Geoff Dyer and David Foster Wallace: A Tale of Two Boats

Geoff Dyer’s main subject is in many ways himself, but he writes about himself as if he were a sponge soaking up the entire experience of living in the 21st century.

dyerGeoff Dyer’s main subject is in many ways himself, but he writes about himself as if he were a sponge soaking up the entire experience of living in the 21st century. His best book, Out of Sheer Rage, is a lengthy treatise about D.H. Lawrence, but it is really about Geoff Dyer trying (and basically failing) to write a lengthy treatise about D.H. Lawrence. A recent essay in the London Review of Books begins with a detailed description of the stroke Mr. Dyer suffered in January only to turn into a heartbreaking riff on what it’s like to be old enough to start seeing death as an inevitability (Mr. Dyer turns 56 in June):

[A] series of trapdoors might be in the process of opening up beneath me. One thing leads to another, each more serious than the last. This has happened because something else isn’t working correctly, and that is wrong because something else is faulty. To find out what that next thing is it will be necessary to burrow more deeply into your being and discover how much if any of that – your continued being – you have left.

He makes oversharing solipsism relatable, and for that he’s very likely the greatest writer of nonfiction we have at the moment. He’s the quintessential everyman through which any reader could substitute his or her own imagination, and the inheritor of the gonzo mantle left behind by David Foster Wallace.

Mr. Dyer is either not aware of this, or in denial about it. In a 2011 essay for Prospect Magazine, he called Wallace his “literary allergy,” a writer whose work he can’t quite finish, and not, as Wallace had been to so many of his contemporaries, the figure he must live up to. (“David and I had a friendship of compare and contrast and (in a brotherly way) compete,” Jonathan Franzen wrote in The New Yorker a few years after Wallace’s suicide in 2008.) His writing, Mr. Dyer said, “is all tics, quirks and obsessive compulsions.” Funny that Mr. Dyer’s latest book, Another Great Day at Sea, which unfolds over the author’s two-week stint as the writer-in-residence (and also resident Brit) aboard the U.S.S. George H.W. Bush, is very much the flipside of Wallace’s most famous essay, “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” in which the author boards a luxury cruise liner only to conclude that the ship is “an enormous primordial engine of death and decay,” filled with tensely scheduled activities that are meant to distract from the stresses of day-to-day life but only exaggerate the author’s “unbearable sadness.” Another Great Day at Sea is like the more expensive sequel with a punchier moral.

Mr. Dyer’s aversion to Wallace is curious given how parallel their styles are here. His new book has the same premise as Wallace’s essay: overeducated and highly sensitive man becomes trapped at sea with a subculture he doesn’t belong to. Though one environment is not meant for ordinary civilians—the aircraft carrier—and the other—the cruise—is entirely provincial, both casts of characters board their respective ships for the same reason: they have seemingly no other choice. The crew repeatedly cites for Mr. Dyer “the Manichean jail-or-dead alternatives” (his words) to the Navy. For the guests on the luxury liner, their mission is “a last ditch effort to salvage sanity and self from some inconceivable crockpot of pressure.” (Wallace compares this kind of compulsive vacationing to needing a cigarette rather than simply wanting one.) Mr. Dyer also shares plenty of Wallace-esque tics in the colloquial reallys and pretty muches that lace his writing. There are obsessive compulsions, and even a few footnotes to boot. Here’s a characteristic passage, from Mr. Dyer’s tour of the mess hall:

I’m the worst kind of fussy eater. I don’t have any allergies and aside from seafood, I don’t have any generic objections to food types, but I have aversions and revulsions so intense and varied that I struggle to keep track of them myself…That’s why I’m so skinny; it’s why, as a kid, I kept being told I didn’t eat enough to keep a sparrow alive. All of which explains why I joined the lunch queue with some trepidation. Trepidation that turned out to be entirely justified. It was all revolting.

Compare this to Wallace on the cruise ship, “availing [himself] of cabin service every night—more like twice a night, to be honest.” (Mr. Dyer’s not making a deliberate swipe, but the line connecting him to his forebear is too straight to avoid.)

What separates these two writers—in fact, what makes Mr. Dyer unique among his generation—is the sincerity of his attempt to relate to his subject. Where a lesser writer—or, it must be said, even Wallace—would keep an icy distance, Mr. Dyer becomes one of the crew members. He ruminates on the ship’s namesake only once, to call the 41st president’s son “a bit of a retard,” but when he attends a ceremony for the promotion of one of the crew’s more charming members, he has literal tears of joy in his eyes. Mr. Dyer remarks that he is as zealous in his Godlessness as most of the crew is in their faith, but by the end of his stay he is joining in the communal prayer that closes out each day on the ship.

Of course, the payoff is not the irony of Mr. Dyer cavorting with evangelical Republicans, nor is it the many-layered paradoxes of the author caving in and finally eating an overdone steak while watching the crew boisterously line dance to Steve Earle’s “Copperhead Road,” a song about a Vietnam veteran who returns home to become a drug pusher. (To quote Mr. Dyer: “Oh, it was just tremendous.”) No, the book’s high point, though something of a nadir for Mr. Dyer personally, comes when he most identifies with the American military industrial complex, tying together all those planes taking off and landing like clockwork on the carrier to the creative process. He sees the pilots suiting up and thinks of the ever ebbing confidence of a person approaching a fatally short runway as similar to a writer with his pen, again and again faced with a blank page. “If only, he thinks, he could be one of the guys on the deck, watching the planes come in, not doing it himself, just observing others doing it; not writing it, just reading about it.” Wallace, for all his dread, never quite voiced a desire to be an innocent bystander. Mr. Dyer, for his part, ditches this angst and quickly moves on.

Geoff Dyer and David Foster Wallace: A Tale of Two Boats