Saturday, 2 April 2011

A Year in Books 2011 - Working the Room




Geoff Dyer has a varied backlist that includes non fiction works on Jazz (everyone is entitled to one bad idea), DH Lawrence , The Somme battlefields as well as a number of stylised novels 2 of which, Paris Trance and The Colour Memory are as good as their titles

Working the room is a collection of essays which show off both Dyers versatility as well as his skills of criticism. They are pulled from a 10 year period and roughly fall into 3 parts. The first part is the strongest with each essay focussed on an individual photographer, often using one image (handily printed in the text). I'd heard of only a handful of the photographers featured but that didn't matter at all. In writing about an image Dyer broadens things out to give a potted history of the photographer's life and pulls insight after insight with pure enthusiasm and love of his subject. He gets the balance of entertainment and education exactly right.



Strange then that the next chunk, dealing with literary criticism doesn't work for me at all. This maybe because it mainly featured books / authors I've not read and haven't got an intention of reading . Nothing Dyer writes changes this whereas the photography essays sent me straight on line seeking out further works than the main images featured. Even when writing about a book or author I really liked (Atonement, Richard Ford , Tobias Wolfe) it comes across as well a bit dull with a sense over intellectualising like a 12 " mix if the worst kind of broadsheet review.


It was with relief that the 3rd chunk arrived (after a short detour onto Jazz which I gritted my teeth and successfully fought the urge to skip) which were much more personal essays some flippant (attending fashion week his obsession with finding the perfect cafe in new york) and some run a bit deeper. These tend to be the autobiographical ones that reflect on his parents and his life in his 20s and how that shaped the writer he has become. He talks of writing as a learning experience which is why he jumps genres as often writes about what he initially doesn't know about , Jazz , Lawrence , the Somme etc and yet by the process of writing he finds himself as the one editors turn to for expertise. As someone who really enjoyed both Paris Trance and the Colour of Money (still 2 of my favourite ever titles)I liked seeing echoes of both in these pieces

The other thing that is interesting is that as the essays are written over 10 years and cover a variety of subjects he continually returns to and references a relative small number of touch points eg Miles Davies , John Berger etc, which paints a kind of cultural life.

The edition I've got is a satisfying solid book with a cloth bound spine, made to be dipped into. I read it in one go which made it feel a bit like a 3 course meal made up of dishes that should be used for snacking



You can buy Working the Room here where there is also a downloadable preview

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