stanley crawford, “the river in winter”

Stanley Crawford
The River in Winter: New and Selected Essays
(University of New Mexico Press, 2004)

A consequence of growing up in the rural Midwest is a sort of pragmatism when considering art. This isn’t a pragmatism that Peirce or James wouldn’t recognize; rather, it’s a need to know what something’s good for, if anything. There are two causes of this: first, an environment in which art doesn’t exist as a matter of course; and second, the Midwesterner’s deep-seated belief that they are normal. I left the Midwest a long time ago, but I still find this attitude in myself from time to time; I’m not very good at appreciating architecture, for example, in no small part because the buildings that I grew up with were functional and nothing more. It’s an attitude I find in my reaction to reading as well: wondering who would read anything comes naturally when you grow up in an environment where no one reads anything. Obviously, the Midwest is not a yardstick against which anything should be measured; but it’s hard to step outside yourself.

There’s thus something that I find reassuring in Stanley Crawford’s writing: a sense of balance between art and work. Crawford’s fiction doesn’t appear to have reached a very large readership, which is a shame, as he’s a fine writer: his novels are modest and have been spaced out across forty years, but each is distinct and inventive. In his non-fiction – Mayordomo and A Garlic Testament – a philosophy becomes more apparent. Crawford makes a living as a garlic farmer in New Mexico; it’s an occupation that he’s put as much thought into as his fiction. Crawford’s someone who’s thought a great deal about how he and his writing fit into the world: I find this easier to stomach than the Monsieur Teste-like figure that most contemporary writers cut. This isn’t the most reasoned response; it’s more instinctual than not, but it is there. 

The River in Winter is not the sort of book of essays that one expects from a fiction writer: only one of the essays in this book, “The Village Novel,” has anything to do with fiction writing, and even there Crawford is oblique (his “village novel” is metaphorical rather than a book), pointing out that living successfully in a community (in his case, Dixon, New Mexico) largely precludes writing about it:

Writers who grow up hearing episodes and chapters of the village novel at the knees of parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles set out into the literary world with something far better than a formal education – but this is also the source of the grief they can suffer when they offer up the contents of the village novel as a real book, a novel. They will then be charged with betraying confidences and appropriating something that belongs to no one person, or for quite simply getting it all wrong. (p. 146)

Crawford’s concern in this book isn’t writing; rather, it’s about figuring out how to live. He adopts a “small is beautiful” stance, following E. F. Schumacher; he observes the natural world around him and the way that people live in it. A third of the book has to do with water, as did Mayordomo, his chronicle of his time spent running a community irrigation ditch; while that book was concerned with how one particular ditch was run, here his eye roves, considering the myriad forces at play controlling water rights (especially the longstanding water adjudication batter) in northern New Mexico:

The ultimate effect of the adjudication process is to allow land to be separated from water, with complex consequences at the local level . . . . I have long argued that the fatal flaw of the adjudication process is that it allows the “commons value” of a water right to be privatized away and dissipated. Much of the commons value of water resides in the acequia system, which conveys the water from the river to the individual landowner. When that landowner is allowed to sell off his water right, he is also selling something which does not properly belong to him as an individual property owner, in the form of that portion of a commons which until then has underpinned and sustained the equity of his property as land and water. (pp. 69–70)

Crawford is talking about northern New Mexico’s idiosyncratic system of water distribution from his perspective as a small farmer; but he’s also aware that he’s suggesting the broader situation that all of us are in, a world increasingly full of reifications. While Crawford is too polite to make this a political book, his politics are apparent; as is a clear sense of morality. Comparisons might be drawn to Lewis Hyde; but Crawford seems to be more interested in people than in art. Later he considers the role of the funeral in his village and how we treat death in general:

Perhaps one of the reasons people leave villages all over the world is that they want to live in places where the lesson is not so relentlessly taught. Suburbs are places without graveyards, without necropolises. They zone out the dead. Like garbage and sewage, the dead are ferried away to special ghettos elsewhere – or anywhere. The modern liberal solution of scattering ashes to the wind seems to solve the problem nicely. By making the dead disappear in a puff of gray ash, we can conquer death itself. (p. 152)

