Detour As Straight Line

Toby Lloyd, “New York Trance — Geoff Dyer and the Life of the Writer,” Los Angeles Review of Books 31 January 2016

(…) When I presented a few chapters of this ragged novel to a friend of mine for advice, she very sensibly recommend that I read Out of Sheer Rage, Dyer’s book about failing to write a book about D. H. Lawrence. Taking writer’s block as his subject matter, Geoff performs one of his most Dyer-ish paradoxes — distraction as productivity, “detour as straight line.” He is the equivalent of a machine whose waste product is also its fuel.

The book turns, like so many other portrayals of life as a writer, to contemplating Yeats’s choice: perfection of the life or of the work. The model for the writer’s life that had been suggested to me throughout my MFA was the one that favors routine over inspiration, discipline over adventure, and I was quite secure in my belief that this was indeed the way. Writing is a job, so you should treat it like one. Get up at the same time each day and sit at your laptop until your 1500 words or your seven or eight hours (depending on just how serious you are) are up. Was it John Cheever who used to put on a suit each morning before making the journey to his “office?” Philip Roth offers a version of this model of the novelist’s life in The Ghost Writer, a book I read as an undergraduate with the same avidity that several years later I would bring to Paris Trance. When a young Nathan Zuckerman goes to visit his literary hero, E. I. Lonoff, he finds an old man who lives alone with his wife in a secluded farmhouse in the Berkshires, shutting out the wider world as completely as possible in order to dedicate himself fully to reading and writing fiction — a monk of literature. “All one’s concentration and flamboyance and originality reserved for the grueling, exalted, transcendent calling,” Nathan reflects. “I looked around and I thought, This is how I will live.”

Dyer, on the other hand, decided some time ago this was precisely not how he would live. Like Philip Larkin before him, Dyer abhors “the shit in the shuttered chateau,” with his “five hundred words” a day. When the narrator comes across Julian Barnes’ house in Sheer Rage, he pictures with horror the novelist spending each day doing nothing but writing his novels. “It seemed an intolerable waste of life, of a writer’s life especially, to sit at a desk in this nice, dull street in north London.”

If not by writing, how should a writer spend his or her life? Well, by living, of course. When, in Paris Trance, Alex asks Luke why he never got round to finishing the novel he came to Paris to write, Luke responds: “Why write something if you can live it?” Luke’s abandonment of his proposed novel in order to throw himself more fully into his Paris lifestyle is in keeping with Dyer’s ideas about how a writer should behave. Except that Luke takes it too far: “living” has to involve some kind of writing; it can’t replace it entirely. Dyer suggests that it is indeed because Luke is so ready to view himself as a writer, and therefore enjoys the illusion of fulfilling himself creatively, that he doesn’t write: “People always assumed he was an artist. Perhaps that is one of the reasons he felt so little need actually to create anything.”

However, Dyer, who is only 57 years old, has produced some 13 books. How do we account for this productivity from a man who has been hailed the “slacker laureate?” The true ideal underpinning Dyer’s canon, rather than believing (like Luke) that writing is something that gets in the way of living, or (like Lonoff) that living is something that gets in the way of writing, is that, just as there is no meaningful distinction between fiction and nonfiction, there is also no meaningful distinction between writing and living. Or, as Dyer puts it himself, “It’s a job for life; more accurately, it is a life.” And it is precisely this lack of a distinction between living and writing that gives his prose its particular energy.

(…) This sketch of New York is taken from But Beautiful:

When a woman, feeling the city falling damp around her, hearing music from a radio somewhere, looks up and imagines the lives being led behind the yellow-lighted windows: a man at his sink, a family crowded together around a television, lovers drawing curtains, someone at his desk, writing these words.

Collapsing the time lag between having an experience and writing about it, Dyer also dissolves the gap between writing something down and having someone else read it. In that hurried portrait of “someone at his desk, writing these words,” Dyer creates the sense of lived experience, the act of writing, and the act of reading all happening simultaneously.

(…) Why write something if you can live it? Alex knows why. “Because you can’t live it forever.”

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