Of course I would want to read Geoff Dyer’s writing: operating free of career shackles to any particular subject (+1), he fills his books with formally distinctive (+1) essays (+1) about geographical self-displacement (+1); about culturally synesthetic experiences of visual, cinematic, and musical art (+1); and about avoiding real jobs (+1). He came up an only child (+1) and now enjoys ECM records (+1), cappuccinos (+1), Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (+1), and not having children of his own (+1). So of course I would also want to interview him.
We met up to record a conversation on the balcony of a Sunset Boulevard café. As serious Marketplace of Ideas-philes know — boldly assuming such -philes exist — I refuse to summon the will to write questions in advance. Instead, I lazily spend weeks cramming my unconscious mind with material by my guest and, even more importantly, material around my guest. Then, come conversation time, que será será. But, sitting down with Geoff Dyer, I broke my own habit-as-rule, compelled to know one thing above all: how do you make friends?
However you interpret that question, you interpret it correctly. How does Geoff Dyer, specifically, make friends? I want to know that. How, generally, does one make friends? Yeah — that too. If you haven’t read his more personal or travel-oriented essays, I assure you they offer the impression of a man who collects pals like some collect those flattened pennies stamped with images of national monuments. In certain moments, he acknowledges the slight oddity in this: "I've got used to making new friends at an age when many people are living off the diminishing stockpile amassed at university," he writes.
But I stumble over the age less than that other cluster of attributes, the ones I share. I’ve met other only children who like their Tarkovsky films, their albums from ECM, their Thomas Bernhard novels, and their artisanal beverages. As a rule, we don’t make friends easily. In less sober moments, I sing the praises of my favorite elements of culture as tools to bring humanity together, to warm the pockets of frost between us all, but in more sober moments I wonder if these works of art don’t disconnect me from my fellow man even more often than they connect me to him. We endure the worst of this in middle and high school, a barren time that forces us to fashion identities out of our fleeting yet tribal likes and dislikes, but I don’t feel I’ve completely shaken that taint (to inadvertently evoke a disgusting mental image).
Another essayist, centuries older but still a friend-maker in his way, may point to the escape route. A couple weeks ago, I interviewed Sarah Bakewell, Michel de Montaigne’s latest biographer. I admire many things about Montaigne, not least having invented the modern essay form, but his lack of strong opinions really wins me over. In his work — point out the staggering oversimplification in this if you must — I see a man struggling so hard to be honest about himself that, in the process, he strips himself of his opinions. I’ve come to think of honesty as a solution that, poured on one’s own opinions, dissolves them. When we dig down to bedrock, claims like “I love Andrei Tarkovsky’s movies” and “I hate Andrei Tarkovsky’s movies” amount to little more than — well, grunts, right? We can’t credibly call them honest or dishonest, since their vagueness and rootedness in impulse takes them out of territory where that sort of truth and falsity applies.
Which isn’t to say that we should stop talking about the cultural products that attract or repel us. I just wonder if we should talk about them from richer angles than liking and disliking. In the best critics’ vocabularies, do words like good, bad, and any synonyms thereof have any place at all? In our interview, Geoff Dyer mentioned his current work on a book entirely about Stalker, in which — and only my own conjecture follows — he will not say “Stalker is good,” or even “Stalker is great.” I wager he’ll say something more interesting like, oh, “It's not enough to say that Stalker is a great film — it is the reason cinema was invented.” Hence, I suppose, the fact that I showed up to interview him, not the other way around.