It’s not all doom and gloom, of course; a number of these essays are attentive to the physical world. He considers the mud floor of his house and the apple crates that he’s reused for years in a manner not entirely dissimilar from Francis Ponge; but his is also an interest in human use and how we shape objects and the environment in which we live. His mud floor:

There are times when I have fretted over the unevenness of the floor, but in repairing it again last summer I realized that under our wear and tear it will continue to evolve in ways that other surfaces within the house will not, surfaces that will be recovered, smoothed down, painted over, again and again. The history inscribed in the surface of our mud floor is a version of the history of the house we built with our own hands and of our lives in it since 1971. (p. 9)

The reader will notice some repetitions in this book: the essays’s disparate original publications are doubtless to blame for this. This isn’t to say that the essays are repetitious: each stands alone complete, and might best be read that way rather than being gulped done all at once. This book feels like a coda to Mayordomo; while Crawford makes this seem entirely normal, the situation that he describes is so outside the experience of most Americans’ civil interactions that it stands redescription. It would be nice to have more from Crawford; but one senses that he’s busy living. 

elif batuman, “the possessed”

Elif Batuman
The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2010)

One of the most embarrassing section of almost any bookstore is that reserved for those books termed “belles lettres”: those books damned by not being full-on literary criticism (in which case they would appear in the bookstore at all) or biography, a safe area. Plenty of books that fall into this category are published; few end up on the shelves of Barnes & Noble; plenty get shelved elsewhere: the cultural studies section, or philosophy. There’s something anachronistic about “belles lettres,” down to the name; it’s a subject that one might imagine to have vanished with the nineteenth century, before literature was thoroughly professionalized. I’ve always had a weakness for the category: the specialist writing for a general audience is something that should be applauded, of course, as it provides a way in for those who wouldn’t necessarily have one; these are the sort of books for those who browse by nature, a species that might be increasingly threatened. It’s not a form that’s generally respected by academics: this sort of book won’t win academic acclaim, no matter what other good it might do. (Witness, for example, how little Susan Sontag is read, outside of the obligatory essay or two, in the academy: her audience, for better or worse, was the general public, and the academy reacted accordingly. The same might be said for Guy Davenport or John Berger; Marshall MacLuhan also fell into this space.) But for all its perils, “belles lettres” is a term that might helpfully be attached to Elif Batuman’s book, though I suspect that it’s more likely to be shoehorned into the memoir category: books need to be sold for readers to read them.

The risk being run here (and what makes academics wary of this sort of books, I think) is that of the derivative: writing about writing about books seems slighter than writing about books. Often this is only a pretext for memoir, a genre with embarrassments of its own; but in a few cases (Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage comes immediately to mind) this can be pulled off. Dyer’s book, like Batuman’s, is written in the first person; the author is a primary subject, though crucially not the only one. Both also shade into travel literature; but in both, there’s something elliptical about the author’s self-presentation. At the end of the book, the reader has a sense of a sensibility; but there’s also the feeling that something has been withheld. Perhaps it’s propriety; I have a distaste for memoirs in general, but these work for me. Batuman’s life, like Dyer’s, is more interesting than the lives of most people, let alone those writing memoirs; but there’s the implicit feeling that it would be tacky to give everything away. The writing is what’s important; the life of the writer is necessarily a component, but it’s not the reason for the writing.

