Geoff Dyer On America

The Eccentric English Writer Reveals His Love Affair with The United States

The cultural observations in eclectic author Geoff Dyer's recent freewheeling speech debunking Anglo-American stereotypes at London's School of Life are captured in these illustrations by Paris Vs New York's Vahram Muratyan. In a typically irreverent sermon straddling literature, comedy, etiquette and language, Dyer combined his encyclopedic knowledge with witty digressions into high and low culture. The author of four novels of genre-defying fiction, including Paris Trance and the savagely comic Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, which traces a disaffected journalist's cocaine-fueled trip through the Venice Biennale, Dyer has also written discerning essays on everything from photography and haute couture to donuts and Andrei Tarkovsky. The writer told NOWNESS: “There's a great essay by D.H. Lawrence where he ends up in New Mexico and says, ‘something in my heart expanded’—I get that when I see the American West, the sense of endless possibilities.” Here the reluctantly London-based Dyer muses on the best aspects of life on the other side of the pond.

Unfulfilled dream
My life is a total failure because of my failure to live in San Francisco. To me San Francisco is where that project which I think of as being American—combining individual freedom with civic responsibility—has been taken to some sort of furthest point. It really is like experiencing what life is like a few rungs higher up the evolutionary ladder. 

American literature
I got turned on to reading contemporary fiction through American writers. Salinger, Kerouac, and Joseph Heller: On the Road, The Catcher in the Rye and Catch 22. There's been something about that American voice, the demotic richness of American language that is not at all class-bound, and is so varied. 

Walker Evans
Walker Evans really established the paradigm of how America looks. From an early age you're so exposed to America in films and television, that there's this weird thing that happens when you go there: it seems so different to England but at the same time exactly like you've always pictured it. When we see pictures of old American towns, or old American cars, I wonder, did it always look nice? Or did we start to think it was nice because Walker Evans photographed it? 

Comedy central
One of the ways we console ourselves with living in England is that we like to say Americans have no sense of irony. There's a beautiful irony in that comment because America is the country that has produced Woody Allen, Seinfeld and Larry Sanders, some of the great ironists of our time. I find Don DeLillo screamingly funny. The irony is raised to such a level that is seems both sincere and funny at the same time.

Service culture
Americans are friendly. It's not just friendliness, it is some sort of daily manifestation of American democratic principles. The first time I heard the expression "You're welcome" was in America. I really noticed the transaction being wrapped up in a nice social exchange. You can't help but notice the way that social ripples––friendly, American ripples––extend way beyond the immediate interaction that created them. I'd go for that “have a nice day” superficial friendliness over deep-seated English hostility any day of the week.

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