The arrival of a new Geoff Dyer book is an occasion for which I drop everything. He’s known for the variety of his work — he’s written about jazz, photography, World War I, an aircraft carrier, Venice, and film — and for never really letting on when he’s taking liberties (some of his books are purely fiction and some are purely non-fiction, but many of them live somewhere in the middle.) His agility at handling diverse subject matter is masterful, and the appeal of his work — to me — is being in the company of Geoff Dyer. Whether he’s touring an aircraft carrier, imagining a mid-century jazz club in New York, or having a boring time in Tahiti, he’s witty, insightful, casually brilliant, and frequently profound.
White Sands is a collection of travel writing, in which Dyer visits the Forbidden City in Beijing, the Lightning Field in New Mexico, the Watts Towers in Los Angeles, the northern lights in Svalbard, the Spiral Jetty in Utah, a philosopher’s house, and Tahiti. We recently spoke on the phone about the shifting meaning of a place, how expectations affect travel, and, perhaps inevitably, D.H. Lawrence.
The Millions: How would you describe the common theme of the pieces in this book?
Geoff Dyer: I think there are several ongoing concerns. The way that disappointment gives way to its opposite, perhaps. The way that places have some kind of almost special energy to them. And I guess the relationship between places that don’t change, that have stayed the same for a while, and the stuff that’s sort of changing in and around them — and what that tends to be is the people, the various human dramas that are enacted within certain spaces or arenas.
TM: Your earlier book, Yoga For People Who Can’t Be Bothered To Do It, was also a travel memoir, but a self-deprecating one, in which you frequently highlight that you’re not a model tourist. In this book you seem to be more focused on the sites you’re visiting. Do you think you have loftier expectations for travel than you used to?
GD: I’m glad I’m capable of disappointment because that shows I still have high hopes for the world. This book recalls a whole load of excited, optimistic feelings about going to places. I’ve always found certain aspects of traveling a bit of a bore, as everybody does. But I would hope that in both books that it’s not just me moaning and groaning and being disappointed. I would hope that in different ways nearly every pieces in this new book ends with me affirming that I’m glad I came, even if the thing that made the trip worthwhile isn’t necessarily the thing I went thinking was going to be great. That’s why the Gauguin piece goes first [“Where? What? Where?”, in which Dyer visits Tahiti, a place that inspired Gauguin, and is unimpressed]. It really was a worthwhile trip even though Gauguin-wise it really didn’t deliver at all.
TM: Do you think there’s a different kind of value in visiting a place and not having the feeling you’re supposed to feel?
GD: What I do feel absolutely is that you can’t fake it. You go to a place and you either have the great experience or you don’t. And I’ve been to a number of places where it just didn’t happen for me, and it’s very difficult to write convincingly about the experience of a place if you really haven’t had it.
I guess the single most disappointing place was Svalbard, where we were hoping to see the Northern Lights, and that just doesn’t happen [“Northern Dark”]. That’s probably the most purely comic piece. So that would be a piece where the only redeeming quality the trip had was that it generated a piece of writing.
TM: Both Yoga and White Sands explore both sides of travel — some experiences are transcendent, others deeply unsatisfying. What do you think the tipping point is? What is it that can make or break an experience like that. Is it completely unpredictable?
GD: Stonehenge is a place that seems so great, but the reality of it has been so consistently disappointing for so many people, compared with the great scenes that happen there in Tess of the D’Urbervilles, for example, or the painting by Turner. That’s partly the fault of the English tourism board, the way they’ve built a road sort of right next to it, and have done everything they can to shrink the place, dilute it of the great primal power it should have. So some places have a lengthy history of disappointment, other times it can be subjective. But I think that’s one of the interesting things about the best travel writing — it’s that intersection of the sensibility of the person with the place. You get it over and over again in Lawrence, who’s such a big figure for me. Sometimes Lawrence is offering you an account of a place and it almost seems to have no objective value as an assessment of that place, it’s so obviously a projection of whatever Lawrence has going on in his head at the time. Other times he seems to just really intuit something that is going on there in the place, in the landscape, like the amazing essay called “A Letter from Germany” from the early 1920s. You can feel he gets this premonition, this feeling, of what would be the eventual rise of Nazism. He just feels it, not through any political observation at the time, just through something like the trembling of the leaves of the black forest. The key is the relationship between an entirely unreliable subjective response, a response which might actually be a projection, and something which is more susceptible to what the place has actually got going on — I think that’s the fertile area, that meeting between a sensibility and a place.
TM: A lot of the places you visit in this book have been built in the last 100 years. Do you think places like that are more likely to produce a spontaneous response because they don’t have as many centuries as connotation attached to them?
GD: I guess the ultimate example of that would be Venice. Mary McCarthy famously said of Venice, “It’s impossible to say anything about Venice that’s not been said before…including this remark.” Venice is so steeped in its own history. You don’t just see the place, you see it through the accretion of various layers of response to it, but then that also gives you something to write about. You can talk about how the image of Venice is mediated. I wouldn’t say that I’d come down on either the utterly familiar or utterly unfamiliar side of things, it’s just that individuals respond to certain places powerfully, others not, but I don’t feel it’s determined by how well known they are.
TM: Whereas when you visited Gauguin’s Tahiti, it seems like it had lost layers, it was a less interesting and magical place than it had been for him.
GD: At various stages of their development, place acquire and lose a kind of magic. Of course it would have been great to be with Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda on the French riviera back in the day, but now it’s been finished, I can’t imagine having a great experience there. Places are subject to history, they can lose their power.
TM: As a writer, your life’s work has been creative, but I can’t go visit it. Do you think that’s part of what attracts you to these singular, physical works?