There’s a danger, of course, if one is to swing too far the other way; it’s the reason that most academic writing on literature leaves me cold, as it’s focused on the book rather than on how the book affects us. Batuman’s focus is on the intersection between the book and life, and the difficulty of finding a balance between the two; this becomes most clear in the final essay of the book, “The Possessed,” simultaneously a consideration of Dostoevsky’s novel sometimes given that name and a derangement of her friends studying Russian in grad school. It’s the most serious essay in the book, though not without levity: a point-by-point retelling of what actually happens in Demons, for example, comes across as hilarious and impervious to logic. Batuman maps her and her friends’ descent into madness against Dostoevsky’s odd novel about terrorism, a juxtaposition that risks going wrong in any number of ways. It works; partially because Demons resists the sort of easy allegorization that one could get with Crime & Punishment or The Idiot, but in large part because Batuman is deeply interested in the effect that books have on people: they are driving her classmates and her crazy, to the point where one eventually drops out and becomes a monk. (There are echoes here of characters glimpsed earlier in the book, similarly driven crazy by books; in the context of a Tolstoy conference, this seems hilarious, but viewed threw a personal lens, it becomes something different.) The book has the power to be a dangerous thing (one of the easy morals of Demons); at the end of the affair, Dostoevsky’s novel appears differently than it did before. It becomes clear why Batuman uses The Possessed as the title: possession requires a possessor, which demons might be doing their own work. The relationship between the book and the reader is what’s really important here. At the end of Batuman’s book, I’m tempted to go back to Dostoevsky’s; I remember muddling through it when I was much younger, though I suspect that time would have changed me. But it’s hard to want to be in the emotional state required to really appreciate a book that demands as much as that one.

This shouldn’t suggest that this book is a tough slog: it’s not that at all. The book before the last essay has an appealing lightness to it. A good chunk of this book (the “Summer in Samarkand” saga, which takes up nearly half the book, the visit to the Tolstoy estate) could be described as travel writing, which is something that Batuman’s very good at: everything, no matter how ordinary, becomes strange in her descriptions. Most of what she’s describing (Uzbekistan, how Russian scholars behave) is already going to be unfamiliar to most readers. Her focus cuts the sweetness of too many novelties and keeps the book compelling: for being a collection of essays, most of which have previously stood on their own, this turns out to be a book with a spine, a seriousness concealed by her writing’s lightness.

john waters, “role models”

John Waters
Role Models
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2010)

It’s hard not to like John Waters. Certainly his films of the past decade or so don’t make it seem like he’s trying particularly hard; but he’s made his particular aesthetic mark on our culture, and it would be beside the point to go on stressing it. Waters has aged gracefully; his gallery shows in Chelsea are minor but enjoyable, in the same way that his cameos and appearances tend to be. A favorite moment: a few years ago I saw Mr. Waters attired in a brown suit at a show of his, explaining the art to two small girls, whom I assumed, without any evidence, to be his nieces. I remember fondly when the late, lamented Nest‘s visit to his house in Baltimore, much more interesting than one might expect; the same is true is most of his interviews. Role Models is a collection of ten essays; and while some of the material has appeared before and is thus familiar (his introduction to Tennessee Williams’s Memoirs, for example), the book is thoroughly enjoyable and holds together.

What one notes about Waters’s writing is his sense of morality. This is not as surprising as it might be; certainly it could be read from his films, but the layers might confure. It’s in his essays, outside of the realm of fiction, that a picture of how Waters thinks and engages with the world becomes clear. This is apparent from the first essay, an attempt to make sense of Johnny Mathis, an early hero, now a recluse turned reactionary, his sexuality still ambiguous: as much as Waters would like, Mathis can’t quite be reclaimed because he’s solidly himself. The essay starts with Mathis but spirals out to include other childhood heroes that Waters has managed to meet and how they fared against expectations; and finally it ends at Mathis’s house, where Waters realizes that he can’t quite turn Mathis into what he wants him to be. It ends with a meditation on death: Waters realizes that he will die “alone but not lonely,” and wonders what will happen to Mathis, to all appearances a similarly single man. It’s similar to another essay about Little Richard, a magazine piece that didn’t quite turn out: Waters revisits his time with Little Richard and comes to a better understanding of how screwed up his subject seemed to be.

