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Geoff Dyer: Working The Room (Canongate)

A dissatisfaction with the modern novel drives a collection of essays.

Writing about Richard Ford’s Lay Of The Land, Geoff Dyer gives voice to some disquiet provoked by the novel’s bounteous discursive passages: “Good, bad or great, all writers are like inept criminals: they leave their prints on everything they touch.” Dyer is referring to Ford’s narrator’s habit of “giving voice to the reader’s doubts about the distension of which he is the agent.” Dyer must know then that his own inky prints positively pattern his new collection of essays, Working The Room. But do they create a finger-painting of a good or bad writer, or even a great one?

Reading Working The Room, I’m struck by how often, regardless of whether Dyer is meditating upon, say, Rodin or WG Sebald, or his experience of being sacked, there is another subject behind the subject, specifically Dyer’s attempt to define and find space for what it is he does. I hesitate to call Working The Room a manifesto, but – now, after 11 books – it is a summation of his methods and manias. It is, to summon one of the paradoxes he is so fond of, oddly coherent for being founded upon such a diversity of subjects.

The roots of what he does lie in a growing dissatisfaction with the novel, or at least the British novel, “the tucked-up, hospital-corners school of British fiction... a certain kind of novelistic execution whereby every thread and hint is neatly tucked in.” He prefers a poetic looseness, a fictive rambling that takes the novel closer to the poem or essay or journal-jotting. This measured fluidity is what links his love of jazz, Martin Parr and James Salter, whose novel Light Years, Dyer writes, “is chaotic, a draft, full of holes waiting – in vain – to be filled.” That’s a compliment.

The course of these essays, written between 1999 and 2010, chart Dyer’s disillusionment with the novel, to the extent that he confesses to today barely being able to read fiction: “reader’s block” he calls it. Irritation bubbles up over “a received cultural prejudice that assumes fiction to be the loftiest preserve of the literary and imaginative distinction”. He blames a misplaced focus on “an agreed-upon form of writing rather than a certain quality of writing.”

Which takes us to the question the book poses, to the writers covered ostensibly but actually to itself: “To what extent is it possible to be a great prose writer without being a great writer of fiction?”

He goes looking for his answer in “reportage, journalism and travel – the kind of things traditionally regarded as sidelines or distractions”. John Cheever is praised, not for his short stories or novel, but for his “private, unpublished, writings [which] contained much that was as good as, possibly even better than, the stuff which made their posthumous publication feasible... This selection from his journals represents Cheever’s greatest achievement.” Similarly, he hails work by Rebecca West, Ryszard Kapucinski and Susan Sontag, authors who wrote around or in the cracks found in fiction.

The more obviously a form considers itself Art, the less convinced Dyer is. In the same way that he sees the novel assuming its hegemony, he is turned off by similar traits manifesting in other forms: “The paradox is that some of the most artistically valuable contemporary photographs are content with being photographs, are not under the same compulsion to pass themselves off – or pimp themselves out – as art.”

Is what Dyer does great? I could read his non-fiction all day. There’s a danger that we underestimate him given the approachability of his prose. His language isn’t matey but it hits a relaxed, intimate note, a directness that never lapses into the demotic. He appears casual, louche even – yet Dyer’s thoughts (a regrettable fondness for puns aside) never are.

I suppose at this point I should find something to nitpick. Dyer makes a tactical mistake in criticising Don DeLillo’s Point Omega for “Too many goddam echoes”, for repeating motifs and lines from older work. Working The Room repeats quotes, ideas and autobiography from within its own covers and without, in Dyer’s other books. On a more personal, green-eyed note, I sometimes felt his sexually frank disclosures of affairs with beautiful women came close to boasting. But hey, that’s me. You will want to get your own fingerprints all over this superb collection.

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