GD: Not really. I just like the idea of site-specific art, of going to a place and having an experience that is unique to a certain place, as opposed to works of art that you can see in various museums around the world.
I think it certainly interests me about places when people have these designs for it be one thing and then it becomes another, and I’m particularly interested in places that fall into ruin and how it is that they maintain or acquire a different charge than the one they originally had, the way that, for example, a Christian church when it falls into ruin seems to have its air of detachment extended in some ways.
TM: That reminds me of what you wrote about the Watts Towers in “The Ballad of Jimmy Garrison,” that their “capacity to create legends about themselves was self-generating and inexhaustible.”
GD: Right. I think in that particular case I was referring to [the Towers’] status as not being quite respectable art pieces, and there’s so much potentially unreliable information on them. I think it’s because they weren’t properly catalogued and studied in a way that serous art pieces were, they were so ripe for myths to grow up around them. But they certainly lend themselves very well to all sorts of large readings. I guess they’re emblematic in another way that we’re not quite sure how to read them. For me it’s always been an important that part of the fun of my books is that there’s some uncertainty as to what they are and how they are to be read, because what exactly are they? What kind of books are they?
1. Two Guys Walk Into a Bar
We agreed to meet in a dive called the Motor City Bar, a couple of Detroit guys drawn together by a rare chance to watch our hometown Tigers play in the World Series. The bar is located, oddly enough, on New York City’s Lower East Side, 650 miles from Detroit but just a few blocks from where we now live. Beer and baseball were merely an excuse for getting together. The real reason Mark Binelli and I met in the Motor City Bar was to talk about his terrific new book about our hometown, Detroit City Is the Place to Be: The Afterlife of an American Metropolis.
The book is a long-overdue and hugely welcome corrective to the one-dimensional narrative of urban decay that has been spewing out of Detroit roughly since 1970, the year Binelli, the son of Italian immigrants, was born. My family had moved away from Detroit a year earlier, after I’d spent the first 17 years of my life there. In other words, Binelli and I are a generation apart and we experienced the two very different sides of the Detroit coin: I was lucky to surf the glory years of Mustangs and Motown and the MC5, while Binelli rode the relentless downward spiral of layoffs, factory shutdowns, declining population and rising crime, and the wholesale transfer of blue-collar jobs to non-union southern states and to worker-unfriendly countries like Mexico and China.
“For people of my generation and younger,” Binelli, 42, writes, “growing up in the Detroit area meant growing up with a constant reminder of the best having ended a long time ago. We held no other concept of Detroit but as a shell of its former self. Our parents could mourn what it used to be and tell us stories about the wonderful downtown department stores and the heyday of Motown and muscle cars. But for us, those stories existed as pure fable.”
Despite this divide, it turns out that Binelli and I have much in common. His book grew out of an assignment for Rolling Stone magazine, which sent him home in early 2009 to cover the American International Auto Show and, more broadly, Detroit’s teetering auto industry. The omens at the time were dire: Binelli arrived the week of Barack Obama’s inauguration, as the world was plunging into a vicious recession; Michigan’s unemployment was above 15 percent; the former mayor of Detroit was in jail after resigning over a sex and corruption scandal; and the leaders of Chrysler and General Motors, two of the domestic auto industry’s so-called Big Three, had just returned from Washington, where they’d gotten down on their knees and begged for a federal bailout.
After finishing the magazine assignment, Binelli decided to stay in town and keep digging. For the next two and half years he lived near the Eastern Market, where, as a teenager, he had made deliveries for his father’s knife-sharpening business. (Binelli’s only novel, Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die!, stars a pair Italian slapstick comedians who specialize in throwing very sharp knives and very messy pies at one another.) Binelli talked to everyone he met – businessmen who had moved their operations from the suburbs into vacant downtown buildings; creative young people who had recently arrived, eager to take advantage of cheap rents and the city’s anything-goes atmosphere; natives who had fled, attended top colleges, then come home to try to make a difference; urban farmers and gardeners; the students and staff at a successful magnet school for pregnant teenagers and young mothers; plus a colorful gallery of firefighters, autoworkers, artists, metal scrappers, vigilantes, entrepreneurs, bloggers, and activists.
The deeper he went into the story, the more convinced he became that the negative old narrative had played itself out. In its place was emerging a new sense of purpose and possibility. “It didn’t make rational sense, I knew, but I found myself edging over to the side of the optimists,” Binelli writes. “I couldn’t say why; it happened gradually, on the level of anecdote: I caught myself noticing and relishing slight indicators that in aggregate (or perhaps viewed through lenses with the proper tinting) couldn’t help but make you feel Detroit’s luck, despite such unimaginable obstacles, might still turn.”
2. “The Messiah Is Us.”
As our first beers arrived and the World Series game began, I told Binelli that I’d had a weirdly parallel experience. In January of this year, just as Binelli was wrapping up the research for his book, I got an assignment to write a series of articles for Popular Mechanics magazine, positing that Detroit’s future is actually beginning to look intriguing and surprisingly bright.
I hadn’t been back to Detroit in more than a decade, so my editor laid out the encouraging signposts for me. There is strong support to build a second bridge linking Detroit and Windsor, Ontario, the busiest international trade crossing in North America, which is now serviced by an ancient bridge owned by a miserly billionaire who pockets all the toll money. There is a growing entrepreneurial class, high-tech businesses are flocking to downtown, and the city’s vast open spaces are already being turned into farms and gardens, wild forests and bike paths. My editor, who had visited Detroit numerous times in the past year, promised me that the city is well on its way to becoming an urban environment unlike anything anywhere else in the world.