“Leslie” is the volume’s standout: an account of Waters’s friendship with Leslie Van Houten, accessory to the Manson murders. Waters was first attracted, of course, by the scandal and glamour of the story: attractive young people brainwashed by a maniac; eventually he met and befriended her. But the second paragraph announces a swerve:

I am guilty, too. Guilty of using the Manson murders in a jokey, smart-ass way in my earlier films without the slightest feeling for the victim’s families or the lives of the brainwashed Manson killer kids who were also victims in this sad and terrible case. (p. 45)

His status as a celebrity gives Waters the ability to visit Van Houten in prison in 1985; the woman he meets is something of a disaster, a life ruined by a night of insanity. The magazine piece he’d planned is abandoned. They become friends: he comes to see the futility of her stay in the penal system, and the essay is an argument for her parole, which hasn’t been granted. One’s past is a difficult thing: Waters brings in how he accidentally killed a man (an old man walked out in front of his car), and how entirely fortuitous it was that he suffered no consequences (a cop happened to see the whole thing and testified that nothing could have been done). He doesn’t suggest an equivalence between deaths; but some end up paying for chance more than others. 

The other essays display this soft humanism towards damaged humanity: Waters writes about Baltimore lowlives and the producers of “outsider porn” with the same tenderness. “Roommates” considers his art collection; and it might be worth stopping to consider “Bookworm,” his essay on fiction. Waters usefully ploughs through platitudes about reading:

You should never read just for “enjoyment.” Read to make yourself smarter! Less judgmental. More apt to understand your friends’ insane behavior, or better yet, your own. Pick “hard books.” Ones you have to concentrate on while reading. And for God’s sake, don’t let me ever hear you say, “I can’t read fiction. I only have time for the truth.” Fiction is the truth, fool! Ever hear of “literature”? That means fiction, too, stupid. (p. 164)

The essay is a list of five books Waters finds worth reading; it’s an interesting and not entirely predictable list. First Denton Welch’s In Youth Is Pleasure; then Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin. Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children receives a better appreciation than the boring litany of praise Jonathan Franzen recently trotted out in the NYTimes Book Review: Waters argues that the book’s pure vitriol should be appreciated on its own merits. It’s hard for me not to love any list that includes Jane Bowles’s Two Serious Ladies, which deserves to be in print in this country outside of Bowles’s collected fiction. An finally there’s an appreciation of the use of dialogue in Ivy Compton-Burnett’s novels which makes me want to move her books to the top of the list:

The monstrously intelligent and all-knowing children in Darkness and Day speak like no other children in the history of youth. “Do you remember your Uncle?” a relative asks his nieces Rose and Viola. “You used to be younger,” Rose says with steely reasoning. “That is true,” the uncle answers, “and I feel as young as I did.” “People do feel younger than they are,” she quickly responds. “They don’t get used to a new age , before they get to the next one. I feel I am nine, and I have been ten for a week. I am in my eleventh year.” “I don’t often think as much as that,” her sister Viola comments. “I always think,” answers Rose with a vengeance. .  . After the children in Darkness and Day are told of a passing in the family, they are asked to “run upstairs and forget what is sad. Just remember the happy part of it.” “What is the happy part?” wonders Viola. “There is none,” answers Rose. “Why do people talk as if they are glad when someone is dead? I think it must mean there is a little gladness somewhere.” (pp. 178–9.)

This essay again ends with death: “I have all twenty of her novels and I’ve read nineteen. If I read the one that is left there will be no more Ivy Compton-Burnett for me and I will probably have to die myself” (p. 180). This is flippant, a joke, but there’s a sting there; this is a slight book, but there are hidden depths.

nicholson baker, “u and i”

Nicholson Baker
U and I
(Vintage Books, 1991)

Somehow I’ve never read any books by Nicholson Baker, on account of, I think, coming across dismissive reviews of his work when I was in college; and I’ve read very little John Updike since bouncing around some of his shorter things in high school. My not reading Updike is a conscious choice, though an old one, from when I saw deciding which fiction to read in a more confrontational light. Updike, Roth, and Bellow were firmly the establishment at that point, the pricks to be kicked against. My resistance to Bellow has softened over time; I could see liking bits of Roth, though I suspect it will be a while before I get around to reading him; but Updike still seems decidedly uninteresting when considered against the other options. There’s a class association with him in my mind, fair or not: he was writing about other people for other people. Updike is someone I always identified with Harvard: he was, I think, the first novelist I ever recognized by sight in the wild, being marched into the Barker Center to be given some award. Gaddis went to Harvard too, of course, but he had the decency to get kicked out. Updike was the well-behaved novelist.

