Geoff Dyer may be the greatest complainer in contemporary literature. It’s a quality of Dyer’s writing that is often noticed but rarely celebrated, the snobbish and insecure voice on the page that’s infectious even when annoying and runs through all his best work. In a way Dyer’s writing exists in its own genre—a genre of complaint, we might say—that contains a combination of observational reporting and inner comic monologue, colloquial and mannered in equal measure.
Another Great Day at Sea, Dyer’s latest work, is structured around a series of particularly petty complaints. Spending two weeks out on the USS George H. W. Bush, Dyer is upset about everything pretty much from the start: the food is terrible, the sleeping conditions even worse, not to mention he is taller than everybody else and one of the oldest aboard the aircraft carrier. But what Dyer spins out of these quibbles results in what is his most surprising book, one that addresses the nature of work, the peculiarities of military rigor, and what it means to grow old.
Thankfully, the voice is just a literary device. In a phone conversation, Dyer was friendly and engaging, opening up to me about the origins of the book, his ongoing relationship with America, and coming up against his own mortality.
Craig Hubert (CH): Why did you want to write about and from an aircraft carrier?
Geoff Dyer (GD): That’s a great question to start with. There was this writers-in-residence set up so I had the chance to go somewhere interesting. But I felt that I didn’t want to just go somewhere interesting, it was really important that I go somewhere where I stood no chance of otherwise ever being. So it had to be a closed world, really. I say that not because I thought that would make the writing more interesting or anything like that but for purely selfish experiential reasons. Very quickly that pointed me in the direction of the military, and the aircraft carrier thing, as I mention in the book, came out of a longstanding boyhood fascination with military aircraft. It was a quite natural choice. I was also really tempted to go to Camp Pendleton, the Marine training base, but we didn’t really pursue that. Although it might have been a lot of work behind the scenes, it seemed quite easy to get on the carrier from my point of view.
CH: Did you have backup places in mind in case there was no way they would let you on an aircraft carrier? Were all your ideas military-based?
GD: I think it was all military-based. Also, this thing that’s so big in our time, the pornography industry, I thought might be an interesting world that is also closed off. I was very conscious that Martin Amis had written a quite brilliant article about the porn industry and that kind of stuff, and I thought that might be the kind of thing that would be interesting for a day or two and maybe 5,000 words, but that was eliminated quite quickly from my shortlist. It was one of these happy things where my first thought was, “Oh, an aircraft carrier,” and that turned out, in a Kerouac kind of way, first thought, best thought.
CH: Is it attractive for you to be the outsider within a closed-off world?
GD: I don’t think so. I’m not one of these writers, you know, you hear all sorts of things about the classic psychological formation of the writer, somebody who likes to be an outsider, who’s happier spectating than participating. Whereas for me, I always like to participate thoroughly in things; I’m very gregarious. In fact, I think one of the reasons I haven’t been very good as a reporter is because quite often, rather than just standing there invisibly, part of me is always thinking of the next witty line to say in response to somebody. It’s much more my nature to be engaged rather than just observing. And I would say more generally, beyond the literary thing, it’s always been a sense of belonging that has been one of my great sources of happiness in life. I’m not one of these writers who just looks on.
CH: Speaking of engagement, the book works not just as a quasi–love letter to America, but to Americans specifically, and it’s a topic you’ve returned to quite often in your books. Where does the continued source of wonder stem from?
GD: It’s not at all unusual, I think, for English people to come to America and really love it from pretty much the moment they set foot in the country, irrespective of the ideological baggage they bring. I was born in 1958, and I think I first came here as a sort-of full-on lefty—I can’t remember who was the president back then, maybe it was in the Reagan days or something, with all the objection to American imperial projects and capitalism. But the experience of being in America, of course, has always been so nice. And it always tends to define itself for me in such opposition to England. I think England started to really piss me off a lot only after I’d been in America and realizing that psychically things didn’t have to be as they were in England. You’re always told how friendly Americans are, which is true; then as I spent more time here it’s not the friendliness of Americans but it’s just this incredible, quite amazing politeness of American society which never ceases to amaze me, even in what is generally taken to be the rudest part of the America—that is to say, New York City, where everyone is so impatient. When I first set foot in New York I found it so relaxing because it was a culture predicated on patience not being a virtue. So I’ve really liked everything about it. My editor at Graywolf, Ethan Nosowsky, came up with this great blurb for the book: “Geoff Dyer’s Most Patriotic Book Yet” [laughs]. We felt the time wasn’t right for the semi-ironic blurb. I fell for America in a way that’s entirely representative of many English people’s experience, in fact not even only English people’s experience. Most people who come here respond similarly, I think.
CH: When you’re putting that down on the page, are you conscious of the tension between the Americanness and the Englishness, of the subject and the voice?
GD: Before I came to America the writers I most liked were all American rather than English. So I first got into reading contemporary stuff via Heller, Kerouac, Salinger, that kind of thing. My writing voice was much more infused with Americanisms than a standard English voice that had been formed by those English writers that I didn’t read, like Graham Greene. But you’re right, I’m very conscious of this distinction. I’ll put it this way: if I tried to do an American accent it would still sound like an English person trying to do an American accent. So there’s a very British tone that I became very conscious of—I can’t remember which book it was—when I got sent a copyedit and they’d changed the punctuation to American punctuation, and the spelling. It just didn’t seem right, even those tiny little changes seemed at odds with the timbre of my voice. So on one level you’re right, it’s a very English voice. The humor might be English as well, at heart.
CH: Do you see the book as political in any way?