I arrived in time for the 2012 Auto Show, sweating bullets of dread. What would I do if my reporting led me to the conclusion that the rosy story I’d been assigned to write was nothing but a pipe dream? Like Binelli, I knew that Detroit has stubborn, seemingly insurmountable, problems, including high rates of crime, unemployment, and illiteracy, a school system hobbled by years of corrupt and inept management, and a city government so financially strapped that basic services are spotty at best, and sometimes non-existent. For good measure, there are as many as 50,000 stray dogs roaming the streets and empty spaces.
To my enormous relief, there was more to see than the well documented blight. I ran into the same energy and determination Binelli had encountered, and before long I, too, found myself edging over to the side of the optimists. It certainly helped that the local auto industry, with a boost from a federal bailout, had not only survived but was suddenly, almost miraculously, turning record profits. But what truly amazed me was that Detroiters shrugged at the news of those profits, and the news that Chrysler was adding a shift and hiring more workers at its humming East Jefferson plant. This was my epiphany. This told me that Detroiters had stopped waiting for salvation from above – a new auto factory, a new government program, a new housing development – because they were too busy saving themselves down at street level.
This do-it-yourself ethos was beautifully expressed to me by Jack Kushigian, a native Detroiter who grew up working in his family’s machine shop, then went off to San Francisco after college to work as a computer software engineer. Like the members of the reverse diaspora Binelli had encountered, Kushigian came back home to try to make a difference. I met him in the woodworking shop he’d set up in a church basement on the city’s hard-hit East Side, where he was teaching neighborhood people how to make furniture out of wood harvested from abandoned buildings, a virtually limitless source of raw materials. “Detroit for years, during its decline, has been hoping for a Messiah,” Kushigian told me. “Detroit has finally given up on that. A lot of people in Detroit have a fire burning inside them that I don’t see anywhere else. My feeling is that the Messiah is us.”
3. America’s Mecca
After ordering a second round of beers and noting that the Tigers had fallen behind the San Francisco Giants by two runs, I said to Binelli, “I think the thing I hate most about the way people perceive Detroit is ruin porn – you know, all those books full pictures of gorgeous abandoned buildings and open prairie.”
“Yeah,” Binelli said, “people from Detroit get so inured to it. It’s like a New Yorker walking past the Empire State Building and not bothering to look up. I used to think ruin porn in Detroit was voyeuristic and creepy. But it’s not necessarily invalid because, let’s face it, that’s the way the city looks.”
The remark says a lot. While I reject ruin porn out of hand, Binelli has the subtlety to dislike it but admit it has its place in the narrative. “Why not embrace the mystique?” he went on. “Tourists come to see those ruins. They’re a legitimate part of the history of American industry. They’re like our Acropolis.”
When Binelli encountered a group of German college student poking through the gutted Packard plant, he asked what had inspired them to vacation in Detroit. One gleefully replied, “I came to see the end of the world!”
A more nuanced reading was offered by a Dutch photographer named Corine Vermeulen, who came to Detroit in 2001 to study at nearby Cranbrook Academy of Art, then stayed on to document the opposite of ruin porn: urban beekeepers and farmers, lowrider car nuts, storefront mosques, and the artwork of the late Detroiter Mike Kelley. “I feel like Detroit is the most important city in the U.S., maybe in the world,” Vermeulen told Binelli. “It’s the birthplace of modernity and the graveyard of modernity…. Detroit in the present moment is a very good vehicle for the imagination.”
Vermeulen’s favorite movie is Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, which is set in a very Detroit-esque post-industrial netherworld called “the Zone,” a desolate, forbidding place where it’s possible for intrepid visitors to have their deepest desires fulfilled. Vermeulen offered to show Binelli one of Detroit’s “Zones,” and off they went to a 189-acre prairie on the East Side officially known as “the I-94 Industrial Project,” a federally designated tax-free “Renaissance zone,” where all the buildings got torn down and the only things that got reborn were grass, wildflowers and a single factory. Vermeulen and Binelli climbed a hill to survey this vast savannah. “From up here,” he writes, “it was difficult to believe we were minutes from the downtown of a major American city.”
In a footnote he adds:
Corine had never heard of Geoff Dyer, but in his collection Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It, he makes the same connection, sprinkling his account of a trip to the first Detroit Electronic Music Festival with references to Stalker and the Zone.
(My footnote to Binelli’s footnote: Geoff Dyer has since published an entire book about Stalker called Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room, which we wrote about earlier this year.)
Binelli’s footnotes are among his book’s great pleasures. He knows Detroit’s history cold, but he also understands its lore, which may be even more vital to his project’s success. Here is his footnote on the source of an early Detroit nickname:
See, for example, Newsreel LIX, of John Dos Passos’s The Big Money: “the stranger first coming to Detroit if he is interested in the busy, economic side of modern life will find a marvelous industrial beehive…DETROIT THE CITY WHERE LIFE IS WORTH LIVING.”
To commemorate the roll-out of Ford’s Model A in 1927, the modernist photographer and painter Charles Sheeler was hired to photograph Ford’s mammoth River Rouge complex. After noting that Sheeler shot the plant the way an 18th-century painter might have depicted the interior of a cathedral, Binelli added this footnote:
The most famous shot in Sheeler’s series, Criss-Crossed Conveyors, invokes neither grit nor noise but instead an almost tabernacular grace. The smokestacks in the background look like the pipes of a massive church organ, the titular conveyor belts forming the shape of what is unmistakably a giant cross. The photograph was originally published in a 1928 issue of Vanity Fair, where the caption read: “In a landscape where size, quantity and speed are the cardinal virtues, it is natural that the largest factory, turning out the most cars in the least time, should come to have the quality of America’s Mecca.”
That word tabernacular is absolutely perfect.
