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Geoff Dyer’s new collection of essays, Working the Room, begins with a girl and ends with a girl. The first, pictured in a photograph by Jacques Henri Lartigue, is reading a copy of Nehru’s The Discovery of India. Lounging poolside, decked out in a messy hula wig (a hula skirt for the head), white sunglasses and precise red lipstick, she soon has Dyer wondering about her identity. Who is she?
“But there I go, forgetting one of my own rules about photography, namely that if you look hard enough a photo will always answer your question. Well, whoever she is, she’s beautiful. Actually, I can’t really tell if that’s true, for the simple reason that I can’t see enough of her face. But she must be beautiful, for an equally simple reason: because I’m in love with her.”
Dyer keeps up this personal, personable tone throughout the collection, with idle, imaginative musings springboarding him towards wider ideas. Yet his anti-academic approach doesn’t prevent serious insights into his subjects, from Rodin (whose male figures “show the agony of coming to life”) to Denis Johnson (“A writer of distinctly American graininess: a metaphysical illiterate, a junkyard angel”).
It is this personal approach to his subjects—telling us where he first encountered this or that work of art, referring to the author of A Gate at the Stairs as “Lorrie M,” dissing Susan Sontag’s storytelling skills—that makes Dyer such a good essayist. As Alain de Botton says on the back of Working the Room (Dyer’s books generally come wrapped in a tissue of queasy-making praise from fellow writers), Dyer is a master of the “art of the essay, understood as a piece of discursive, personal writing, in which great, often melancholy themes are raised with lightness and very dry humour.”
ADB is spot on about essaying and Dyer’s mastery of the form, but that’s not to say Working the Room is perfect. I needed a certain amount of willpower to get through the essay on jazz, for instance, while some of Dyer’s personal pieces like ‘Sacked’ and ‘Something didn’t happen’ lack the intellectual payoff…