The craft of Geoff Dyer

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The artist Annette Messager once wrote that “one cannot talk about happiness without using cliches”. And she’s largely right: happiness is very difficult to write about, because it’s very hard to dramatise, which is why in movies it’s so often reduced to a cheesy montage sequence with a song played over the top. But there’s one, very good exception: Geoff Dyer. Dyer is one of the best reviewed but least read writers around (there’s a lovely interview here), partly because he’s so hard to classify: his books range from (relatively) straightforward novels to unique, idiosyncratic investigations of subjects as diverse as First World War memorials and the life of DH Lawrence. What they have in common is a restless, questioning intelligence, superb descriptive writing and a constant, perilous balance between hilarity and disaster. Dyer doesn’t write jokes, exactly — he has a phobia of “comic” novels that I wish were more widespread, indeed pandemic — but he crafts the kind of perfect line that creeps up silently and tickles you before you’d noticed it was there. Here he is in Cambodia with his delightful girlfriend Circle:

After that we continued strolling the streets and seeing the sites, even though nothing in Phnom Penh was quite worth seeing. The Royal Pagoda, the Silver Pagoda, Wat Phnom … they were, as Circle put it in a postcard to her mum, ‘nothing to write home about’.

Often Dyer’s best lines trip you out of the story entirely; paradoxically, what they trip you into is the world of reading Geoff Dyer:

We were sitting round a table playing poker, a smoky light hanging atmospherically overhead.

And he’s a master of the vivid, suppurating simile:

Just outside my block was a van selling hamburgers; it looked like a belch in 3D.

In fact, Geoff Dyer is worth reading whatever it is that he’s writing about. It’s just that the thing that he writes about better than anyone is happiness: the happiness of discovering new places, the happiness of hanging out with friends, the happiness of falling in love. None of these need be momentous, but they’re the moments that most matter, and Dyer is one of the few writers who can bring them alive on the page. Sometimes these moments are erotic — there’s a sequence in his latest novel, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanesi that quite steams up the afternoon — but often they’re simpler, more relaxed than that: just a group of friends on a warm summer night, heading home:

It was an evening when no one wanted to do anyone else any harm. No one wanted to fight or hassle anybody. When people bumped into each other they said sorry and smiled because it didn’t matter. It was an evening when people wanted to notice the trees and the stars that shone through them, they wanted to smell the blossom in the night air and feel the heat coming off the earth. People were in no hurry to be home but when they got back they’d take a bath and go to bed with the warm night air blowing through the windows and touching the curtains, remembering other times like this.

And that’s why, once you start reading Dyer, you keep coming back. There’s all the cleverness, the jokes, the observations; and a long, deep melancholy too. But pierced through everything is one simple, beautifully outlined understanding: that the greatest moments are the little moments, and the things most worth remembering are those we hardly noticed at the time.

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