After explaining that Edsel Ford paid Diego Rivera $20,000 to paint the famous Detroit Industry murals in the Detroit Institute of Arts, Binelli notes that Rivera’s wife, Frida Kahlo, managed to get in a dig on Edsel’s father, cranky old, anti-Semitic Henry. Here’s the footnote:
At a dinner party, Kahlo mischievously asked Ford if he was Jewish.
4. Eminem and Clint
The Tigers, meanwhile, were stringing together so many zeroes that the scoreboard was starting to look like a rosary. Naturally I started seeking a scapegoat and decided I wanted the head of the Tigers’ hitting coach on a platter. That’s another difference between Binelli and me. He doesn’t look for scapegoats.
Instead, he rejects the conventional reasons for Detroit’s decline: greedy labor unions, the 1967 riot (or “uprising,” as many black Detroiters still call it), the white flight it supposedly inspired, and the first black mayor it supposedly helped elect, fiery, divisive, foul-mouthed Coleman Young. As Young put it in his memoir, he was able to take over the city administration in 1974 because “the white people don’t want the damn thing anymore.” If Binelli sees a scapegoat, it’s the provincial Midwestern burghers who ran the American auto industry into the ground, cloistered in their enclaves in Grosse Pointe and Bloomfield Hills, oblivious to foreign competition, playing golf while Detroit burned – “the preposterously overpaid executives, with their maddening, sclerotic passivity in the face of their industry’s demise.”
To his credit, Binelli points out that Detroit’s decline was a long time in the making, and racial tension was not something that arrived in the 1960s. Since its founding in 1701, the city has always been a racial and ethnic stew, spicy and violent. There was a nasty race riot in 1863, another in 1943 that left 34 Detroiters dead. The city’s population peaked in 1952 at about 2 million and has been falling ever since, sometimes gradually, sometimes precipitously. Today it’s around 700,000, or about one-third of what it was at its peak, and it’s 85 percent black. So the 1967 riot didn’t scare off the white people, it merely accelerated an established trend. The auto industry and “urban planners” finished the job, with their ever-bigger cars, their ever-bigger highways, and their zoning laws and red-lining that encouraged suburban sprawl while keeping black people safely sequestered below 8 Mile Road. Oh, and let’s not forget the Big Three’s willingness to “outsource” jobs, final proof that corporations are not people, they’re machines driven by the profit motive and very little else. Certainly not by loyalty to local workers when it’s possible to pay somebody in Alabama or Mexico far less to do the same job.
The Motor City once had mass transit – until automotive interests realized that people who ride trolleys don’t drive cars or ride buses. While covering that Auto Show in 2009, Binelli took a ride on what passes for mass transit in Detroit today – “the People Mover, an elevated tram that runs through downtown Detroit in a three-mile, one-way loop. The city used to have an extensive trolley system, but it was purchased by National City Lines, a front company formed by GM, Firestone, Standard Oil and other automobile interests, after which the trolley tracks were ripped up and replaced with buses. The People Mover began running in 1987 and seems, in its utter uselessness, as if it might have been built by another secret auto industry cabal, as a way of mocking the very idea of public transportation.”
Such observations show that Binelli, like all accomplished journalists, is equally skeptical of breathless hype and received wisdom, and he can also be very funny. As the TV camera panned across the packed stands in Comerica Park in downtown Detroit, which opened in 2000, Binelli and I had to admit that though we miss long-gone Tiger Stadium we’ve both developed a grudging admiration for the new park. But his book makes clear that Binelli doesn’t buy into the facile media fantasy that sports are an accurate barometer and metaphor for a city’s fortunes, such as this serving of horseshit from a CNN columnist: “History has shown that when the city’s sports teams start doing well, it’s a sign of healing in Detroit.” When I mentioned that line from the book, Binelli laughed and said, “It’d be nice if it was true. But it’s not.” And he rightly lumps Comerica Park and neighboring Ford Field, home of the NFL’s Lions, with the dozens of shiny new stadiums littering the land, calling them “state-subsidized giveaways to corporations in exchange for their willingness to locate in the city.”
Yet there’s no denying that cars and sports are still central to the lives of most Detroiters. Nowhere was the convergence – and the narrative power – of these passions more revealing than in the recent Chrysler ads starring Eminem and Clint Eastwood.
“It’s funny how much people loved those Super Bowl ads,” Binelli said. “I think it’s because Americans want Detroit to succeed. It’s like we need the idea of our worst place coming back. If Detroit can turn it around, then Stockton can too, and Las Vegas, and all those cities in Florida that got hammered by the recession. Now outsiders want to cheer Detroit on.” What those Chrysler ads were pitching, he wrote, “had far less to do with cars than an elemental, nearly lost sense of American optimism.”
My elemental American optimism got snuffed for the night when I watched the final Tiger batter strike out swinging, a fitting exclamation point to a limp 2-0 loss. A loss the next night would complete a dispiriting four-game sweep by the Giants.
But as Mark Binelli and I finished one last round and said our goodnights, I wasn’t thinking about baseball. I was remembering his remark in the book that he’d been drawn back to Detroit by the chance to influence the story of the century. “It might very well turn out to be the story of the last century, the death rattle of the twentieth-century definition of the American Dream,” he wrote. “But there could also be another story emerging, the story of the first great post-industrial city of our new century. Who knows?”
Nobody knows – yet. But based on what I’ve seen with my own eyes and what Mark Binelli and other perceptive observers have written, my money’s on the second horse. The longshot. The spavined one that’s coming from the back of the pack, coming on strong, and showing signs that she just might emerge as the world’s first great post-industrial city.
