As often happens with essay collections (particularly ones read for the writer’s personality rather than his or her topics), Working The Room: Essays and Reviews 1999-2010 is a very mixed bag. Bits of it are funny, bits of it are informative, bits of it are almost moving, but a few bits a little annoying.
I like the writing of Geoff Dyer. I’ve read many of his books, yet with this one I’ve been forced to become aware of the fact that I might not actually like him in real life. And, despite sharing many of his interests, he and I are hugely, widely and immensely different at the core of our beings.
Working The Room is ordered thematically, rather than chronologically, and it contains introductions to classic novels, journalist articles, reviews of books and exhibitions, loose travel writing, autobiographical material and essays on record labels, on jazz, on war reporting, on doughnuts, on the Olympics, on Paris Fashion week and one, the best in the collection, on the unarguable eroticism of hotel rooms.*
On photography, a medium I like but know very little about, he is informative and engaging. Essays on photography take up the first quarter of Working the Room, which I found tiresome for a bit, until by the sixth or seventh I’d learnt enough to understand his frames of reference.** From there, the book spins into a bit about other visual artforms (sculpture, painting), before spending a while talking about literature. I enjoyed this a little more, obviously, but the collection really picked up when Dyer started writing about jazz.
I like jazz, I really like jazz. I’m a big fan of jazz. But I don’t know very much about contemporary jazz, but knew enough to understand the excitement and the opportunity offered by the recent music Dyer describes. His enthusiasm enthused me. From there he goes on to talk about bigger, wider, issues, then looks, in detail, at his own life. Elements of this final section were enjoyable – particularly the essay about his love of routine, ‘Otherwise Known as the Human Condition’, his piece on the moments of his life where he was closest to ruination***, ‘Something Didn’t Happen’ and a surprisingly sweet text about his wife, ‘Of Course’ – but it is here where Dyer’s quirks started to grate.
Certain aspects of his behaviour, his certainty in the truth of his opinions****, his alarmingly snobbish tone when talking about his working class background, his (probably) faux laziness (because, given the volume of books he’s produced, he clearly can’t be as fucking lazy ALL the time as he implies he is), his hippieish-anti-establishment pose coupled with gushing praise of his entrance into the establishment via Oxford University and his continued place within it, attested to by the volume and variety of publications these essays originally appeared in.
But, I don’t know, maybe I just read this book too slowly. And I’ve had a tiring week. And I just got back from a holiday. And I’ve just finished an MA. And-
I suppose, perhaps, that I tired of Dyer, here, for the very reason that I enjoy his non-fiction books, which is the presence of his slightly dickish personality. As an amusing foil to an impassioned and articulate exploration of a different topic, Dyer the man is a pleasure to have appear in front of you in texts such as Out of Sheer Rage and Another Great Day at Sea. But a ten page essay about little more than Dyer himself did, for me, drag. His essay on Tender Is The Night, for example, effortlessly combines literary insight with anecdotes of Dyer’s partyish lifestyle. And that works. That works excellently.
When on point, Dyer is a joy to read, and there are essays in here that made me smile and laugh and several that taught me things. Some of them, though, I didn’t like as much as others. And I suppose that, alas, is my point.
Some enjoyable writing here. I wouldn’t avoid it.
* I have tried to find this essay online, but though it was originally published on nerve.com, it appears to have since been removed. These brief bit of research, though, led me to the disappointing discovery that almost every other review of Working the Room (published as Otherwise Known as the Human Condition in the United States) picks ‘Sex and Hotels’ as the highlight too. What is the point of me?
**One of Dyer’s books I haven’t read is all about photography. I will try to locate a copy soon.
*** i.e. behaviour that could have got him expelled from Oxford University, driving on the wrong side of a road by mistake and accidentally smuggling skunk through a US airport.
**** Is this, though, a normal thing? Am I rare for not thinking that the things I think are irrefutable?