This isn't a novel but a book of essays. Wasn't sure where the best category was for it.
Last year I was discussing favourite writers with a male pal called Ian. I mentioned Dyer's work and Ian looked doubtful. He expressed the opinion that Dyer seemed often to brag about what a great life he had. I didn't recognise the brilliant, acerbic, witty writer I admire in this description.
Still, I suppose reading his essays in his latest collection Working The Room it does appear that, by many people's criteria, Dyer has an idyllic life and that he often expresses satisfaction with it. I see this as a positive rather than a negative, though. Reading Dyer is like spending time with your most clever, well-read, razor-sharp friend who just happens to live a life he loves, being able to spend all his time reading, writing, visiting art and photography exhibitions, lounging about, watching TV, travelling in luxury to cover exciting events in far-flung places, and having sex with his beautiful wife. Maybe to some males this might appear smug but to me the world is a richer place for Dyer's being able to indulge himself in these untaxing activities. Because if he couldn't do theser things, we would be deprived of his books, and they give us a sense of living vicariously through his experiences.
His writing reads as you'd expect his conversation to flow, and while always erudite and eloquent, he never wades into lyrical language that would be out of place in speech. You just feel as if you're standing with him, in front of the photo or book or statue or music or donut (yes, donut) he's talking about and nodding while he describes it in the way you would if you had the same gift of language, or if you had perceived and summed up that attribute as elegantly.
That he has time to read so widely adds enormous intellectual heft to his writing. He frequently mentions classical and contemporary writers, philosophers and artists, but not in the superficial way someone like Russell Brand (who has merely scratched the surface of the varnish and extracted a magpie fragment to impress) does, but in a considered, always relevant way. When you too know the work of the person he references, you're always struck by the acuity of the point made; the coherency of his comparison.
Dyer's influences are also clear from his work. The opening essay on a Jacques Henri Lartigue photo in which he assesses the allure of the mysterious woman in the photo has echoes of Roland Barthes's A Lover's Discourse in it: that same ability to intellectualise appeal and seduction without dispelling it with dry academia. Dyer has a similar discursive style of mulling and reflecting to some of the great writers he has undoubtedly read, without the annoying tendency to wander so far off the point that the tangents have tangents and you lose the original thread, as seen in some digressive writers like Howard Jacobson. Of course, one man's meat is another's poison and many love someone who takes trips down sideroads and meanders along admiring the countryside before returning, eventually, to the original starting point or arriving at the destination, but Dyer is far too disciplined for this, despite his protestations of indiscipline and slacking. In his writing, as in certain character traits like his rigid punctuality, need for routine and irascibility with others' inefficiency, he has a puritanical streak which contrasts appealingly with his professed mispent youth and unconventionality.
For me, this is at the heart of Dyer's appeal as a writer. Apart from his talent for writing beautifully with what seems like no effort, his devastating and sardonic wit and his soaring intellect (yeh, just send me that cheque now, Geoff) there is a louche quality not dissimilar to that of Will Self that makes me feel as a reader that this writer has really lived, he's been naughty, he's broken the rules, and that therefore his life is not going to be the goody-goody one projected by many intellectuals.
There's a fair bit of subconscious surmising too - I warm to Dyer because I sense instinctively that he's the kind of person who doesn't do what's expected of him unless he wants to; someone who feels others have to earn his respect rather than being afforded it because of their status or wealth. As someone who's always held to that tenet myself, the unwillingness to conform or gush fake platitudes out of politeness or sycophancy is immensely refreshing, though in arty circles it isn't quite as unusual as it is in corporate or traditionally hierachical ones.
Dyer's almost obsessive need to eke out every last bit of information from a situation or object is illustrated many times here, such as in the essay on Ruth Orkins's VE Day photograph, where he not only analyses everything in the picture but is also driven to compare it with another photo taken at the same time by another photographer, and to pinpoint precisely from which vantage point this second photo was taken. But none of his compulsion to dissect is pointless; having found what he was seeking Dyer will always show us why he searched for the extra information. His essays are therefore not only exhaustive in their analysis of the photo or book or whatever, but he also uses them as a launching pad to embark on other questions of a philosophical nature.
Some people may ask why a photograph or book needs analysis. Doesn't it speak for itself? Well, only up to a point. The immediate impact is often visceral, powerful and lasting, but Dyer will intuit reasons why this may be so and add thoughts that are compellingly persuasive. In his analytical essays you sometimes need to read something twice for its full meaning to sink in, but afterwards it seems like an argument so logical that you should have picked up on it yourself. Take this opener to his essay on a Richard Avedon's photo:
'In 1960 Richard Avedon photographed the poet W.H. Auden on St Mark's Place, New York, in the middle of a snowstorm. A few passers by and buildings are visible to the left of the frame but the blizzard is in the process of freezing Auden in the midst of what, in the US, is termed a 'white-out'. Avedon had by then already patented his signature approach to portraiture, so it is tempting to see this picture as a God-given endorsement of his habit of isolating people against a sheer expanse of white, as evidence that his famously severe technique is less a denial of naturalism than its apotheosis.'