Image credit: Daily Invention/Flickr
It’s slightly embarrassing to have to admit that the best book you read all year was Anna Karenina. It’s a bit like saying that you’ve been listening to an album called Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club by these Beatles kids out of Liverpool and that, yes, you can confidently reveal that they were definitely onto something. At the risk of redundancy, Anna Karenina (which I finally got around to reading this year) is pretty much the Platonic ideal of the great novel. The most astounding thing about it for me is Tolstoy’s seemingly infinite compassion for his characters. It’s almost inhuman how fully present he makes these people. Reading it, I kept thinking of that much-quoted bit of Stephen Dedalus bluster about how “the artist, like the God of creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.” There is something god-like about the simultaneous breadth and intensity of Tolstoy’s vision here, but there’s nothing remote or indifferent about it. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book where so many characters are portrayed with such clarity and empathy. He didn’t seem to create characters for instrumental reasons; no one is there just to bring the plot forward or to create a situation for someone more central than themselves. If he introduces a character, he also makes you see the world from their point of view (even Levin’s dog Laska has her moment in the free indirect narrative spotlight). His compassion and clarity are such that I often found myself thinking that if God existed and had sat down to write a novel, this is what it would look like. So yes, this Lev Tolstoy kid out of Yasnaya Polyana is definitely one to watch. You heard it here first.
As for less canonically enshrined books, I read two very powerful works of fiction in 2011 dealing with the theme of suicide. The first was David Vann’s Legend of a Suicide, a collection of linked stories and a novella. Here, Vann approaches the central biographical fact of his own father’s suicide from a range of fictional starting points. The novella, “Sukkwan Island,” is one of the most harrowing and moving pieces of fiction I’ve read in a very long time. In it, Vann inverts the reality of his father’s death, staging a hostile takeover of fact on behalf of fiction. It’s a really extraordinary piece of writing, and it takes the reader to a harsh and terrifying place. If you want to remind yourself of how literature can be a matter of life and death, this is a book you need to read.
Edouard Levé’s novel Suicide, which I wrote about for The Millions back in July, also really shook me up. As I mentioned in that piece, it’s nearly impossible to separate a reading of this book from the knowledge that Levé took his own life within a few days of having completed it. But on its own terms, its a bleak and beautiful exploration of self-alienation, marked by a sustained mood of quiet despair. The fact that it is written entirely in the second person — the subject of the narrative, with whose suicide the novel opens, is only ever referred to as “you” — forces the reader into a strangely schizoid position. Levé’s “you” addresses itself at once to the first, second, and third persons, and so the distinctions between author, protagonist, and reader become unsettlingly nebulous. Take a number of deep breaths, read it in one sitting, and go for a long walk afterwards. (As great as both Vann’s and Levé’s books are, by the way, I wouldn’t recommend reading them back-to-back in any kind of double bill.)
Along with everyone else in the world, it seems, I fell pretty hard for Geoff Dyer this year. I had a great time with Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, and I’ve since gone on an extended binge. Right now, I’m reading But Beautiful, his book about jazz, and Working the Room, his recent collection of essays and reviews. (Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It and Out of Sheer Rage are lined up and ready to go.) I’m pretty sure no author since Proust has spun so much great material out of pastries — what Dyer doesn’t see fit to tell us about cappuccinos, doughnuts, and croissants isn’t worth knowing. I’m not sure whether we actually need a Laureate of Elevenses, but if we do, this is our guy. Dyer is one of those people who could bang out a book on just about any subject and it would be more or less guaranteed to be interesting.
The same could be said for Nicholson Baker, whose House of Holes had a higher guffaw-to-page ratio than any other book I read this year. It’s ridiculously, euphorically filthy and yet strangely innocent, in a way that seems to me to be unique to Baker. But House of Holes is not really about sex, any more than The Mezzanine was about office work or Room Temperature was about child rearing. Sex provides a useful and fertile pretext for exercising what seems to me to be the animating principal of all his fiction: the absurd and fantastic possibilities of language itself. But don’t, for God’s sake, read it on public transport, or in the presence of anyone to whom you wouldn’t be willing to explain the cause of your snickering.
The novel that I really fell in love with this year, though, was Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. She writes prose as beautifully as any living writer in English, but what makes her work so special is that its beauty seems to emanate as much from a moral as an aesthetic sensibility. I read Gilead not long after I saw Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, and I was struck by the similarities between these two works of art. Both Robinson’s exquisite sentences and Malick’s stunning visual compositions are animated by a sense of wonder at the beauty, strangeness and sadness of the world. They are both religious artists, and they each confront metaphysical themes, but what comes across most strongly in both works is their creators’ amazing ability to capture and heighten the beauty of everyday things. Robison does with her sentences, in other words, what Malick does with his camera. Reading this book reminded me of something Updike once said about Nabokov — that he “writes prose the only way it should be written, that is, ecstatically.” In this passage, the dying narrator, the Rev. John Ames, recalls a simple vision of the beauty of water:
There was a young couple strolling along half a block ahead of me. The sun had come up brilliantly after a heavy rain, and the trees were glistening and very wet. On some impulse, plain exuberance, I suppose, the fellow jumped up and caught hold of a branch, and a storm of luminous water came pouring down on the two of them, and they laughed and took off running, the girl sweeping water off her hair and her dress as if she were a little bit disgusted, but she wasn’t. It was a beautiful thing to see, like something from a myth. I don’t know why I thought of that now, except perhaps because it is easy to believe in such moments that water was made primarily for blessing, and only secondarily for growing vegetables or doing the wash. I wish I had paid more attention to it. My list of regrets may seem unusual, but who can know that they are, really. This is an interesting planet. It deserves all the attention you can give it.