GD: Not particularly, partly because it seems to be there could be an entirely different book written about the role of the American presence in the Middle East. For this book, it was always going to be almost entirely experiential. So I could only really include stuff about that kind of thing as it arose directly from conversations. It wouldn’t have been appropriate to move the discussion beyond anything that happened while I was on the carrier or indeed beyond anything I saw with my own eyes. So, for example, just to anticipate potential criticism of the book, there is that little footnote where I mention sexual abuse in the military, which I know has been a big subject of discussion in the last four years. But I couldn’t even honestly get into that, given the experiential basis of it, because nobody I spoke to commented on that, and I think it would be really, really difficult to get those stories from people on the basis of a very quick stay, as mine was.
CH: I ask because, in my reading of the book, you tend to place an emphasis, or at least gravitate toward, the people on the ship who are at the bottom—the young men and women who come from a similar working-class background as you.
GD: I would disagree with that. I would say I was gravitating toward the captain because of his food [laughs].
CH: Even then, the humor is more pointed. You only gravitate toward the captain because you want the food he’s being served. I felt there was a more genuine interest in the people at the bottom.
GD: I would be enormously flattered if it came across like that. I would say, actually—I was joking about the captain’s food—like everybody in a way I was really gravitating toward the glamorous end of things. It was the pilots that I was most fascinated by. As a general point, that sense of the laboring end of things, that’s absolutely key to my identity, but I would say again, there is something quite representative about this. One of the joys of coming to America for me was to get away from the class thing. Of course, it would be crazy if one said, “Oh, there is no class in America.” In some ways I sort of feel now the opportunities for social mobility in America are at an all-time low. That’s a huge problem, which has migrated across the Atlantic to England. So of course there is a class society here in America, but what there isn’t is class hatred. To get away from that was a huge liberation. When I say it’s a liberation, like all liberations, of course, it’s partly a liberation from myself. I’m as prone to that as anybody in England, that fundamental class antagonism.
CH: Do you ever show your work to people you write about before you publish? Is their reaction even of concern to you?
GD: Various people who’ve been featured in the books, either directly taken from life or a bit of them used in the fiction, they’ve always been pretty happy with it. I’ve never used writing as a form of score settling. I think very importantly as well I’ve never been a satirist. When reviews of Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi came out, some people said that was a satire of the art world. It really wasn’t. I would never want to write satire. I was really just describing my idea of a good time. If there were an object of satire in the book, it would be myself. I always really disliked Bruce Chatwin and that book The Songlines. He has these encounters with these Australians and he always sort of comes out better than them. I always think, however badly somebody may look in my books, it’s always the authorial representative that ends up looking even worse.
In the case of the aircraft carrier book, I haven’t heard back from many people yet. Generally it’s not an issue. I’m not that kind of writer. It’s more prevalent in Britain than America; you notice it in journalism where it’s the kind of stitch-up where the journalist comes to your house to interview you and it all goes nicely and they’re pleasant. When they get back to their typewriter they really fuck the person over. There’s actually a very, very distinguished tradition of that in Britain and I’m not interested in doing that at all. Not because I want to occupy the moral high ground but it’s just not something that interests me as a writer.
CH: I want to ask about a theme that runs through the book, which is of aging. You comment frequently that you are one of the oldest people on the boat, and there are a few times that you mention your parents, one who died before the book was written and one after.
GD: It’s not so much something I’m thinking about while I’m writing; it’s something I’m thinking about all the time! It’s kind of the main thing that’s happening to me. You’re right, I was the second-oldest person on the boat, but that is so difficult for me to believe on some level. I think of the example of W. H. Auden, who apparently believed until he was really quite old that he was the youngest person in the room. That’s common, this weird thing where someone goes on believing that despite, you know, that you’re the second-oldest person on an aircraft carrier, or increasingly everyone you meet in life, from your doctor down through most people you have contact with, are younger than you. So yeah, that is incredibly interesting. My mom died just before I went on the carrier and my dad died just after I got back. That would be typically a thing that brings you up against your own mortality. But because my parents were quite old, and I’d been expecting them to die—they had really long lives. But I think this thing that happened to me recently just after I moved to California, that I wrote about for the London Review of Books, which was having a stroke four months ago. That really did make me in a big way realize that my days were numbered. That also so directly, so obviously, can affect one’s ability to write. In my case I was lucky, it was a minor stroke and it had almost zero cognitive impact, but I was aware that you could just be sitting in your chair one day and then this thing can happen that can wipe half your brain out.
CH: As a writer, this question of age is even more interesting because you can’t really escape time. Your body of work is always there as a reminder. Your first two novels—The Colour of Memory and The Search—have been brought back to life and released in America for the first time recently, and I wanted to ask how you negotiate this document of time. Do you go back and look at your work?
GD: I don’t, really, and it’s one of the reasons I’ve ended up with all these books to my name, which is just I’ve not been conscious of it as a body of work as I’ve gone along. But the statistics involved in the reissue of those two books are incredible to me. It was 25 years ago that The Colour of Memory came out, so it’s been quite a wait. Not for me, I had other things to do, but for you, the American people, it must have been dreadful spending all of that quarter of a century doing nothing but looking forward to the day when this book would come out.
The fact that 25 years have gone by is just a mind-blowing idea. I’m a sort of different writer now than I was then, but this is the sort of thing really—it’s not like when I published that book in 1989, I thought, “Ah, good, this is the first stepping stone to a body of work or a career as a writer.” It was, “Oh great! I published a book!” Each book has just been like that, really. I think it’s been an incremental thing and I guess in a weird way, what it seems like now with those books is that they’re being published posthumously but by some weird cryogenic quirk I’m still around to enjoy the posthumous publication.