sort of segregation that’s so much a part still of American cities.”

We recall a conversation in William Shaw's book Westsiders, where although trapped within the world’s most cosmopolitan population, an aspiring South Central rapper has no idea what a cappuccino is, what the froth is made of. In place of Writer in Residence at The University of Southern California, we discuss Dyer being drafted in to teach such a course. “I’m a world expert on that,” he laughs. “The Cappuccino situation here. I could give you an up-to-date report?”

White Sands is out 30 Jun, published by Canongate, RRP £16.99
Dyer will be appearing at Topping & Co Booksellers of St Andrews on 12 Aug, and Edinburgh International Book Festival on 13 Aug