If you haven’t turned into James Wood by the time you reach the end of that passage, there’s no hope for you. (Go on, let it out: “How fine that is!”) It’s extremely difficult to pull off something that simple, and I can’t think of many other novelists with the skill to do it. Marilynne Robinson’s writing is like water, like the world: it’s a blessing, and it deserves all the attention you can give it.
I read some great non-fiction this year, too. John D’Agata’s book About a Mountain is a lot of things at once. It’s a journalistic account of the almost literally unthinkable effects of nuclear waste. It’s an obliquely impressionistic depiction of the city of Las Vegas. And it’s an attempt to imaginatively reconstruct the suicide of a teenager. I didn’t always like the book, and its not by any means an unqualified triumph, but I certainly admired it. It’s a reminder of the Montaignian origins of the word “essay” (which we get from the French word for “trial” or “attempt”). The essay, at its best, is an open-ended, explorative form, and D’Agata is an exciting example of what a gifted writer can do with it. I also read Between Parentheses, the collection of Roberto Bolaño’s essays, reviews and speeches published this year by New Directions. I wrote about it for the second issue of Stonecutter (a wonderfully old school paper and ink literary journal whose first issue was itself one of the highlights of my reading year) and relished every sentence. Among its numberless pleasures is this quintessentially Bolañoesque definition of great writing: “So what is top-notch writing? The same thing it’s always been: the ability to sprint along the edge of the precipice: to one side the bottomless abyss and to the other the faces you love, the smiling faces you love, and books and friends and food, and the ability to accept what you find, even though it may be heavier than the stones over the graves of all the dead writers.” Almost every book that I loved over the last year satisfied this definition in some way. As, I’m sure, will every book I love in the next.
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This year I finally read Out of Sheer Rage by Geoff Dyer, which a friend had been recommending for years as tailor-made for me. The friend was right. I also read Dyer’s Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It, which I enjoyed nearly as much, and several pieces in Otherwise Known as the Human Condition, a new collection of his work. In short, I became a big Dyer fan in 2011.
I normally devour Michael Lewis’ books as soon as they’re published, but for some reason I didn’t get around to The Big Short until it was in paperback. While you’re reading it, you feel you understand collateralized debt obligations, which is no mean trick.
John Gray’s The Immortalization Commission reads far more smoothly than its inelegant title. It recounts two movements to confront and transcend mortality — the psychic researchers of the 19th century (William James and Henri Bergson among them) and the “God-building” Bolsheviks of Russia who pursued the end of death for man, among other utopian goals. These two main sections are fairly narrow historical slices of the overlap between science and spirit in intellectual life, but Gray builds upon them to write a sweeping, impassioned conclusion that argues against the fetishizing of science’s solutions and for a humble, even inspiring acceptance of death’s finality.
Simon Reynolds’ Retromania brings a lot of intelligence and cultural breadth to bear on a thesis I only partially agree with about the stale dominance of established musical genres. I interviewed him about it here.
But two books left the deepest impression on me in the year almost past. Don Carpenter’s Hard Rain Falling was first published in 1966 and reissued in 2009 by NYRB Classics. Set in the Pacific Northwest, it’s about gambling, drinking, prison, and an unlikely but believably rendered relationship between two unlucky men. It’s a hard-boiled existentialist novel, and ultimately unlike any other I’ve read.
The other, The Correspondence of Shelby Foote and Walker Percy, follows the friendship of the two famous southern writers, who first met in their early teens. Many years of Percy’s letters weren’t saved, so the first 130 pages or so only feature Foote’s side of the conversation. He comes across as funny and spirited, but so arrogant early on — and the type who tries to hide it under jokes about arrogance, just making it worse — that you wonder how Percy withstood it. To his credit, Foote later in life reached the same conclusion. Reading over their letters, he says, “I was amazed to observe how didactic I was over the years — I don’t see how you managed the grace to put up with it all that time.” Percy is widely considered the better fiction writer, but got a much later jump than Foote, who adopted the tone of mentor throughout their correspondence. What lingers most clearly in the end is not shop talk (though there’s plenty of that) or even the evolution of a friendship (ditto), but Foote’s voice. Mostly commanding, sometimes conciliatory, his outsize enthusiasms and dictates dominate the book even after Percy’s letters start appearing. He urged Percy time and again to read Proust, Plato, Dante, and many others. (“Don’t underrate Shelley. He’s a kind of a sort of a shithead in an ideological way, but he sure as hell burned with a gemlike flame.”) He cautioned his friend to avoid seeing fiction as pamphleteering — to keep neat and orderly prescriptions out of his stories. And he talked incessantly about his own projects, including an ambitious novel called Two Gates to the City that he worked on periodically for more than 30 years, never completing.
I’m about halfway through James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom, a single volume history of the Civil War, at the moment. It’s safe to say it will also end up being one of the best things I read this year, and I’m lining up a few other books about that period in history. Foote’s massive trilogy about the war is his best-known work, and I imagine at least the first installment of it will be on my reading schedule in 2012.
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Geoff Dyer is known as a writer who likes to wander all over the map. He has traveled from his native England to Italy, Algeria, Libya, India, Cambodia, Indonesia, and the Nevada desert. Along the way he has written novels, reviews, criticism, essays, and reportage about whatever happened to interest him, which is to say just about everything. His subjects have included photography, jazz, writers and their writings, comics, haute couture, donuts, movies, and flying a MiG-29, getting fired, being an only child, living on the dole, and having sex in expensive hotels.
In the United States, Vintage has just brought out The Missing of the Somme, which was originally published in England back in 1994. On the surface the book is an examination of monuments to the millions who died in the First World War, but in essence it’s a meditation on the mechanisms and functions of memory. It has all the virtues Dyer’s fans have come to expect: it’s wildly original, richly researched, eccentric and funny and sad and brainy from beginning to end. Dyer spoke with The Millions recently by telephone from his home in London.