Baker, on the other hand, has become more interesting over time; I’ve liked the shorter pieces by him that I’ve come across, and I suspect I’d like some of his novels. () This book had the premise that I liked most; it’s not, however, as easily come across in used book stores, being consigned to the hell of belles lettres or essays. Obviously, Amazon obviates this problem; but Baker never seemed necessary enough, especially when there are stacks and stacks of unread books around here. Finding it by accident on a stroll from the Met to Bryant Park seemed right: and here I am, having finished his little book about Updike. I’m glad, perhaps, that I waited for this one: there are a huge number of books mentioned in this book, and I’ve read most of them, which helps, a bit, in understanding what Baker’s getting at. Here is is talking about reading, or not reading, Harold Bloom:

I know about “misprision” only from book reviews – book reviews, not books, being the principal engines of change in the history of thought, and contributing in that necessary role a certain class of distortions to the forward flow by allowing those works which contains plots and arguments that are easily summarized in their reviews to assume a level of cultural bulk and threat that the books themselves may or may not deserve. (p. 64)

This is a book about books and their authors; it is not, directly, a book about reading, partially pointedly so. Baker gives himself the constraint of not re-reading Updike while writing about Updike; so the Updike that appears on the pages of this book is the Updike who appeared in Baker’s mind, not the Updike who appears on the pages of his books. Updike stands for influence; behind him stand others, not least Nabokov. In the opening of the book, Baker draws a distinction between the way we think about dead authors and those who are alive: we can compare ourselves to living authors (as Updike was when Baker wrote), while the dead are preserved in amber (Nabokov then and now):

Readers of the living are always, whether they know it or not, to some degree seing the work through the living writer’s own eyes; feeling for him when he flubs, folding into their reactions to his early work constant subauditional speculations as to whether the writer himself would at this moment wince or nod with approval at some passage in it. But the dead can’t suffer embarrassment by some admission or mistake they have made. We sense this imperviousness and adjust our sympathies accordingly. (p. 10)

A comparison might be drawn to Out of Sheer Rage (1997), in which Geoff Dyer attempts to come to terms with D. H. Lawrence; though maybe Dyer’s difficult-to-find first book,Ways of Telling, about John Berger, might be the most apt comparison. (Does U & I come up in Out of Sheer Rage? It might, but I gave my copy of that book away so I can’t check.) I find Dyer’s account a bit more appealing: that book, ostensibly about Lawrence, is rather a book about not writing and coming to terms with the creative act. This one is about coming to terms with influence: in some ways, a trickier thing. 

A case could be made for this book as a work of fiction, starting with the subtitle, “A True Story.” Baker comes off not unlike one of Thomas Bernhard’s demented, ranting narrators, though that writer isn’t mentioned in the text. The book starts with the death of Donald Barthelme, one of Baker’s teachers; Barthelme’s presence hovers over the text, as does the idea, more associated with Barthelme than Updike, of metafiction. A distinct strand of the book follows Baker as he tries to get his book published, talking to his editors at The Atlantic and imagining what his book might look like; he is explicitly concerned, of course, about the progress of his own writing. 

You could say that this book hasn’t aged well: I could see how in 1991 this would have been strange and interesting, but a decade of memoirs and writing about writing on the Internet have made this seem overfamiliar. Now we know too much about too many writers. In an odd way, this is a book that would be impossible to write now: because of the Internet, there’s no longer the separation between the author and the reader that was enforced by the time when serious writing was done on typewriters and writers communicated largely through the mail or in person. Writing an email to someone who’s influenced you isn’t qualitatively a different thing than composing a letter; however, it’s much easier, and it only takes a moment’s lack of inhibitions. And in an age of rampant self-Googling, it’s almost become expected that if you write about someone, they’ll end up reading about it. Perhaps it’s better to say that this book is something of a time-capsule: it’s the way we thought about writers twenty years ago. 

