3p Home Page The Threepenny Review
Winter 2015

But Funny:
Geoff Dyer and Comic Writing

Image Map - Text Links at Page Bottom
Jonathan Gibbs

A syllogism, of sorts.

One. Man is the only animal that laughs. (William Hazlitt.)

Two. Man is the only animal that kills for sport. (James Froude.)

Three. Man is the only animal that likes to make jokes and then analyze them to death. (Me.)

The great risk of this essay is that I analyze to death any love, affection, or appreciation anyone might have for the funny bits in Geoff Dyer’s books. My defense comes down to this: seeing as there are so many funny bits in his books, isn’t it odd that they get discussed so seldom? The comedy in Dyer’s oeuvre, it seems to me, is taken as a given, as the light ground to the text that allows the dark, serious, big stuff to stand forth.

That’s one risk, to add to the two general risks we admiring Dyer critics run. Firstly, of taking an academic approach to a writer who took such great delight in burning in disgust a collection of academic essays on D.H. Lawrence—“How could it have happened? How could these people with no feeling for literature have ended up teaching it, writing about it?” And secondly, of saying anything too directly complimentary about a writer who states he has “little instinct for personal reverence and, though I’ve not exactly been inundated with offers, I know I would hate to be revered myself.”

He does make it clear that it’s reverence for the person that is unacceptable. Reverence for the work is fine—for about ten seconds. Perhaps this would be a good point to bring in his line (I’m not quite sure where it originates, but it crops up in plenty of interviews) about writing an inch from life: “I like to write stuff that’s only an inch from life, from what really happened, but all the art is of course in that inch.”

I bring this up for a particular reason—because that gap between the stuff and the life mirrors the gap that exists in comedy, between the world as it is presented in the joke, and reality as we take it to “really” be. This is the incongruity theory of laughter, which states that “humor arises when one is struck by some clash between a concept and a perception that are ‘supposed’ to be of the same thing.”

However, I want to look not just at the nature of comedy and the comic in Dyer’s books, but at its role, too, in their structure. Why, in a book about our remembrance of the First World War or Tarkovsky’s ultra-serious film Stalker, are there jokes at all? And where do they fall? And if in those, now I think of it, then why less so in a book about photography, or not at all in a book about jazz musicians? And how about the novels? Do jokes work differently there?

I suppose I should begin by trying to describe what I find funny in Dyer’s writing. If you asked me which were the funniest Dyer books, I would probably say Out of Sheer Rage, for the frantic self-reflexivity, the patient evocation of the radical lack of patience involved in writing, and also Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, for the scenes, again, of frenzy and frustration, frenzied hedonism in the hermetic world of the Biennale, frustration at the twinned small town worlds of Marylebone and Varanasi, at the Indian panhandlers and queue-jumpers—not to mention the scene with the monkey and the pilfered sunglasses.

What these two examples—one purportedly non-fictional, one fictional—share is the attitude of the narrators, who are both versions, more or less, of the same “persona.” This term suggests the mask that, in its idiosyncrasies and obsessions, may or may not bear a resemblance to the Geoff Dyer of historical fact, but which is used in the books to channel and amplify a set of preoccupations that carry over to the reader, and yield significance because they are exaggerated versions of universal failings—which is only further proved by the fact that Dyer, or his avatars, are always insisting that they are special, that their situation is unique, that they, not anyone else, deserve the single room on the aircraft carrier. This sense of absolute uniqueness, of unanswerable entitlement, is after all something we all share.

This brief description points us towards one central feature of the comedy in Dyer’s books: those “failings” (for self-deprecation is one of the foundations of the Dyer persona). In Out of Sheer Rage, the two pages describing Dyer’s dithering over whether or not to pack his copy of Lawrence’s Complete Poems are hardly quotable here: the scene is funny precisely because it goes on longer than it has any right to.

Henri Bergson, in his “Essay on the Meaning of the Comic,” cites repetition as one of the central tenets of comedy. In it he sees the revelation of the clockwork mechanism that sits under the supposedly supple and rippling surface of the human character. But that is only half of it. Any action repeated ad infinitum becomes absurd, but by putting stress on such a petty, meaningless action—taking a book in and out of a rucksack is hardly pushing a boulder up a hill—Dyer introduces the notion of folly, and through that of bathos.