The Millions: Before we talk about your Somme book, let me ask you about the recent riots in London. Was your neighborhood affected?
Geoff Dyer: We were on vacation in Ibiza when it happened… We live in Notting Hill. It’s a very, very mixed neighborhood. There’s a combination of fantastically wealthy houses and all sorts of projects. A number of shop windows got smashed, a gang of forty hoodies stormed a fancy restaurant near here and were robbing everybody in the restaurant until they were fought off by the kitchen staff. So it was really nearby, and it’s possible it seemed even scarier at a distance than it might have done if we were here.
TM: I was a teenager in Detroit in 1967, when that city exploded and 43 people got killed. It was the worst riot in American history and its cause is pretty clear, at least to me: Black people were tired of being ignored by politicians and mistreated by the cops. Do you think that was the case in London too – or was it more complicated than that, more difficult to understand?
GD: There are signs of a degree of racial integration here, actually. Apart from that incident in Birmingham, where the three Asian guys were run over by a car driven by black guys, it’s been a long while since we’ve had anything in Britain that resembles a race riot. You could say this was a riot of the disenfranchised or the underclass, but certainly not a race riot. I think race here is nothing like the problem it is in the States.
TM: Let’s talk about your book. I’m curious what drove you to write a book that, on the surface at least, is about monuments to people who died in First World War. It doesn’t seem like your kind of subject. What led you to write this book?
GD: First of all, I would say I’ll give you ten dollars if you can tell me what a Geoff Dyer subject is [laughs].
TM: You got me there. That’s fair enough.
GD: I’ve written about so many different things, and there’s no telling what I’m going to write about next. In a way, this was one of the least surprising things for me to turn to, if only because the First World War occupies such a central position in the collective memory of all British people. And although it’s very much about my particular experience of the memory of it – which overlaps not only with people my age, but people of all ages – the shadow cast by the First World War is really huge. For many people in Britain, their first introduction to poetry is the anti-war poetry of Wilfred Owen.
TM: You write in the book, “The issue, in short, is not simply the way the war generates memory, but the way memory has determined – and continues to determine – the meaning of the war.” Can you describe the meaning of the war?
GD: Always in the book I’m just trying to articulate impressions of it. It’s certainly not a history book. I always have faith in this idea that if I remain honest and open about my own confusion, the blurriness of my impressions – it’s not because I’m short-witted or stupid – the chances are those feelings will be shared by other people. And I just had this very distinct sense of the First World War as being something rather buried in its own memory. There’s so much discussion, as the war is going on, about how it will be remembered, or if it will be forgotten. So right from the start it just seems preoccupied with how it will be remembered. The other crucial thing is that distinction I make with the Robert Capa pictures of D-Day, where it all seems to hang in the balance and there’s a great sense of immediacy. With the First World War there’s no immediacy to it. It comes buried in so many layers of myth and memory.
TM: Speaking of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Capa, I think of the First World War as a very literary war, much like the American Civil War. Whereas the Second World War was much more photographic.
GD: Yes, I agree.
TM: You end your book with a visit to the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme, designed by Edwin Lutyens. You call it a memorial to “the superfluousness of God” and you add that it’s “not simply a site of commemoration but of prophecy, of birth as well as of death: a memorial to the future.” This seems to touch the heart of this book. Tell me about this link between memory and prophecy, past and future, people remembering something even before it has happened.
GD: I guess in many ways you could see the First World War as the beginning of the twentieth century proper. That’s the war that breaks the continuum. It’s when the old imperial orders start to break up. It’s a convenient cut-off point for the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. Also this thing of commemoration and the memorials, in some ways there is a prophetic quality to it. Again, as I mentioned, the twentieth century was the century of disappearances on a huge scale, whether people disappear in the Holocaust, the famine in the Ukraine –
TM: The gulags.
GD: Exactly, the gulags, all of this kind of stuff. In that respect, and in its peculiarly atheistic style – which was the product of the Imperial War Graves Commission and the predisposition of Lutyens himself – the monument at Thiepval seems prophetic.
TM: Lutyens made the monument to the Missing of the Somme very religion-free, didn’t he?
GD: Yes. There were people who wanted a bit more religion in it, but I think it works very effectively. I make this contrast between the aspiring nature of, say, a cathedral and its endlessly upward-reaching quality, and the stubborn, land-locked, defiant, earth-bound kind of construction that Lutyens came up with.
TM: It’s immobile, and certainly the opposite of ethereal.
GD: Indeed, yes.
TM: To go back to the idea of memory and prophecy. In your recent collection, Otherwise Known as the Human Condition, there’s an essay about Oradour-sur-Glane, the French town where the Germans massacred the citizens during the Second World War. You write about the untouched ruins of the town: “Like all monuments, the ruins at Oradour were intended not simply to preserve the past but to address the future. To that extent they are like a bid at prophecy, an attempt to call into being. And what is called into being by these ruins is – in a final paradoxical resolution – the moment when this process of restoration is complete. Only then can they be forgotten.” Do you think, then, that forgetting the ultimate goal of remembering?
GD: Well, I can’t remember where it is, but there’s a Holocaust memorial which is designed in such a way that it’s going subside into the ground an inch or two every year. The idea being that by the time it physically disappears there will be no need for it because it will be permanently installed in everybody’s memory. The tricky thing with Oradour is that they had this nice idea of leaving everything as it was – and it’s a very intense and moving place – but time and nature have worked on it so it’s in danger of becoming too ruined. So now they’re faced with the question of should they take steps to artificially preserve it or just let it rot away?
