No Time for Boredom: Geoff Dyer Goes to Sea

The titles have always been inspired. Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D. H. Lawrence; Otherwise Known as the Human Condition: Selected Essays and Reviews; But Beautiful: A Book About Jazz; and many others, including the classic Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi and the travelogue Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It, which contains the immortal line “I wished I’d been doing yoga for years — in fact I’d been wishing I’d been doing yoga for years for years — but I was incapable of starting.” If that sentence rubs you the right way, you may be in danger of becoming a devotee of Dyer (if not necessarily of yoga). In which case, good luck to you and yours. It’s a hell of a ride.

Now comes the auspiciously titled Another Great Day at Sea: Life Aboard the USS George H. W. Bush, concerning two weeks Dyer spent as “writer-in-residence” aboard an American aircraft carrier in the Arabian Gulf. Sound more or less insane?  To us, too, which is why we decided to ask him why and how. In keeping with the book’s nautical theme, the interview took place at NYC’s Maritime Hotel, though on that particular rainy morning it seemed more submarine than aircraft carrier…
Daniel Asa Rose
The Barnes & Noble Review: Given your childhood love of “making and botchily painting Airfix models” of WWII aircraft, the concept of planting you on an American carrier makes a modicum of sense. Still, your usual turf is art, letters, your inner neuroses, sex. So whose mad idea was this?

Geoff Dyer: I was offered the chance of being writer-in-residence somewhere interesting by Alain de Botton. The choice of a carrier was mine.

BNR: Still, you must admit it’s a bit counterintuitive, rather like assigning Oscar Wilde to a convention of tax accountants in Kansas City.

 GD: To me it seemed entirely natural, as do any desires in one’s life, however perverse they may appear to other people.

BNR: You write that you were “encountering an America [you] had not come across before, an aquatic version of the Midwest and the bible-belt South.” Were you surprised by how much you seemed to enjoy them?

GD: I’ve always liked Americans, even when they’re nuts or zealots or not of my political persuasion. There is that lovely democratic manner that stands in such contrast to the English equivalent with its class system: The Royal Navy. Merely saying that first word sets the teeth on edge, doesn’t it? Besides, there’s something extremely admirable about these folks.

BNR: Still, you insisted pretty hard that you had to have your own bedroom —

GD: Which was an absolute essential. It would have been intolerable without my own room. Though in the manner of all intolerable things, if I’d had to I would have tolerated it.

BNR: Ah, there it is now! Your “capacity for energetic self-contradiction.” I’ve never read anyone with such an unlikely gift. What’s that all about?

GD: I guess it’s the human-all-too-human thing. Nietzsche, by the way, has never got the credit he deserves for being a wit and joker. He said he wouldn’t mind being regarded as a buffoon. An excellent outlook.

BNR: In an earlier book, you go on an absolute tear against academic writing. For five pages you rant beautifully — yet at the end you disavow it completely: “I withdraw it unconditionally, but I also want to let it stand, conditionally.” What kind of (non)argumentation is this?

GD: I do it for comic effect, quite largely. To be funny, to come off it a little bit. If I can spot an opportunity for a gag I’ll always go for it

BNR: Yet I could see where it might drive some people round the bend. Are you ever glad you don’t have to be married to yourself?  How long do you think you could stand being your own wife?

GD: Oh, you need have no concerns in that department. Being married to me means my wife is in a state of permanent and unconditional bliss.

BNR: When you read other witty writers, how tolerant are you?  I guess what I’m asking, specifically, is where do you think the line falls between clever and glib? The difference being, I suppose, that clever sticks to your ribs a nanosecond longer.

GD: I get tired rather quickly of witty writers like Gore Vidal. I like uproariously funny writers like Thomas Bernhard. He’s absolutely hilarious. One of the funniest passages I’ve read in years is in The Forever War, when Dexter Filkins comes across the head of a suicide bomber in Baghdad. By contrast, I should add that it is a point of honor for me never to refer to “the Coen brothers,” only to “the witless Coen  brothers.” To anyone who has a highly developed sense of humor they are the pits, those two.

BNR: Wow. I’d better not ask if you’re ever guilty of being glib, yourself.

GD: I’m in the fortunate position of being both a profound and very funny writer.

BNR: All part of your self-denigrating charm….

GD: Indeed!

NR: Speaking of self-denigrating, you’ve always been pretty hard on your physical appearance. Here you describe yourself as “a feeble streak of unshouldered manhood whose only saving grace is that he doesn’t take up too much space.” Are you ever going to make peace with that? You’re a great-lookin’ guy, even if you’re not Charles Atlas….

GD: Wow, you really are a flirt!

BNR: It was an intensely “straight” atmosphere on board the USS George H. W. Bush, yet I still managed to get my habitual contact high from reading you. Presumably there were no drugs allowed….

GD: No, of course not. Nor any alcohol. Just belief in their cause — a famously effective intoxicant.   

BNR: Apropos of nothing, I sometimes get the feeling you wish you were more ill-tempered than you are. In your D. H. Lawrence book, you seem to envy him his rage.

GD: No, not at all. I have learned largely to suppress the expression of my rage — i.e., resist the urge to smash my head against a wall — but I’d like to move to the next phase, of not feeling rage in the first place. It’s so exhausting.

BNR: Such is the fever your prose engenders that one finds oneself nodding in agreement over such hopeless over-generalizations as “Life is really no more than a search for a hot drink one likes.” How do you get away with it?

GD: By being absolutely faithful to the contingencies of my own experience and the vagaries of my nature.

BNR: In your books you’re often diverted by a pretty woman, but not so much in this case. Did you miss that?

GD: It wasn’t the most romance-conducive environment. But, as you say, there’s plenty of that in the other books.

BNR: Given the “monotony of life at sea” and that “much of what happens on a carrier is dedicated to…making sure that nothing happens,” coupled with the customary “extreme courtesy, consideration and politeness of everyone onboard,” how much longer could you have stood it?    

GD: First I want to say that I wasn’t bored for a minute. I had so much to do! But I got what I wanted or needed from this book in two weeks. If I had stayed longer I could have delved into the “dark side” — looking into the “gangs” of different factions or maybe discovering a hotbed of crushes. But two weeks was perfect for my purposes.

BNR: I’ve always thought you planted the secret to your success in a line buried deep in the entrails of Jeff in Venice: “it’s possible to be a hundred per cent sincere and a hundred per cent ironic at the same time.” That spirit served you well in this milieu.

GD: Yes, that’s a key line.  And I believe it absolutely.

BNR: Yet by the end you seem to have become more earnest than you expected. “I just wanted to stand there and sob,” you say, before actually praying for them. Did you ever see that coming?     

GD:  I don’t think that’s being earnest. Nietzsche is absolutely right when he says that earnestness is a sure sign of a slow mind. But I was sincere in saying that. I’d hate it if being witty somehow cauterized the ability to feel things deeply or inhibited the appropriate expression of such feelings. Earnestness, for me, is never appropriate.

BNR: In your conclusion, you say it was “one of the great experiences of my life.” Now that you’re home, would you have any of your shipmates over for tea?

GD: Some of them I’d see whenever, wherever! But ideally not for tea; dinner and drinks would be better.