Working the Room By Geoff Dyer

Once you’ve read the essays in Otherwise Known as the Human Condition, there is little need to also buy Working the Room, but I am a Geoff Dyer completist.

Additional are essays on photographers Larry Burrows, Jacob Holdt, Martin Parr and Trent Parke, and explorations of: D. H. Lawrence: Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Tobias Wolff: Old School, Richard Ford: The Lay of the Land, and Alan Hollinghurst: The Line of Beauty.

The Hollinghurst essay stood out, convincing me that I ought to read The Line of Beauty:

There are literally thousands of impeccably nuanced touches like this in the novel. Hollinghurst, in James’ own words, is one on whom nothing is lost.

Otherwise Known as the Human Condition by Geoff Dyer

My memories of reading Geoff Dyer’s first essay collection Anglo-English Attitudes is bathed in the glow of idyllic location. We had driven for several hours from the Massif Central, south-central France, to find we were a day late for our hotel booking. An apologetic host explained that our room was now occupied by the mistress of a French politician, who preferred to sleep alone. There were no rooms available until the next day.

After providing us with refreshments, our host managed to find us lodging at a nearby hotel. This turned out to be the former home of the Marquis de Sade. We had discovered, by chance (it is always by chance, deliberation robs us of the true thrill), the ‘perfect hotel.’

Most of the essays I recall joyfully from Anglo-English Attitudes make it into Otherwise Known as the Human Condition. This book also includes all but six of the essays published in Working the Room.

Those I enjoyed most are the longer essays. Dyer is at his best with room to digress, with room for his exuberance to infect the reader. The essay on William Gedney is breathtaking. Dyer bears his erudition lightly, gently rousing Joyce, Coleridge, Walter Benjamin, Marguerite Yourcenar, Walt Whitman, Henry Miller and Fielding to help explore the tragic life of this autodidactic photographer.

Before finishing these essays I have been inspired to order a few photographer’s monographs, add a couple of novels to my wish list and listen to some jazz I hadn’t heard before. This isn’t dry criticism that you read solely to fine-tune your critical functions, Dyer inspires you to share his passions.

The Dodecahedron or A Frame for Frames by Paul Glennon

Inspired by the deliberate writing constraints of Oulipo writers, Paul Glennon uses a dodecahedron as scaffolding for his collection of short stories The Dodecahedron or A Frame for Frames.

In ‘Some Clippings for my Article on Machine Literature’, an interview with the creator of Amanuensis, software to create books, we read:

He goes on to describe a novel based on the geometry of the dodecahedron. ‘Each of the twelve faces represents a different narrative. The thirty edges represent the relationships between these stories. The twenty vertices . . .’ Plunge’s girlfriend of five years, who has been coaxed outside to help hold the whiteboard, raises her eyebrows ever higher as he goes on.

‘It’s a bit much,’ concludes the girlfriend. The structure almost gets in the way of twelve superb short stories. Perhaps anxious that readers might not appreciate the cleverness of using a dodecahedron to define the relationship between each short story, Glennon provides an explanatory Afterword. I understood the constraint from the title of the story collection. Knowing the structure adds an allure to reading the stories, but by the end it feels somewhat over-laboured.

The interrelationship between the stories is fascinating. In the first story, ‘In My Father’s Library,’ a young boy consumes his father’s ‘special’ books to keep them from three sinister investigators. The different repercussions of this act, in later stories, is exhilarating. Glennon is an imaginative storyteller who creates memorable worlds.

By the conclusion of the book, we are no wiser about which of the various stories represent the ‘true’ interpretation. The collection is all the better for that ambiguity.

Thanks to The Wolves for the inspiration to read this book.

The Function of the Arts

The wonderful quote below is from a Paris Review interview with poet John Hall Wheelock:

Most of us pass through life in a state of semi-anesthesia, with life itself blotted out by the business of living. We shut out life itself in order to carry on and survive, and the function of the arts is to pierce that shield and make us suddenly reexperience something that we’ve always known but haven’t been experiencing anymore.

The Autodidact

A cliché: he read avidly, Everything he could. Spotting someone reading a book on unfamiliar, offbeat subjects people sometimes ask, “Why are you interested in that?” To which, for an autodidact like [William] Gedney, there was only one reply: because it is interesting. He amassed and hoarded knowledge and then, if something caught his eye-a potential photograph-he would bring to bear on that instant or incident everything he had learned and read. It didn’t stop there, though, because his ideal of self-sufficiency was underwritten, naturally, by self-generating curiosity. The more he saw, the more he wanted to learn. The more he learned, the more he saw. It wasn’t enough to train himself to see; he had also to understand what he saw, to become more articulate in the language of sight.

‘William Gedney’ by Geoff Dyer

William Gedney Photographs and Writings
Duke University Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library

The Uncanny

Freud in his famous essay mentions “the constant recurrence of the same thing” as a symptom of “the Uncanny.” In [Idris] Khan’s picture of every page of the recent Penguin edition, the black gutter at the centre throbs like a premonition of an op art void. It makes you wonder if, as well as psychoanalysis, Freud also invented the Rorschach blot. In the background, two of the paintings discussed by him, Leonardo’s Mona Lisa and The Virgin and Child with St. Anne, peer through a shifting sleet of type like emanations of the unconscious or something. It’s only a book-only a photo of a book-but it pulses like a living thing.