TM: So they’re talking about sending a ruins-maintenance crew out there?
GD: Yes, exactly, there’ve been all sorts of discussions about it. This is something I’m consistently interested in – places where time has stood its ground. I like the particular charge of that. It’s something I address in my Yoga book (Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered To Do It), where I talk both about the ruins in Rome and, of course, the much more recent ruins in Detroit.
TM: And certainly the monument to the Missing of the Somme is part of that thing, of time standing its ground.
GD: Yes. When you’re there you’re so conscious that you’re coming into a place where history is manifest as geography. The temporal manifests itself in terms of the spatial. I’m always drawn to places like that, whether they’re old places that have fallen into ruins or modern places like the ones I wrote about in the New Yorker recently, the Lightning Field and the Spiral Jetty.
TM: Elsewhere in Otherwise Known as the Human Condition, you were reminiscing about your heady days of living on the dole in London back in the 1980s. You wrote, “I liked the idea of writing because that was a way of not having a career.” Now here we are, a quarter of a century has rolled by. Do you still feel that way, that writing is a way of not having a career?
GD: I suppose by now I am somewhat more conscious of it as a career. In some ways, I think I was quite lucky, looking back, that my early books had such a distinct lack of success. So I was able to write things without any sense of whether they had any commercial potential. The books were all sooooo unsuccessful, nobody had any expectations, and I was certainly under no pressure from publishers. Although that was a source of grievance to me and somewhat of a mystery – I was constantly amazed that the books were doing so badly [laughs] – I can see that was a liberation as well.
TM: The Missing of the Somme originally appeared in England in, what, 1994?
TM: Why the 17-year lag? Are American publishers just stupid? Why does it take so long for foreign books to make their way to America?
GD: In the case of this particular book, I hadn’t published anything in America at that point. I was still pretty well seething with indignation that But Beautiful, my jazz book, had not been published in America. That seemed so weird to me. And that was the fault of the British publisher, by the way. So anyway, this funny little essay on the missing of the Somme would have been a weird one to start with. Partly because, at that point, nobody knew who I was in America, and partly because the First World War was missing altogether from the bookshelves of American stores. It went straight from the American Civil War to the Spanish Civil War. Back in 2001, Vintage U.S. wanted to publish The Missing of the Somme, but I’d given away the American rights to the British publisher to distribute it in the U.S. So Vintage wanted something I no longer had. That was just awful, really. So Vintage acquired the rights, not from me, but from the British publisher, who were being such complete shits all the time, just hanging onto something that they didn’t even want. The bottom line is that it is out in America now, and I’m really glad it is even though it’s fifteen, sixteen years late. But I’m still around to enjoy it.
TM: That brings us, finally, to your new gig, writing for The New York Times Book Review. We started off talking about the fact that there’s no such thing as a typical Geoff Dyer subject. But I must tell you, it seems to me like a strange marriage – that guy with the bong on the roof, living on the dole in London, now he’s writing for the Gray Lady. What happened, did they make you an offer you couldn’t refuse?
GD: To jump from the bong on the roof to now, that’s quite a fast-forward! The bong on the roof was me in my late twenties – and when you talk about the Gray Lady, well, I’m this gray-haired, middle-aged guy now. It would be awful if I was still under the delusion that I was in my late twenties. This seems quite an appropriate gig.
TM: How often will your column appear in the Times?
GD: For a while I did a weekly column for The Guardian, and the awful thing about a weekly column is that it seems to come around daily. This will be a monthly column, which for me is already starting to feel like it’s coming around weekly.
TM: What are you working on now? Do you have a new book in the works?
GD: I have a book coming out in January or February. It’s a very detailed study of Andrei Tarkovsky’s film, Stalker, which is the film that I’ve seen more than any other. It has really stayed with me for the thirty years since I first saw it. This book is an unbelievably detailed study of that film.
TM: Will it be coming out in the States too?
GD: Yes. I think at this point the subject of the books is less important in determining their fate than the fact that they’re by me. Let’s say early on, a publisher sees me as an unknown guy writing about the First World War, sort of an unattractive subject. But now we’ve got this guy who’s a bit better known in the States, who’s writing about a subject that’s not as appealing as, I don’t know, the rise of the Tea Party – but hopefully people will buy it because it’s by me, irrespective of the fact that they’ve not seen the film, or perhaps not even heard of it.
TM: Are you going to go back to writing fiction anytime soon?
GD: I wouldn’t rule it out, but I certainly feel that ultimately I’ll have a longer life as an essayist than I would as a fiction writer, even though the distinction means nothing to me. But I’m a rather limited kind of fiction writer, whereas there will be plenty of things I’ll want to continue to write about in the realm of the essay, or as a critic, or whatever.
TM: Best of luck with The Missing of the Somme in the States.
GD: Well, thank you. Been nice talking to you.
Image credit: Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme via WW1 Battlefields
Back in January I briefly made mention of something called the WHSmith Award. It’s a British award that is determined by public opinion. People vote from a list of nominated finalists to determine the best book of the year. After 148,000 votes cast, they have announced the winners in eight categories, including the latest Harry Potter in the fiction category, Brick Lane by Monica Ali for best debut novel, Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It by Geoff Dyer for travel books, and Michael Moore’s Dude, Where’s My Country?, in something called the “factual” category. So as not turn over complete control to the masses, the also give out an award called the “Judges’ Choice,” which was awarded to the American writer, Richard Powers for his dense critical favorite, The Time of Our Singing. As I said when I first found out about this award, I would be very interested to see the results of an American award determined by popular vote. A lot more Americans read than people think, so an astute businessperson could, in my opinion, do quite well creating an award like this to fill the void. Here are the complete results of the 2004 WHSmith Awards.