A COUPLE of years ago I interviewed the novelist and essayist Geoff Dyer for this newspaper at his home in London. We talked mostly about his then-new book Zona, a typically chatty (and characteristically unclassifiable) treatise on the Andrei Tarkovsky film Stalker. Dyer also told me that he had just spent two weeks as a writer-in-residence aboard a US Navy aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf.
“And how was that?” I asked, perhaps hoping for some caustic drawing-room witticism. “Fantastic,” he said. “I love the American military.” Then he raised an eyebrow pointedly, and preemptively, as if daring me to raise my own. The premise of that visit, and of Dyer’s new book recounting the experience, sounds like the set-up for a joke. Place an Englishman who has written at length of his own impatience, indolence, awkwardness and fussiness – not to mention a personal and social liberalism that extends to outright licentiousness – on a vast and crowded warship with the forthright, upright fighting men and women of the US armed forces …
Much of what follows indeed played for laughs, in much the way you might expect if you’re familiar with Dyer’s style. “Of all the kinds of writer I was not,” he admits here, “’reporter’ was top of the list.” He is, however, the kind of writer who could crack you up with an aside about his murderous contempt for people who take too long at cash machines, in a book that was nominally about D.H. Lawrence (Out Of Sheer Rage). In his fiction he demonstrably does not care about plot, in his non-fiction he doesn’t show much interest in facts, per se.
Another Great Day At Sea – named for the recurring catchphrase of Captain Brian Luther, skipper of the USS George H.W. Bush – will give you only minimal information about catapults, arresting wires, and jet blast deflectors, and the technical logistics of launching superfast planes from these carriers. And Dyer barely gets into the political context of naval manoeuvres off the coast of Iran.
By temperament, he only offer his impressions of life aboard that vessel, inevitably coloured by his worries and complaints: his refusal to eat the food, his chagrin at being the oldest person on the ship, his discomfort as a tall man passing through low hatchways, his insistence on a private berth and subsequent lack of sleep because of the skull-splitting noise from the flight deck. Some of this grumpiness is hilarious, and some of it reads like the worst of David Sedaris, or even worse, Bill Bryson, whose self-absorption often goads the reader into shrieking, ”Oh God, who cares?” At the same time, Dyer’s apparent solipsism belies his genuine humility in the company of competent and efficient people who are deeply in love with their jobs.
His brief interviews with mechanics, cooks, fighter pilots, and commanding officers are all shot through with his self-confessed admiration for the distinctly American ability “to dwell constantly in the realm of the improvable superlative”. The ship’s personnel are unfailingly polite to the writer, and he’s inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt, even when they seem the sort of over-zealous, under-educated Christian conservative hawks that confirm every prejudice of atheistic Euro-intellectual doves.
But Dyer is no pushover either. Sitting in on a Pentacostal bible study class led by seaman Curtis Bell, Dyer is moved by the songs but not by the rhetoric, describing Bell’s reasoning as “no better than an aged mullah reducing the complexities of the world to something that could be resolved by a close study of the Qu’ran”.
Confronted with the smiling but uncompromising religiosity of Lieutenant Commander Ron Rancourt – who is “outraged” by the supposed tyranny of Obama’s health care reforms – Dyer points out that many join the navy for a lack of other options, and for the benefits that come with military service, including free health care. (A view later confirmed by another senior officer.) Structured as a series of encounters, the book becomes a sequence of moments to set alongside the photographs taken by Magnum veteran Chris Steele-Perkins.
Dyer’s deceptively conversational approach seems to bring out a casual lyricism in the flyers and sailors attached to this war-machine, though he allows that it may simply be the sky and sea inviting contemplation. One aviator describes night missions at 30,000 feet in terms reminiscent of the great poet-pilot Antoine De Saint-Exupery. A young lieutenant named Clinton Stonewall III marvels at the never-ending cycle of ocean rain that allows him to sail on the same water that Noah and Christopher Columbus once crossed.
And Dyer himself can move from a viscerally detailed gripe about digestion and defecation to a cosmically awestruck rendering of the ship’s passage through the universe, as seen through a borrowed pair of high-grade night-vision goggles: “a multitude of stars, unimaginably dense, more light than sky, more star than non-star”. This speaks to the mysterious effect of all his best books, fiction and non-fiction. For such a worldly writer, Dyer often seems to verge on transcendence.