Otherwise Known as My Condition

photo (2)Then, after an interminable amount of time, the back of the old gentleman in front of me shifted out of the way, and I stood face-to-face with Geoff Dyer. Just before the old gentleman moved, as his small talk with Dyer wound down, I realized that there was a rather high probability that I was about to freeze up, and I began to panic.

There was something familiar about meeting Dyer in the flesh. It wasn’t déjà vu, exactly, more like confirmation of a hidden, oft-experienced reality. Every time I sat down, sprawled out, or hunched up with Out of Sheer Rage or Zona or Otherwise Known as the Human Condition, I came face-to-face with Geoff Dyer.

So here we were again — Geoff and I — meeting with a book between us. But this time was different: this time the book was closed. Because we were in the same location, the 3rd-floor catwalk of the Minneapolis Central Library, there was no need for the book to act as go-between. The normally talkative Geoff Dyer sat quietly behind a table. This time he would open the book, and I would say something.

*

It’s probably too late to tell you that I have a literary crush on Geoff Dyer, but I didn’t know about this crush myself until after I’d met him. I knew going into the library that he was one of my literary heroes, but I’d masked the depth of my feelings behind the language of competition.

I discovered Dyer when J.C. Hallman recommended I read Dyer and Nicholson Baker as examples of critics who “projected consciousness” onto the page. As I read them, I was jealous of their ability to mine their own lives for writing material. At least I thought I was jealous at the time. I now realize that what I was feeling was my consciousness uncurling. In the two of them, I saw a way forward for myself, a way to move from aping the garrulous David Foster Wallace and his footnoted footnotes to writing as the less-garrulous but still chatty Chris Fletcher.

First I read Baker’s U and I, a book that started as an essay on the author’s feelings about the work of John Updike (the “U” of the title). Reading Baker induced in me a kind of highway hypnosis. I’d start out watching Baker exchange his 500 pennies for a $5 bill and a hamburger at McDonald’s, pass a paragraph on William James on the left, rubberneck an “esophagus waggling like an unruly forelock” on the right, and begin to nod off at the approach of a “capelli d’angelesque decorative marking.” I’d come to my senses at the next mention of McDonald’s, but sometimes there was nothing to snap me out of the hypnosis for pages and pages. In those cases, the hypnosis would wear off, and I’d groggily skim ahead to the next identifiable landmark. Reading through Baker’s consciousness was simultaneously exhilarating and exhausting.

I avoided reading Out of Sheer Rage for a while because I feared that introducing Dyer into the same cramped quarters as the ursine-looking Baker (who seemed unlikely to budge for the skinny Brit) would lead to a cranial blowout on my part or, at the very least, a honey of a pressure headache.

My fears on that account were, like most of the fears I’ve had throughout my life, unjustified. While Dyer was as much a consciousness-projector as Baker, reading him was like throwing open the windows after a long hibernation.

The differences between U and I and Out of Sheer Rage remind me of the differences between the video games I played growing up. As a video game, U and I would limit the player to first-person mode. And looking through the eyes of a digital avatar can be dizzying, as I found out one motion-sick Christmas.

I was playing Dark Forces, not U and I, but the effect was the same: from time to time I looked up from a furrowed squint to squeeze the bridge of my nose and rub my eyes, which would buy me a few more minutes inside the head of the space smuggler Kyle Katarn. A decade later I was in the head of Nicholson Baker doing the old squeeze and rub to buy time.

As Baker, the reader must put pen to paper and make lists of things Baker remembers about the works of Updike. The reader must scratch Baker’s psoriasis. The reader must dicker with the editors of The Atlantic over the length of the long essay she writes though Baker as she also writes the book the essay eventually becomes. Even though the Baker consciousness branches and doubles back on itself, the reader must march in lockstep in order to progress through the narrative. There is no room for heading down another fork and meeting up with Baker at another juncture. Throughout, the action is relentlessly internal. After all, U and I is a book about the process of writing a book.

Out of Sheer Rage, on the other hand, is a book about not writing a book, and so Dyer is free to do more things the reader can see. Here he is in his London flat hefting the collected letters of D.H. Lawrence against the weight of Lawrence’s selected letters; here he is not reading D.H. Lawrence in Greece; here he is crashing a moped in Italy. As a video game, Out of Sheer Rage would let the player toggle back and forth between first-person and third-person.

Dyer can be as inwardly focused as Baker, but there is space between the first-person and third-person modes of play for the player to insert themselves into the story. At least that was what I was able to do. While watching Dyer roam the Continent not writing his book about D.H. Lawrence, I saw myself. Like Dyer, I write about myself because I’m the one subject always at hand, and in writing about myself, I usually end up writing about my intended subjects.

*

So I said “Hi,” thrust my book at Geoff Dyer, and stood there screaming inside my skull as he looked at the sticky note on the cover. (The sticky note had been given to me as I stood in line, and I had written my name on it in order to avoid any sticky spelling situations. It wouldn’t do for Dyer to inscribe my book to “Kris.”) Should I tell him that he is to me what Thomas Bernhard is to him? Should I tell him that he’s actually heard of me, that I’m the anonymous student who, a year or so back, had told Hallman that Zona was forthcoming? Should I tell him that I’d almost brought Zona for him to sign because I loved the film on which it was based — Tarkovsky’s Stalker — as much as he did but decided on Otherwise Known as the Human Condition because the book gave me hope for my own future as a writer of essays that take as their subject my reaction to the subject ostensibly under observation?

Geoff Dyer turned to my wife Bethany and asked which of us was Chris, which was good for one of those laughs that eases the tension of a socially awkward situation that doesn’t have to be awkward but is because I’m thinking too hard about what to say. Seizing the opening, I joked that I’d thought about having my wife bring one of my books to have signed to “Chris” because I was too embarrassed to bring a stack of books for him to sign. He said that he’d felt the same way in the past. I thanked him, the “you” getting stuck in my throat, and we left.

Walking out into the cold Minnesota air, I unfroze. Filled with self-recrimination, I blathered about what I should have said to Geoff Dyer: I’d enjoyed his piece in The New York Times, the one about going to a dinner party and bringing half a dozen books for Martin Amis to sign despite the social faux pas such a move is. Remembering the essay while getting ready to leave for the reading that evening, I took the wrong lesson from it. I decided to bring only the one book, but I should have followed his lead, bringing all of my books to be signed. Had I said that, I could have forged some sort of connection, shown that I’d read and related to his work and hadn’t just picked up a copy of the book he’d talked about that night.

My wife, seeking to reassure me, told me not to worry, that Geoff Dyer wouldn’t remember me anyway. This truth was strangely comforting. I realized I didn’t want talk to Dyer anyway. I wanted to project my consciousness for him. I wanted him to experience his writing through me, something I could never accomplish face-to-face.

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2 thoughts on “Otherwise Known as My Condition

  1. Your level of self-awareness and your writing style remind me of Geoff. If you get the chance to see him again, you should definitely tell him about the Hallman/Zona thing. He’s really affable, and once you mention something of even the slightest connection to one of his books, he starts asking questions and makes it really easy to have a conversation.

    Also, great post. Had no idea who Nicholson Baker was, but U & I sounds really interesting and I’m going to go check it out now.

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