Geoff Dyer is one of those writers who resists categorization. His books and essays are usually a hybrid of several genres: reporting, memoir, travelogues, criticism, and humor. What makes most of them great, though, is Dyer's digressive curiosity, his ability to let one realization about his ostensible topic—D.H. Lawrence, say, or a donut—drift into some other, often personal or hilarious, thought, which then drifts into something else, perhaps adding a fart joke, on and on, until somehow you're back at the original subject, with an understanding of it that would've been impossible if Dyer had taken another, more direct route.
A Great Day at Sea—Dyer's latest book—is no exception. Dyer spent two weeks aboard the USS George H.W. Bush, a Navy aircraft carrier then stationed in the Arabian Sea, as writer-in-residence. As he wandered the huge, 5,000-person ship, he learned of its dangers and acronym-heavy language, met and bonded with the ship's crew. But in addition to its humor—Dyer, a tall, skinny, bumbling, middle-aged atheist from England, plays up the obvious culture clashes, plus his various neuroses—the book is deeply empathetic, reverent even, of the men and women serving on board.
Dyer spoke to me yesterday afternoon about the experience—that interview is below—and he'll join us at noon eastern time to answer questions about the book in the comments.
Being a "writer-in-residence" aboard a deployed U.S. aircraft carrier is a unique assignment, to say the least. How did it come about?
Alain de Botton set up this thing called Writers-in-Residence, which grew directly out of his book he did—A Week at the Airport—where he was there in Heathrow and wrote a little book about it and then he came up with this idea of putting writers in residence in unusual places. So he asked me a bunch of other people if there was anywhere unusual that we would like to go. And it seemed to me crazy to even think about anywhere that you might have a chance of having access to normal life. And so very quickly that narrowed it down, and I'd become increasingly sort of interested in everything to do with the military because of the books I'd been reading recently, and that coincided with this childhood fascination with military planes. So it wasn't a long, agonizing decision-making process. I said quite quickly, "Oh, an American aircraft carrier would be great." I imagine behind the scenes there was an awful lot of to-ing and fro-ing to get me on board. But it was one of these things...I had this sort of crazy wish, and it came true with virtually zero effort on my part. Although behind the scenes all sorts of security checks might have been made, as far as I can recall they hardly involved me at all. But that's probably because—as Glenn Greenwald would be the first to point out—there's no need anymore. Every porn site I've ever accessed is a matter of public record, or is accessible. So yeah, that was how it came about.
Was it difficult to arrange?
The scheduling was complicated because my schedule turned out to be surprisingly full. The first date they proposed would've been when the carrier was coming back across the Atlantic in November or something. And I knew that was going to be an incredible downer because nothing much would be happening, and we'd probably be locked below deck, getting seasick. It turned out I couldn't do that, and I'm really glad I couldn't. I got to be there when they were in the Arabian Gulf, and there were missions going on at all times.
I really have to give the Navy all the credit it deserves. They were so flexible and accommodating, given that everybody on board had better things to worry about than this person coming on board who's just going to be in the way, really. [The ship] is all very operationally geared. I was just sort of a nuisance in many ways.
That—the Navy's eagerness to help, not your being a nuisance—came through in the book. Everyone seemed excited to have you around, and helpful. Did you feel welcomed?
Oh, yeah. I was very, very welcome. Once you've got through immigration, one is always made to feel very welcome in America, once they've let you in. It's a great place to be. Since the carrier is just a microcosm of America, really, that was not surprising. It's one of these things that I've been struck by for so long about America. You know, this amazing politeness of American life that's not at all class specific. It's not like people get more polite as ascend the hierarchy of society. Just incredible good manners. It's always been something that I've noticed.
Not surprisingly, through obligation perhaps, people are even more polite on a carrier. Partly because, the preface of politeness and good manners is to enable the smooth running of any society. And of course, when so many people are crammed together, it's more important that everybody is very courteous because there's so much scope for friction given the proximity.
Did the courteousness and politeness surprise you?
It wasn't really a surprise. The basic political and religious structure and feeling of the boat is one that's quite alien to me. It's politically quite right-wing and religiously, of course, quite fundamentalist in a way. But it was very, very difficult to find any personal animosity. Even the normal sort of thing when I encounter religious people, people of any kind of religious faith, my sort of basic thing is, "Oh, how can you be so stupid? Of course there's no God. It's just ridiculous." But I never had that feeling at all on the boat. In fact, I could sort of feel the seduction of it.
Something I didn't talk about in the book that I became conscious of is the very different way in which the military is perceived in American society. In an irritating way, at airports military personnel get priority boarding, quite often people burst into applause when they see a member of the military. In England, there's a much more deep-seated, sort of inherent distrust of the military. Thinking that in any kind of real class struggle that they were would be there to sort suppress and repress. And then, of course, the long history of involvement in northern Ireland means that soldiers in uniform in Britain have been at risk, so they have to disguise themselves rather than advertise the fact that they're in the military. So yeah, I think they're perceived in a quite different way. And people really believe—and I'm not saying they're deluded—people really believe. There's a huge commitment in this country to this idea of service and serving your country.