Do I feel the need to read Updike at the end of this? Not particularly, though I can understand why Baker likes him. But Updike is beside the point, really: this is a book that could have been about any forebear.

jean-philippe toussaint, “self-portrait abroad”

Jean-Philippe Touissant
Self-Portrait Abroad
(trans. John Lambert)
(Dalkey Archive, 2010)

What, precisely, is this book? My copy is a galley; the front cover and the title page say “Self-Portrait Abroad, a novel by Jean-Philippe Toussaint”; on the cover, the category tags it as “fiction”. The info sheet tucked inside this copy says that in the book “our narrator – a Belgian author much like Toussaint himself – travels the globe”. The Library of Congress headings on the copyright page don’t suggest that it’s fiction, rather tagging it travel. To the reader, it doesn’t feel like a novel: this is a small book, a collection of short travel pieces that might have appeared separately in a newspaper, as I thought I heard Toussaint indicate last Friday in his appearance at BookCourt. Were one coming at this book as a tabula rasa, one would probably not tag it a novel.

This book might be thought of as falling between genres in tradition of Butor: his Mobile, while formally much more experimental, takes the same approach to travel. At the end of that book, the reader has an idea of Butor’s sensibility, what interests him; but a sense of Butor as a traveler is entirely lacking, and one wonders whether Butor actually took the trip laid out in the book. Toussaint’s approach is more personal (a bit more like Butor’s later, and more stylistically restrained, The Spirit of Mediterranean Places), but there is the same vagueness: if this is memoir, it’s considerably oblique one. It’s certainly not trying to be travel writing, as that’s usually understood: one can’t learn very much about places from this book. (“Seen from above, at four thousand feet,” the narrator writes in the first paragraph of “Tokyo,” “there isn’t much difference between the Pacific and the Mediterranean.”) Rather, as the title suggests, we learn about the narrator.

The narrator sees not where he is, but where he’s from. On his arrival in Tokyo, a Corsican friend insists on filling him in on what happened there; he is “perfectly indifferent to the surrounding atmosphere,” an indifference that the narrator seems to share: “Although it was pastis time,” the narrator notes, “we contented ourselves with green tea.” The section named “Hobg Kong” describes that city from a bench in its airport and, most notably, from the airplane prior to arriving in the city. The subjectivity of the narrator is paramount:

The silent cabin of my sleepy seven-forty-seven was still convinced of its being night, however, as it flew in perfect stillness toward Tokyo to the hushed drowning of its motors, my watch showing one o’clock in the morning, the other passengers dozing around me in the feeble light, the small plastic blinds on the window carefully lowered, to say nothing of my own fatigue after seven or eight hours of flight, my eyes heavy and closing softly, yes, everything seemed to indicate that it was night – apart from one important detail: it was now broad daylight outside. (p. 13)

There’s an accuracy to this depiction: while a clock declares one time, the passengers understand it to be something else entirely, just as the airplane only appears to be still to those inside with windows closed, so the relative motion of the rest of the world can’t be noticed. The passengers arrive in a city still in the grips of this disjunction, in no state to understand anything. The airport becomes a dreamscape, and we understand the behavior of the narrator earlier in the piece; the airport is anything but an interesting place, but it seems impossible to traverse. One wonders what the great novels of airports are; Brian Eno’s Music for Airports gets at this feeling with its etherial, possibly inhuman, choirs.