Every joke needs a butt, and here Dyer is sending himself up, making himself ludicrous. The fact that he is doing it in the context of a description of his life as a man of letters turns it to bathos. This, bathos—the lunge for the sublime that lands headfirst in the ridiculous—is the closest written language can come to slapstick. It’s the suddenness of the closing of that incongruity gap, the smack of the end of the stepped-on rake, the lurch of the reader’s stomach as the lift of the sentence breaks its cable and plunges through the literary registers. It is so constant a trope in Dyer that it seems almost unnecessary to provide examples. But here’s a good one, from Zona:

Stalker says it’s not possible to believe in happiness at the expense of someone else, which seems a little naïve, especially to Writer, since the knowledge that someone might be a little unhappier than oneself—might have suffered worse reviews and even poorer sales—has been one of mankind’s sources of solace, if not since the dawn of time, then certainly since the advent of literary journalism.

There is plenty of bathos, too, in The Missing of the Somme, which is partly a book about measuring the gap between our ideal emotions with regards to the First World War—what we think we should feel—and what we actually do feel. Dyer and his friends’ joyful mining of war movie clichés, and their naming of their hire car as “the tank,” are examples of this. A more extreme version occurs when Dyer sits watching documentary footage in the Imperial War Museum, and compares his intense boredom to the experience of the combatants themselves: “A title says something about our tireless armies marching without rest and I feel I’m the tireless viewer yomping without pause through the battles of Ancre, the Somme, Arras.” Bergson in his essay talks of the absence of feeling as being, if not a condition, then certainly a symptom of the comic, and that is true here, but there is something more too. The misplaced empathy—the travesty of empathy—pushes right through bathos to something else, to pathos. The extremity of Dyer’s boorish lack of human feeling throws into relief what he should be feeling, which we feel as if in response to his lack of it.

In passing, note how the comedy in The Missing of the Somme does seem to take the form of comic interludes, as you might find them in a Shakespeare play: Dyer and his friends are his own rude mechanicals. It’s not there at the beginning, and it’s not there at the end, whereas in his next book, Out of Sheer Rage, the overall tone—ironical, self-deprecatory, occasionally bathetic—has already incorporated the comedy, and it is there from the outset.

What you often get in Dyer, however, is not so much self-deprecation—putting himself down—as ironical and therefore self-deprecatory self-aggrandizement. He, or his character, bigs himself up—insists on the primacy of his personal experience—in such a blatant way that it’s clear he knows it only makes him look small, which, conversely, he knows makes him look good. Which is it, though? Big and clever, or small and stupid? As Dyer points out in Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, this is the kind of math “that people often find difficult to grasp: that’s it’s possible to be a hundred per cent sincere and a hundred per cent ironic at the same time.”

It’s not so much the math that people misunderstand, I think, as the evolving nature of irony. At its most basic, which is how most people still understand it—even when they use it with a far greater natural sophistication—irony means “meaning the opposite of what you say.” But irony is far more flexible than this. It doesn’t mean meaning the opposite of what you say, but rather insisting on the gap between different possible meanings. The truth of what you say oscillates between the different positions, like a quantum physics analogy in an Eng. Lit. essay, both a hundred percent sincere and a hundred percent ironic, until you try to fix it down to one or the other, at which point it ends up, probably, neither. This is irony plus ambiguity: a powerful new hybrid.

The increased ambiguity puts more emphasis on the role of the reader, who, as per Scott Fitzgerald, needs to be able to hold two opposing ideas in his mind at once. And the idea of the reader brings us to another central aspect of comedy: its reliance on community. Laughter, Bergson insists, cannot happen in isolation. It stands “in need of an echo… It can travel within as wide a circle as you please: the circle remains, none the less, a closed one. Our laughter is always the laughter of a group.” This is a familiar enough idea: comedy works on the premise that some are included in the joke and some are excluded. Laughter strengthens the community of the laughers, those inside the circle, but at the expense of the laughed at, who are outside.

This is where the comic aspects of Dyer’s books are different from the comic writing of, say, P.G. Wodehouse, to whom I turn as the classic example of English comic writing—whose name, in fact, adorns the prize for comic writing won by Dyer in 2009 for Jeff in Venice. In the Jeeves novels (which are, remember, narrated by Bertie Wooster himself), the ludicrous self-aggrandizements of Bertie, his blindness to his own idiocy, is refracted to the reader through the character of Jeeves, who acts like a kind of superhumanly reticent Greek chorus: Bertie comes up with a hare-brained scheme, to which Jeeves responds with all the jaw-dropping incredulity it is possible to squeeze into two or three unimpeachably deferent monosyllables. For example, here is Bertie:

“I don’t want to seem always to be criticising your methods of voice production, Jeeves,” I said, “but I must inform you that that ‘Well, sir’ of yours is in many respects fully as unpleasant as your ‘Indeed, sir?’ Like the latter, it seems to be tinged with a definite scepticism. It suggests a lack of faith in my vision.”

