After cursing the one-way streets of Minneapolis and finally speeding into the parking ramp at Central Library, I had no time to spare before Geoff Dyer’s 7pm appearance at Talk of the Stacks on Saturday, November 17, 2012. I must admit I wasn’t sure what kind of crowd I’d find at the Library on a Saturday night, especially on such a clear, mild night . . . in November . . . in Minnesota, but a crowd there was. Pohlad Hall was at capacity, and rumor had it that the reception before Dyer’s reading was so packed that not everyone invited was able to get in the room.
Actually, why wasn’t I expecting this kind of turn-out for novelist and essayist Geoff Dyer, even on a balmy November night in Minnesota? Dyer is the author of four novels, most recently Geoff in Venice, Death in Varanisi; two collections of essays: Anglo-English Attitudes and Working the Room; and five uncategorizable works of nonfiction: But Beautiful,The Missing of the Somme, Out of Sheer Rage, Yoga For People Who Can’t Be Bothered To Do It and The Ongoing Moment. Dyer is the winner of the 2011 National Book Critic’s Circle Award for Criticism for his collection of essays from the last twenty years entitled Otherwise Known as the Human Condition, published by local indie Graywolf Press. Among others, he has contributed to Granta, The Nation, and Vogue Magazine. Simply put, Dyer is the real deal. His insight into writing and experience, and an engaging presence on Saturday night, solidified his authenticity in my mind.
Fiona McCrae, publisher and director of Graywolf Press, joined Dyer on stage for a bit of conversation before and after his reading from Otherwise Known as the Human Condition. Both Dyer and McCrae are English, and it was an added bonus to hear McCrae’s cadence echoed in Dyer’s responses. Prior to Dyer reading, they spoke of the essay collection and the essay itself. Dyer joked that his essay collections afforded him the opportunity to “become, if such a thing is possible, even more eminent,” to which the audience responded with amused laughter. Dyer also commented that his egomania allowed him to include some pieces in his first collection of essays that perhaps he otherwise wouldn’t have, a decision he is happy about to this day. However, Dyer’s supposed egoism was checked by his self-discovering grasp of reality, why he writes, and the effort he puts into this writing. Of essay writing, Dyer claimed, “I haven’t got a clue to what an essay is, but I’m able to write them.” Yet, Dyer’s thoughts following this statement argue the opposite. He was firm in conveying the idea that writing an essay is akin to epistemological travel; “a journey from some kind of ignorance to some kind of knowledge.” According to Dyer, he invests quite a lot of effort and energy into writing his essays, rather than just doing it for the money.
The journey, effort, and energy Dyer speaks of can be quite funny, as he proved by reading from the essay “Fabulous Clothes,” found in Otherwise Known as the Human Condition. The essay recounts Dyer’s time reporting on couture for Vogue, and opens with Dyer quipping to his Vogue HQ minder, skeptical of his couture knowledge (and rightly so), “I think we’re about to enter the Chanel Tunnel,” as the Eurostar shot towards Paris. If this isn’t enough to convince you of the worthiness of Dyer’s perspective, I’ll give you one more instance, but that’s it because I’d rather you buy the book and read all the fabulous essays on “Visuals,” “Verbals,” “Musicals,” “Variables” and “Personals” for yourself. Dyer only discovers exactly who John Galliano is after asking his skeptical minder if he was Christian Dior. She replied Galliano was not Dior because Dior has been dead for about a hundred years. Dyer’s thought on this tidbit of information? “Well, as Larkin said, ‘useful to get that learnt.'” Dyer’s actual response? “‘Ah yes,’ I said. ‘But his spirit lives on in Galliano.'” Okay, so this might not be the funniest thing to those of you who didn’t amass issues of Vogue Magazine as a teenager, almost as if you were building another wall for your soon-to-be-filled closet of couture. Still, buy the book and read the essays. You’ll find something at which you’ll chuckle and from which you will emerge more enlightened. One more example of Dyer’s genius. This is it. I promise. As he’s processing the utter uselessness of couture as clothing that will actually cover one’s body in any practical way, and the fact that this uselessness is in fact its exact purpose, Dyer muses, “And how lovely it was, this celebration of our capacity to produce excess. What progress we have made from the cave-dwelling days when arguments would break out over whose turn it was to wear the hide.”
The other thing about Dyer and his work is that he/it respects meaning and the experience it may bring, even if he doesn’t subscribe to that particular sense of meaning. Dyer believes personal experience reveals a search for more general truth, and he likes writing about places where a “Geiger counter would start clicking to signal the place is really special.” It can be a place such as the Somme in France where thousands of soldiers were lost, just disappeared into the thick of war, or places that hold religious significance like Varanasi, even though Dyer is an atheist. Dyer balances his “self-obsession” by turning himself into a “canary going down the mineshaft.” He has no research assistant, but prefers his life as a “mole, burrowing away,” uncovering the beauty and absurdity in the rituals of life and new knowledge of himself. In the end, he remembers the importance of a certain “faith in the peculiarities to one’s own response to things; joking and being serious at the same time.”
Were you There? Have something to add, or a different take on this event? Chime in on the comments below, or send us an email at LitSeen.Mpls@gmail.com! Be sure to check the schedule to the right and the Twin Cities Literary Calendar to be at the next LitSeen.org attended event. See you around!