Translating World To Word

by Jessie Roberts

Kathryn Schulz raves about Geoff Dyer’s writing prowess, calling him “one of our greatest living critics” and “one of our most original writers—always out there beyond literary Mach 1, breaking the how-things-usually-sound barrier“:

[T]he essential fact about Dyer’s nonfiction is that it works beautifully when it shouldn’t work at all. Some of that work gets done at the level of the sentence, where Dyer excels. Listen to him on a hot day in Algiers: “Even the ants out on the balcony drag a little sidecar of shadow.” On Roman ruins in Libya: “All around were the vestiges of nouns—columns, stones, trees. No verbs remained.” On a saxophone solo by John Coltrane: “It’s pretty and then dangerous as he reaches so high the sky blues into the darkness of space before reentering, everything burning up around him.”

What’s going on in these sentences is the fundamental business of nonfiction: the translation, at once exact and surprising, of world to word. Writers weight that ratio of exactitude and surprise differently; you can stay close or reach further, out toward the risky and weird. Dyer reaches. You can see it in those precise but strange sidecars, in that startling grammar of ruin, and finally in the sax solo, where, like Coltrane, he pushes so hard on his medium that it threatens to break. Note the word blues, pulling three times its weight—noun, adjective, verb, so much pivoting around it that all the referents go briefly haywire and it seems like the solo is still rising and what’s falling is the sky. And note, too, how the sentence itself is pretty and then dangerous: dangerous because it starts out too pretty (“pretty” is a pretty word; “so high the sky” is Hallmark stuff); beautiful because it ends in so much danger.

Schulz goes on to praise Another Day at Sea, Dyer’s new travelogue of two weeks aboard the USS George H.W. Bush. John McAlley reviews the book (somewhat spoiling its ending in the last paragraph):

Dyer’s tour of the boat (that’s right: boat, not ship) is as closely monitored as an F-18 sortie, even though it’s a relatively stress-free time on the Bush: October 2011, more than a year after President Obama announced the end of America’s combat mission in Iraq. Once Dyer inures himself to the ’round-the-clock “crash and thunder” of the in-transit jets and the “aftertaste of the big meats” served in the mess, he’s at ease to report on the daily encounters prearranged for him. Each brief chapter gives us a peek into another nook and cranny of the carrier’s teeming underworld, or the above-deck “island,” “the bridge and assorted flight-ops rooms rising in a stack from one side of the deck: an island on the island of the carrier.” …

For all the snap and snark in his prose, Dyer can’t tamp down his generosity of spirit forever. This unbeliever — in faith, in wayward military action, in bad food and the snorting of bath salts, even in mourning the death of his parents — ends the breezy Another Great Day at Sea with stunning economy and emotional force, and in the most unexpected way. He says a prayer for the men and women of the USS George H.W. Bush — and for all of us at sea.

Subscribers to The New Yorker can read an excerpt of the book here.