Bergson says that the comic character is comic “in proportion to his ignorance to himself. The comic person is unconscious.” Wodehouse refines this to a quite delicious degree. Bertie isn’t just ignorant of his idiocy, he’s ignorant of it even though he’s fully aware of it. He doesn’t get it even though he gets it. He’s that close to self-awareness.

The humor—the art—is in that gap, which here really is only an inch, but the comedy is in the poles being held in tension. Bertie is a fool, but he is lovable. He creates chaos, but he means well. In terms of the idea of the community of comedy, the joke is that Bertie, in addressing the reader, draws a circle that includes him and us, while in fact the true comic community is us—i.e., the readers—and Jeeves, while Bertie is outside, being laughed at. Which doesn’t mean that the circle Bertie draws doesn’t exist. We like him. We want it to exist. He draws it, and we willingly, laughingly step inside.

The difference with Dyer is that the Dyer persona has internalized our entirely reasonable and rational reaction to his folly. He has incorporated Jeeves into Bertie. When people talk about an unreliable narrator, what they usually mean is a fallible or ironized narrator, one that unwittingly tells the reader more about himself than he means to, or in fact knows. The Dyer persona, the Dyer narrator, is absolutely never unreliable, never fallible, is always in complete control of the ambiguities present in his narration. He is at once with us inside the circle, laughing, and outside, being laughed at. And if he’s outside, then we are too. Whereas the ethics of Wodehouse’s comedy—which keeps it a comedy of joy, not a comedy of aggression—depends on our willingly stepping into the circle to be with Bertie, the ethics of Dyer’s comedy depends on his stepping out of the circle, to be with the people he laughs at.

Compare this to another supposed classic of English comic writing, Kingsley Amis, to whom Dyer has been compared, not least by Zadie Smith and James Wood. Here, the circle of comedy is by and large a stable, closed entity, with a definite, fixed, and fortified perimeter. The people that are laughed at are done so almost scornfully, as in this description of Margaret from Lucky Jim:

The huge class that contained Margaret was destined to provide his own women-folk: those in whom the intention of being attractive could sometimes be made to get itself confused with performance; those with whom a too-tight skirt, a wrong-coloured, or no, lipstick, even an ill-executed smile could instantly discredit that illusion beyond apparent hope of renewal.

Not sentences, nor sentiments, I think, that you would ever find in Dyer.

Now, there is vinegariness, as Wood has it, in Jeff in Venice, both in Venice and Varanasi, but whether it is art liggers or tuk-tuk drivers that are being poked fun at, what is comic in them are elements that are shared too by the poker. The laugher, whether it’s Jeff or his probable first-person mutation, is situated both inside and outside the circle. The perimeter, contra Amis (and, I suppose, contra Smith and Wood), is porous and unpoliced. This happens too in Zona, where even as Dyer is poking fun at, deprecating, the characters in Tarkovsky’s film—Writer, Philosopher, Stalker—he is poking fun at himself in them.

The difference between the last novel’s two sections is that, in Venice, Jeff readily recognizes and accepts his personal identification with the worst of the comic excess he encounters, whereas in Varanasi he—or “I”—only does so gradually, by a process of acclimatization, or osmosis, or education.

The strangest thing about this book is that, although it is undeniably funny, it still seemed odd to see it win a prize for comic writing. But then again, it is structured like a “comedy,” if you take that to mean, as Dante described it, a story that “introduces a situation of adversity, but ends its matter in prosperity”—although the prosperity here is one very far removed from our or Dante’s understanding of the word. This novel, which starts in the hells of freelance London and sweltering Venice, and passes through the purgatory of bustling Varanasi, ends with the death of the narrator and his entry into some muddled, half-comprehended but nevertheless devoutly desired Nirvana. As such—and this is something I absolutely didn’t foresee writing when I alighted on the subject of the comic in Geoff Dyer—it could very easily be described as a Divine Comedy for the secular Buddhist in all of us.

Jonathan Gibbs is a writer and reviewer based in London. His novel Randall, or The Painted Grape, is published by Galley Beggar Press.

Home PageCurrent IssuePast IssuesReading RoomGallery
BooksLinksAdvertisingSubmissionsSubscribeContact UsDonate

The Threepenny Review