One thinks back past Butor to another French traveler, Raymond Roussel, who traveled all over Africa in his specially designed motorhome and famously didn’t bother to look out the window. This is the conspicuous consumption of the idle rich; but Roussel also realized that enough narrative to fill any number of books could be found in anything – the label on a bottle of water, for example – and that the act of looking could be more important that what you actually looked at. (Dalí tried to run with this in his film Impressions de la Haute Mongolie – Hommage à Raymond Roussel – skip to about forty minutes into the bloated film for the big reveal, that the seemingly abstract landscapes of the second half of the film were in fact generated by zooming in on the the ferrule of a pen that Dalí urinated on with an electron microscope.) Robbe-Grillet is also in the background, of course: a number of his novels are set overseas, but one forgets this because Robbe-Grillet is never that interested in his setting: Project for a Revolution in New York could have happened anywhere; a more direct antecedent to Toussaint’s novel, La maison de rendez-vous, another of the later, kind of terrible Robbe-Grillet book, is as inconsequentially set in Hong Kong, taking only chinoiserie from its location.

This is a slight book, tracing out an itinerary across Asia and Europe, dropping south to Sfax, the town in Tunisia that Georges Perec described in Les choses; Japan has the most pages devoted to it, but it’s difficult to work out whether multiple trips are being described or the same trip split into moments. Time is a focus: the individual pieces go back and forth in time. In the last piece in the book, the narrator describes returning to Kyoto (a previous piece has indeed been about Kyoto) and trying to be overcome by emotions; he is not, though the setting is right, and he describes a desolate landscape as straightforwardly as he does in the book. The ending is uncharacteristically emotional, and suggests that the jumps back and forth in time are not verbal acrobatics but an attempt at something else:

This wasn’t the first time I’d seen a place I’d frequented in the past disappear in this way, the transformation of a location I’d known, but seeing this desolate spectacle, this abandoned station out of bounds behind iron bars, this deserted station with its disused platforms, whose tracks had become a craggy rain-soaked wasteland and whose main hall with its ticketing machines was now a junkyard where a rickety turnstile lay askew in the mud, I realized that time had passed since I’d left Kyoto. And if this affected me so deeply on that day, it was not only because my senses, numbed by the prevailing grayness and the alcohol in my blood, naturally put me in a melancholic frame of mind, it was also because I suddenly felt sad and powerless at this brusque testimony to the passage of time. It was hardly the result of conscious reasoning, but rather the concrete and painful, fleeting and physical feeling that I myself was part and parcel of time and its passing. Until then, the feeling of being carreid along by time had always been attenuated by the fact that I wrote – until then, in a way, writing had been a means of resisting the current that bore me along, a way of inscribing myself in time, of setting landmarks in the immateriality of its flow, incisions, scratches. (pp. 83–84.)

The echoes of Proust (and perhaps Leiris) here might be unexpected: the reader is sent back to read the book again, to make sense of this record again.

geoff dyer, “yoga for people who can’t be bothered to do it”

Geoff Dyer
Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It
(Vintage, 2003)

There are plenty of reasons that I should not like this book by Geoff Dyer: the name of this book, for one; the horrifying blurb on the back suggesting that it was a combination of “Hunter S. Thompson, Roland Barthes, Paul Theroux and Sylvia Plath”; the promise of reading anything about Burning Man. The horrible grunge-y display type used inside for chapter openers, presumably reused from the poorly designed hardcover edition. The copyright page promises that an excerpt from Auden’s “September 1, 1939” is used in a book published in 2003. The prospect of British people writing about the United States. And worst of all, the marketing designation “Travel/Memoir” on the same back cover: a stint in the travel writing business still keeps me filled with horror at the thought of most travel writing and the people associated with it, and it doesn’t need to be said that no one needs another memoir.