Idris Khan by Geoff Dyer

Poem Without Forgiveness

The husband wants to be taken back
into the family after behaving terribly,
but nothing can be taken back,
not the leaves by the trees, the rain
by the clouds. You want to take back
the ugly thing you said, but some shrapnel
remains in the wound, some mud.
Night after night Tybalt’s stabbed
so the lovers are ground in mechanical
aftermath. Think of the gunk that never
comes off the roasting pan, the goofs
of a diamond cutter. But wasn’t it
electricity’s blunder into inert clay
that started this whole mess, the I-
echo in the head, a marriage begun
with a fender bender, a sneeze,
a mutation, a raid, an irrevocable
fuckup. So in the meantime: epoxy,
the dog barking at who knows what,
signals mixed up like a dumped-out tray
of printer’s type. Some piece of you
stays in me and I’ll never give it back.
The heart hoards its thorns
just as the rose profligates.
Just because you’ve had enough
doesn’t mean you wanted too much.

Dean Young

What’s the Best Time to Visit Nevada?

Have you been to Black Rock Desert, Nevada? Its source convinces me of the authenticity of this photograph. The caption reads, “Minerals, algae, and cyanobacteria give this geyser in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert its brilliant colours.” It takes my breath away.

I’m reading Geoff Dyer’s latest compendium of essays, Otherwise Known as the Human Condition. Initially I was irritated that the book is a selection from two collections of Dyer’s essays that I already own: Anglo-English Attitudes and Working the Room. I guess that this edition is for the American market. My irritation was short-lived, Dyer is a brilliant essayist. The ‘Visuals’ section is best read with a screen to hand to seek out the photographers and places he mentions.

Surface meets Surface

Growing up in an obscure far eastern country, I never acquired the taste for television. A neighbour acquired a black and white set, bolstered by an obscenely long aerial, and once a week all the kids in the neighbourhood would visit to watch a fuzzy rendering of Skippy. Later the country established its own network, with a diet of six hours of Islamic prayer, followed by two English language programmes: one half hour comedy show and a forty-five minute detective show, then back to prayer. For the English programmes, imagine Happy Days, followed by Starsky and Hutch. After an initial euphoria I lost interest, and watching television went the same way as stamp collecting.

Later on, I became hungry for news. Each day I would read three or four newspapers a day. I subscribed to a politically balanced selection of current affairs magazines. On my train to work I read the Financial Times and the Guardian, on the way home I skimmed the Times or caught up with the latest New Statesman, Spectator, Private Eye or Economist. I never read the sports section, or cared for celebrity or royal gossip, but looked for articles that extended my knowledge of how countries or parties or people functioned. Gradually though, over a period of two or three years, I came to realise there is little of value to be found in newspapers, and as with television I lost interest. Today, my consumption of news is a brief scroll down the headlines on my Guardian and Al Jazeera English apps on my iPad, and the output of a handful of tweeters and blogs.

Just so hollow and ineffectual, for the most part, is our ordinary conversation. Surface meets surface. When our life ceases to be inward and private, conversation degenerates into mere gossip. We rarely meet a man who can tell us any news which he has not read in a newspaper, or been told by his neighbor; and, for the most part, the only difference between us and our fellow is that he has seen the newspaper, or been out to tea, and we have not. [Thoreau: Life without Principle]

Otherwise, my reading time is reserved for books, a few magazines, a small number of favourite blogs, and the odd article that someone brings to my attention.

Literature with Added Fibre

The frequently cryptic Umberto Eco, in Confessions of a Young Novelist, explains that, ‘whatever postmodernism might be, I use at least two typical postmodern techniques.’ On occasion he employs ‘double coding’ (a term coined by architect Charles Jencks), which ‘is the concurrent use of intertextual irony and an implicit metanarrative appeal.’ The example Eco provides is from The Name of the Rose:

[The novel] begins by telling how the author came across an ancient medieval text. It is a blatant case of intertextual irony, since the topos (that is, the literary commonplace) of the rediscovered manuscript has a venerable pedigree. The irony is double, and is also a metanarrative suggestion, since the text claims that the manuscript was available through a nineteenth-century translation of the original manuscript-a remark that justifies some elements of the neo-Gothic novel which are present in the story. Naive or popular readers cannot enjoy the narrative that follows unless they are aware of this game of Chinese boxes, this regression of sources, which gives the story an aura of ambiguity.

Eco elucidates other effects used to give a wink to ‘sophisticated readers’, and concludes:

I admit that by employing this double-coding technique, the author establishes a sort of silent complicity with the sophisticated reader, and that some popular readers, when they do not get cultural allusion, may feel that something is escaping them. But literature, I believe, is not intended solely for entertaining people. It also aims at provoking and inspiring people to read the same text twice, maybe even several times, because they want to understand it better. Thus, I think that double coding is not an aristocratic tic, but a way of showing respect for the intelligence and goodwill of the reader.

The first three sections of Confessions of a Young Novelist provide a compelling, personal insight into Eco’s writing practice and an idiosyncratic dissection of the nature of fiction. Questions like this provide sufficient substance for me to debate until sunrise: ‘If we know that Anna Karenina is a fictional character who does not exist in the real world, why do we weep over her plight, or at any rate why are we deeply moved by her misfortunes?’

The fourth section, a condensed essay on lists, was disappointing and, I assume, added to extend these Richard Ellmann lecturesto book length.