In 2010 David Shields published his explosive literary manifesto, Reality Hunger. For all the controversy it kicked up, it is an impassioned argument for the poetic essay, a longform prose piece that takes the best bits of fiction and injects it with a bit of reality so it can discard the elements no longer deemed necessary: plot, with its insistence on the relevance of everything, and invented characters. It was a call that caught the collective imagination: as Laurent Binet put it in HHhH, his genre-defying book about the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich: "what could be more vulgar than an invented character?"
"An anti-novel jihad," was how British writer Geoff Dyer jocularly referred to Shields' book, which suggests he may not be a zealous convert to this way of thinking. But he is, in his own singular way, at the very least a fellow traveller when it comes to the blurring of the lines between fiction and non-fiction.
It's no surprise that Shields is an admirer of Dyer's oeuvre, with its strange, slippery close-to-life novels such as Jeff In Venice, Death In Varanasi (2007), and unique non-fiction such as Out Of Sheer Rage (1997), an attempt to write about D.H. Lawrence that ends up being about all the things Dyer does to avoid writing about Lawrence.
Another Great Day At Sea is Dyer's hilarious account of his two-week residency on the USS George H.W. Bush, which is partly about life on a vast aircraft carrier but mostly about being Geoff Dyer: how difficult he finds the thought of sharing a lavatory, and his delight at scoring some free dentistry.
As Dyer puts it: "The longer I spent on the carrier the more convinced I became that, of all the kinds of writer I was not, 'reporter' was top of the list."
Written in Dyer's elegant, playful style, the book is made up of 45 short chapters, most of them just a few pages long. Many of these detail a particular aspect of life aboard the ship - such as the sailors in charge of the gargantuan freezers of processed food, the grunt-soundtracked gym where the lanky author lurks conspicuously, or the under-utilised brig, which makes effective prisoners of the guards who spend their deployment trapped in the carrier's bowels, guarding no one.
But being a Geoff Dyer book, many of the chapters return to the subject of Geoff Dyer: his pernickety eating, his childhood obsession with Airfix models, his struggle to construct a meaningful life. In one chapter he meditates on a crisis of confidence he undergoes after reading Tom Wolfe's essay, "The Truest Sport: Jousting with Sam and Charlie", about pilots flying missions from a carrier in the Vietnam War. It's an interesting comparison but Wolfe was writing during a full-blown war, and Dyer's quieter book seems to me less like classic war journalism and more like David Foster Wallace's account of his time aboard the Zenith cruise ship, "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again",
in which a solipsistic fish-out-of-water anatomises a floating world.
Unsurprisingly, like Wallace's effort, much of the book's comic power comes from the culture clash, this time between the larky British atheist and his 5000 impeccably mannered hosts, most of whom are drawn from America's conservative Christian heartlands. But Dyer is no sniping European convinced of the Old World's inherent superiority and, despite his irredeemable Englishness (he takes a ping-pong paddle on to the ship, hoping for a game), he quickly takes to the can-do American attitude, wiping away tears at an inspiring promotion ceremony.
Another Great Day At Sea is the first of a series called Writers in Residence, commissioned by Alain de Botton.
Each writer is being accompanied on their trip by a photographer and Dyer gets acclaimed Magnum snapper Chris Steele-Perkins, whose images punctuate the text. Many of the photographs are powerful but feel a little superfluous in this context. Not only is Dyer's evocation of life on board strong enough in its own right but surely one of the ways the poetic essay will earn its spurs is by compelling the reader, as fiction does, to be an active part in its imaginative realisation, a process undermined by the images.
That said, Another Great Day At Sea possesses a thin membrane between life and art, a staging area for an investigation of self, an impish poetry of its own. If this is the new reality, I hunger for more.
Another Great Day at Sea
by Geoff Dyer
(Text Publishing $37)