Geoff Dyer Introduction - Essay

Introduction

Geoff Dyer 1958-

English novelist, nonfiction writer, biographer, and essayist.

The following entry presents an overview of Dyer's career through 2000.

A self-styled novelist and author of diverse nonfiction works on subjects including jazz, World War I, and British writer John Berger, Dyer is known for his unconventional subjective approach and impressionistic, often highly expressive prose. While his novels The Colour of Memory (1989) and Paris Trance (1998) focus on the dissolute, transient lives and friendships of young Britons, Out of Sheer Rage (1998) is a mixture of memoir, travelogue, and criticism that relates Dyer's failed attempt to write a scholarly study of D. H. Lawrence. Dyer has evinced an interest in the process of artistic creation and authorial self-reflexivity that, despite his disdain for the vacuity of contemporary literary theory, lends much of his writing a postmodern quality.

Biographical Information

Born in Cheltenham, England, to working-class parents, Dyer received a scholarship to attend Corpus Christi College, Oxford, where he received a B.A. with honors in 1980. But Beautiful (1991), a book that explores Dyer's passion for jazz music, won the Somerset Maugham Prize in 1992 and was short-listed for the John Llewellyn Rhys Memorial Prize. Out of Sheer Rage was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award in literary criticism in 1998. Dyer is a regular contributor to various periodicals, including New Statesman and New Society.

Major Works

Dyer's first published book, Ways of Telling (1986), is a critical study of John Berger, the English art critic and Booker prize-winning novelist who served as Dyer's model and mentor. Arguing that Berger is among the most important British intellectuals of the mid-twentieth century, Dyer laments that Berger's work has not received the scholarly appreciation that he believes it deserves. Dyer's homage to Berger, an iconoclastic stylist with Marxist convictions, also reflects Dyer's own affinity for literary experimentation and rejection of traditional narrative conventions. Dyer's first novel, The Colour of Memory, describes the aimless lives of a group of young people in Brixton—a depressed, crime-ridden area of South London. The text consists primarily of plotless scenes in which the close-knit friends, including a painter, an aspiring novelist, and other bohemian twenty-somethings, attend parties, drink beer, and expound on art and literature. The Search (1993), a novel influenced by Italian novelist Italo Calvino, is a mix of genres—a philosophical detective thriller crossed with medieval romance, specifically borrowing elements from the legend of the Holy Grail. The novel is laden with arresting images and makes the suggestion that people can only know one another through their physical reflections. Paris Trance surveys a year in the lives of four people: two young Englishmen, Luke and Alex, and their respective girlfriends, Nicole, a Serb, and Sahra, a North African. Their year of hedonism—including excessive drug use, visits to nightclubs, and sexual adventures—leads to a conventional life for three of them. Alex and Sahra marry and have a child, while Nicole remains in Paris as a single mother. Only the anti-hero Luke, who originally goes to Paris to write a novel, is unable to settle down. But Beautiful consists of a series of vignettes about various jazz musicians, including Chet Baker, Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk, Art Pepper, Bud Powell, Ben Webster, and Lester Young. Dyer argues that the hardships of their respective personal circumstances—poverty, drug and alcohol addiction, and racism—are inseparable from the music they produced. In The Missing of the Somme (1994), Dyer considers the lingering cultural legacy of World War I in the British national consciousness. As Dyer notes, ten percent of all English males under the age of forty-five died on the Western Front between 1914 and 1918. This unprecedented loss continues to be commemorated in diverse ways, from ceremonies on Remembrance Day, to stone monuments, to nonfiction accounts of the war. Dyer's descriptions of these memorials serve as a buffer against indifference and obscurity, drawing attention to the veterans of the war and the heroic events that took place. Out of Sheer Rage, which was originally intended to be a serious critical study of the works of D. H. Lawrence, is instead an account of Dyer's struggle to overcome writer's block. Though Dyer admired Lawrence's novels, he becomes more interested in Lawrence's letters and travel writing, and is stalled by the temptation to write a novel instead. The resulting book chronicles the procrastination, relocations, and self-delusions that helped perpetuate Dyer's inability to write. The work also provides some commentary on Lawrence's works and Dyer's own Lawrentian diatribes against a host of personal grievances, including academic literary criticism and the English people. Anglo-English Attitudes (1999), a compilation of essays written between 1984 and 1999, also includes book reviews, prose pieces on photographers, musicians, and painters, and reminiscences of Dyer's various misadventures.

Critical Reception

Critics have often been divided in their assessment of Dyer's work. Ways of Telling was generally appreciated as a welcome study of an important intellectual figure, and Dyer's sensitive, lyrical descriptions of jazz music in But Beautiful attracted several favorable comments. The Missing of the Somme also garnered positive reviews, though some found shortcomings in Dyer's lack of focus and over-reliance on Paul Fussell's own study of the cultural impact of World War I, The Great War and Modern Memory. While some reviewers have commended Dyer's quirky, difficult-to-classify books for their evocative meditations, other critics have found narcissistic tendencies in Dyer's writing and have criticized his sometimes overly emotional descriptions. As a result, several critics have noted that Dyer's ambitious ideas are not followed through to the level of excellence they expected. Dyer's first novel, The Colour of Memory was faulted for its lack of feeling and character development, which may be attributed to Dyer's disavowal of novelistic conventions. However, The Search was regarded by reviewers as an interesting epistemological thriller, and Paris Trance was praised for its engaging story and shifting perspectives.