After reading this I think 'yes, how could anyone argue that Avedon uses artificially pale backgrounds when they see this?' But before reading it, when I'd already seen the photo, I would never have thought of that argument, even if someone had said to me 'Oh, Avedon never uses natural backgrounds.' I just wouldn't have seen the connection between this photo and his more usual ones, far less been able to articulate it as pithily as Dyer. This perspicacity is a recurrent feature of these essays, often as a casual comment, such as this one in the same essay:
'Fame, face and fate were - give or take a consonant - synonyms.'
This discerning ability is in evidence everywhere. Before I read the book I knew that Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty was a book I adored - hell, I've given it to enough people as presents - but reading Dyer's essay on it summed up why Hollinghurst's writing is so captivating. The same is true of the very different appeal of Lorrie Moore and Ian McEwan. Dyer tells you why these writers' books are mesmeric in a way that is as mesmeric as the novels he describes.
As is characteristic of Dyer, wicked humour is present in abundance. Often (and this is an argument I will use to my pal Ian who thought Dyer boasted) it is self-deprecating and directed at himself, as when he remembers his youthful fervent desire for a girlfriend and the offputting aura of desperation that it irradiated, or when he wonders how anyone as skinny as him could ever have had succeeded in obtaining one. At other times it is the pompous and dull who are his targets, as in the essay Sacked, where he relates being taken out for lunch by one of his seniors at a job from which Dyer was fired after a month:
'It was the first free lunch I'd ever had, even though it wasn't really a lunch, just some disgusting sandwiches on white bread smeared with too much butter. I thought I was going to be sick, partly because of all this rancid butter and pink ham, but mainly because this pink-faced deputy boss was a rancid old bore. He told some stories he had reheated hundreds of times before.'
And the witty one-liners are ubiquitous and pepper every essay, throwaway comments such as 'Obviously, some books are a waste of one's eyes.'
It's not all humour or academic analysis, though. There is a poignant piece on impromptu memorials to people killed on the roads in NYC, a light-hearted tale of an almost religiously fanatical hunt for the perfect donut and coffee in the same city, and many personal essays. I found the latter fascinating, especially given Dyer's honesty: far from re-writing his youth, he readily admits to bumming around on the dole for years and to several misdemeanours which could have got him sent down from Oxford, imprisoned or even killed. There are also nuggets of gold that you wonder if Dyer has fully analysed - when talking about old friends in Sacked he labels one ex friend Robert as 'the friend who could always be relied on to **** your girlfriend.' But in the same essay he tells us that he, Dyer, slept with three of his friend (and A level college pupil) James's girlfriends, usually taking them straight off James.
My friend Ian might wince at some sections, such as Dyer's description of his wife's beauty, but Dyer doesn't mention this to show off his pulling power but to illustrate the whirlwind events that led to his marriage, and the magical moment in which he glimpsed his wife in a department store and fell for her before they ever met. Even in an essay on marriage in The Times recently (which doesn't appear here), his assertion that beauty is important to him is openess and a willingness to own up to something that many men feel but few openly admit to for fear of being thought of as shallow.
There are minor faults. In the extract given above on being taken out to lunch, the word 'rancid' is used twice, and this happens elsewhere - on page 21 'extensive' and 'extensively' are used in the same sentence. Sometimes this repetition is intentional, as on page 353 when he uses 'furious', 'fury' and 'furiously' in the same sentence, or on page 371 where 'clanging' is used consecutively, but, in the first example, when 'furious' crops up again in the next paragraph it might conceivably have been substituted with another unused word.
Readers who are not fans of the same music may also find the music discussion in Is Jazz Dead? and Edition of Contemporary Me too detailed to sustain their interest, although of course to aficionados it's all wonderful. But often, what appear to be oversights are actually intentional constructs, set up to illustrate a point. In an essay on the war photogarpher Larry Burrows, Dyer flits from past to present tense (p21), which initially seems disorientaing. Later, in an essay on Richard Kapuscinski, Dyer compliments the Pole thus: 'Rival tenses jostle for dominance within the same page.'
There was only once when I felt anything less than utmost admiration for Dyer, and that was in the essay on his parents where, despite making it clear that they were the most devoted and loving parents one could wish for, I sensed a slight ennui with their working-class concerns, such as when Dyer reflects that his childhood home was 'devoid of culture', or when he says he has more in common with his wife's parents. For those who have experienced a parent who is less loving there is a temptation to remind Dyer that he owes some of his good fortune in life to his parents' dogged determination to buy him books throughout his childhood, despite a limited income, and their enthusiasm for his going to a grammar school in Cheltenham. Some parents don't encourage their children like this, a very few actively discourage them or are jealous of their child's success. But perhaps Dyer didn't intend to sound disparaging or unloving but was just being, as always, meticulously honest and voicing a thought some with little in common with parents might have but wouldn't express; certainly he dedicates this volume to them which compensates for any fleeting perceived thoughtlessness.
I came away from the volume wishing I had just received it and could read it fresh all over again. Dyer may, by his own admission, be someone that avoids mundane or non-pleasurable work but that's to his readers' great advantage. Roll on the next volume.