Book Review: Working The Room Essays

By John Gardner

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Working The Room Essays by Geoff Dyer
Canongate $60

Working The Room book cover. Photo / Supplied
Working The Room book cover. Photo / Supplied

One of the pleasures of reading an essayist as eclectic as Geoff Dyer is that one can go within a few pages from regarding him as a fount of wisdom (when his opinions match yours) to thinking he's a pretentious phoney (when they don't).

This collection of his writings from 1999 to 2010 is so kaleidoscopic that he offers plenty of opportunities for both reactions and for a wide spread in the middle. The book is divided into visuals, verbals, variables and personals but these are loose groupings and Dyer's trademark is to blur boundaries.

In the first three sections he is never anything but interesting. The tone is set from the first piece on the photographer Lartigue and one of his pictures of a woman on a lounger in the south of France. Dyer writes she is beautiful although "I can't really tell if that's true, for the simple reason I can't see enough of her face. But she must be beautiful, for an equally simple reason: because I'm in love with her." This is the Dyer approach: unapologetically personal and bounding with enthusiasm.

And so he goes on through a range of photographers from the fashionable Richard Avedon to the technically rudimentary Miroslav Tichy and his snatched pictures of women, preferably young but any woman could do. We are all drowning in images these days but Dyer reminds us of the virtue of taking a long, painstaking look and, like the best critics, sends us back to examining the basic values.

To adopt Dyer's personal approach, I spent many years working with press photographers and so his piece on the great Larry Burrows spoke to me with total authenticity of the hard truth of the business and the perpetual ethical dilemma of whether you take the picture of the wounded or try to help them.

The majority of the visual pieces are concerned with photography but he also has a revelatory look at Turner and he uses a book of photographs of Rodin's work to launch an examination of the nature of sculpture.

The verbal section takes us into literature, treated with the same relish and the same humour. He indulges himself with two pieces on D.H. Lawrence and two on F. Scott Fitzgerald, both making me look afresh at books read many years ago and leading me to pastures new.

The study of jazz in the variables collection is as convincing as anything I've read on this regrettably defunct genre even if I might need some persuading that the post-jazz frontier is being forged in Australia. There is material on haute couture and on the 2004 Olympics which has the characteristic fine line: "Oh, lucky sand, to have had Heike Drechsler landing in it all those years."

If the quality of the first sections is almost universally high, the personal section contains some wearisome exercises in self-satisfaction, as well as gems of honesty like "On Being an Only Child" and his account of meeting his wife.

His memoirs of his mates and his hunt for the perfect donut are like being trapped in a lift with a blogger. It is irresistible to turn to his own words on the yakkety-yak of Richard Ford's character, Frank Bascombe. "The Bellovian gift of the extended gab was more pronounced, there was a fair bit of slack."

But for every bit of tedium there is a lot more intellectual excitement.

John Gardner is an Auckland reviewer.

- NZ Herald

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