And yet I make an exception for Geoff Dyer: somehow, I allow him to get away with things that I find deeply objectionable in most other writers. Part of this is context: I picked this book up at the bookstore in Fort Greene after a disheartening show at BAM, in need of something to pick me up for the subway home. Dyer’s writing works for me in that way as few others can reliably. (Also in this category, off the top of my head: Gertrude Stein, Ashbery’s Three Poems, some of Donald Barthelme, The Man without Qualities. Others exist, I’m sure, but it’s a vanishingly small group.) A lot of this has to do with style: Dyer’s a good enough writer that he can entertainingly talk about nothing will giving off the impression of effortlessness. Closer scrutiny, however, reveals that it’s an effortlessness that’s taken a great deal of work: everything functions. In this book, as in Out of Sheer Rage, Geoff Dyer has the flâneur down to perfection: he pretends to be doing nothing, but there’s a great deal of thought involved in that doing nothing. It helps as well that there’s a sense that Dyer’s using writers to think through the world: Auden and Rilke come up repeatedly in this book (“September 1, 1939,” for what it’s worth, does not come up with respect to 9/11) as do Brodsky and Henry James; epigraphs from the Goncourts and Nietzsche lead off the book. The way he’s using these writers is interesting: not so much name-dropping or academic reference so much as finding people whose thought can be usefully applied to his life. There’s the feeling you’re in the hands of someone who can be trusted, a trust that comes because of these shared points of recognition.

This is a book that’s ostensibly a collection of travel essays: eleven essays about particular places. The copyright page suggests that it’s a compilation, as much of the material has previously been published. It is, to a certain extent; but when read closely, one notes threads connecting the various pieces in the book. A pair of Tevas is bought in the first essay, on New Orleans; these Tevas thread their way through the later essays, just as Rilke and Auden do and a concern with the idea of a “Zone,” found first in Apollinaire and later in Tarkovsky. It’s difficult, however, to ascribe a chronology to these pieces: there are a handful of dates which suggest that these essays take place across the 1990s, but it’s difficult to order them. Girlfriends come and go; there are occasional references to things that came before. One has the sense of a writer who’s constantly traveling: but one can’t sense an overriding narrative in the traveling, the frequent problem with travel writing. (Kenneth Gangemi’s The Volcanoes from Puebla, one of the handful of travel books I like, also escapes the temptation of a narrative arc by the formal device of presenting its short essays in alphabetically.) An introduction to the last essay in the book suggests that it was written in 2000 and describing events of the year before, a decade after the first 1991; however, one is hard-pressed to find a clear sense of growth. Rather, one finds a document of a period in time: how Dyer lived in the 1990s, and how, in a sense, travel worked in that decade. While intended as a document of places, it’s become a document of a time. Travel doesn’t function in quite the same way any more.

Dyer wanders the world: he presents himself as an aimless wanderer, but this is something of a ruse: in the decade he covers, he published at least six books. These books aren’t really mentioned here: the reader familiar with Out of Sheer Rage will be able to place his Roman adventures within that context, and one suspects that his essay on New Orleans has something to do with his book on jazz. Dyer presents himself to the people he meets as a writer: but because he doesn’t mention his books in the text, he seems willing to come across as being without portfolio. Dyer’s presentation of himself contains a weird mix of humility and artifice: he presents his flaws and his frequent disinterest – there’s a certain sense in which this book is an apologia for an extended youth  – but there’s the sense that he’s holding something back. We know what he likes and doesn’t like, but the reader is left with a certain sense of distance after finishing the book: there’s a certain lack of autobiography. We’re not over-familiar. I like this.

The essays themselves vary. The pieces on Detroit, Miami, and New Orleans are better than one might expect, as they don’t overreach. Dyer isn’t trying to draw grand conclusions about American civilization from a city; rather, he records specific interactions and impressions. His descriptions of south-east Asian travels make him out to be one of those terrible tourists that one meets on the road, uninterested in anything around them but the next party: but again, one suspects this isn’t quite the case. The final essay, on Burning Man, shows its age: written at the height of San Francisco Internet boom hubris, there’s talk of Hakim Bey, who seems to have mostly been forgotten now, for better or for worse. Descriptions of drug experiences are almost invariably uninteresting. Here, though, he integrates it into larger experience: telescoping out from his local context to past experiences of travel, to Freud’s discussion of the ruins of Rome as metaphor for the mind in Civilization and Its Discontents, to Francesca Woodman’s photography, to Stalker. It works, though it shouldn’t.