Now, I don't go into this in the book because of course it's much more about my experience, but it doesn't take much thought to realize that they're serving their country for something which is actually going to be quite catastrophic for both the country and the world at large. The Bush foreign policy would be an instance of that.
You touched on that in the book, with descriptions of the sheer destructive power of the ship. And you spend time with boat's only female jet pilot, who's retiring to study environmental science as a sort of penance for disproportionate role her job has played in that...
That's right. But at the same time, there's a positive side to that. I mean, okay, she's the only woman on the boat who's flying solo F-18s. But still, it makes the Navy seem a pretty cool institution, in a way. I think I mentioned this, the military was desegregated well ahead of many things in civil society. Segregation stayed on in the South long after had been stopped in the military.
To change things a little bit: The funniest parts of the book were you adjusting to this sort of very regimented, very limited life. What was most challenging for you about being on the ship?
I mean, the food was so disgusting. But then, I'm an incredibly fussy eater. I go to dinner parties with my wife and there's a long list of things I don't want to eat. So it's possible that maybe the food wasn't that bad, but to me it just seemed really dreadful. Obviously, the noise was just incredible. The constant being in the company other people was something I'm not used to. Because even though I'm not one of these writers who can't bear social life, all of my contact with the world is entirely voluntary. Whereas this was just really exposure to other people all the time. Now, because it was just for two weeks it was incredibly interesting all the time, but yeah, that was… I'd get to my room at the end of the day and shut the door, and with a great sigh of relief, collapse into the chair, relieved that I didn't have to see another person for eight hours.
But of course, if you're in the boat properly, that's the thing that is kind of denied you. Because they're in the room, you're sharing them. There's somebody else just three, four feet away. So all pretty standard stuff. I guess the main thing to say is that the Navy life is the exact opposite of the writer's life, which is, you know, you're free to do pretty much as you want. Everyone in the Navy works these really long shifts, but even as a hard worker like Norman Mailer said about the writing life, you can't beat the hours.
You've flown before, in Russia, a MiG 29, Soviet-era jet. Did that prepare you at all?
I don't think that prepared me at all. What I remember about that is it was all this incredible hardware, and all the guys maintaining the plane looked like bums on the Bowery or something. And, you know, it was that real sort of downhill, bankrupt Russian quality. [The U.S. air carrier] was all so fantastically, highly maintained. I guess the disappointment is that I didn't get to fly in an F-18, which I would love to have done, but of course there's no way in hell I could have done that. Because while there are two-seater ones, the person in the back seat is doing something quite important. But even like that, I would always jump at the chance of doing. I would always be up for anything like that.
I ran into a friend in the subway while I was reading your book. He'd read But Beautiful, and we started talking about how you make writing seem so easy–combining reporting with these digressions that gets to a point in a very roundabout way, which seems easy until you try it. Can you talk about your writing process for this book? Was it different than the others?
This one was different in that it was undertaken very much as a sort of commission. There was going to be a series of books. And this, more than any other book I've ever written, was the one that I really was thinking, "Oh, I've got to do this job as a reporter." So I bought that Dictaphone at Heathrow on my way out.
In the last few years, the best books that I've read have been books of reportage, these books coming out of Iraq and Afghanistan. At the end of my time on the boat my admiration for those people—David Finkel, Dexter Filkins, Evan Wright, and others—had increased so much because I just realized all the shortcomings I had as a reporter. The strength that I've had as a writer is a kind of willingness to think, "It bores me doing X and Y, and I'll just do my own thing." But for this, I felt there had to be a greater proportion of reporting in this book, and that I find is not what I'm really good at. I've always been much better at the other stuff. So for me the writing of this book, initially, was really quite boring because I had the experience, and I knew what I made of it. Whereas the experience has constituted a smaller part of the initial writing process.
Do you consider this a memoir? Reporting?
It's kind of a failed attempt at reporting, I guess. But I think before I even got on the boat I knew I wasn't going to be able to do the reporting stuff. So I think it's something where it sort of gradually becomes more of a completely independent book by me. But it doesn't start off that way. Initially I went with the intention of trying to fulfill the straightforward obligation to contribute to the series. And then it grew into a book by me. And grew quite literally in that it only had to be 35,000 words and I found I'd written about twice that. In the end, I cut it down to about 65,000.
It sort of became a more unorthodox book by me than it was intended to be. That's something which I've really always had a certain amount of confidence in. When I go back to the stuff that I wrote about jazz, so often the particular style of a great musician has been the product of not just of their strengths and talents but of the way they manage to turn their weaknesses to some kind of advantage.
What's next? What would top this?
Well, of course, as a serious journalist I'm always on the lookout for free trips. I'd love it if I could hitch a ride on one of these commercial space ventures, the Virgin Space Program. I'd love to. Yeah, after this I think I'd be up for being an astronaut.
UPDATE: Geoff has signed off. Thanks for the questions!
[Photo by Chris Steele-Perkins]