The writers John Jeremiah Sullivan (Pulphead) and Geoff Dyer (Zona) recently met up in New York to discuss writing, Raising Arizona, and self-indulgence. The following is an edited transcript of their talk at 192 Books.
John Jeremiah Sullivan: I’d like to begin by saying what an honor it is to talk with Geoff Dyer, a writer who has inspired me all my career. In fact there has been more than one occasion when an editor has expressed incomprehension at an idea I wanted to do, and I raised my fist and said, “It’s like you’ve never heard of Geoff Dyer!”
Geoff Dyer: Well, I mean obviously it’s just awful at these events—it’s just two people slapping each other on the back. In John’s book—it’s not been published in Britain yet—and when it came to the round-up of the books of the year, inevitably everyone chose Claire Tomalin’s biography of Dickens as their book of the year, but I was so ahead of the curve. I chose this book of essays by this American guy, sort of, seven-eight months before it was even published in England. There is a problem being ahead of the curve—it can seem like you’re ‘round the bend. There’s this huge wave of expectation, and when you come to England, you’ll discover that nothing that happens can quite live up to that sense of expectation in the land of disappointment. So enjoy it now!
Sullivan: Thank you for warning me. Well, I’d like to just talk a little bit about your new book, which I’ve been devouring in recent days.
Dyer: Yeah, that’d be great!
Sullivan: Thank you—I’ll try to put it on thick… I wanted to read a passage that will also give some sense of its method. It’s a book-length response to a single film, Tarkovsky’s Stalker, which I’ll go ahead and admit is a film that I didn’t know well. My wife is a film scholar, and part of the reason that our relationship works is that I stay really dumb about films and she doesn’t read any of my work. We have this harmony that we share…
Dyer: There are those who would say that you stay rather dumb about music as well, John. But let’s keep it friendly for the moment…
Sullivan: [Laughter] I’m just absorbing that… But one of the magnificent things about this book is that it manages to stay in a very close dialogue with the film technically and critically and at the same time, is producing all of these beautiful tangents in the form of footnotes that somehow never go too far away from the spine of the filmic thread to snap, and so it has a kind of beautiful tension to it and a kind of balance.[Sullivan reads an extended passage from Zona]
Over and over your book is doing that in these loops, daring us to think that you’ve gone one step too far off the path, and we’re saying, “Have you forgotten you’re writing a book about Tarkovsky?” And then you snap back with a beautiful little epiphanic insight. I was dazzled by that.
Dyer: The thing is though, I have spent so much time in my book saying embarrassing things, that it means… Actually, let me loop this back to something. Edmund White is a great confessional writer. He’s always telling stuff… There was a time they were discouraging gays from being in the secret service because that could make them susceptible to blackmail. And I just love someone trying to blackmail Edmund White. You know, it’s like, “Yeah? I’ve done that, and I’ve told everybody I’ve done that.”
The key thing it seems to me, this is the wager, really, is that it’s only by being absolutely faithful to my own experiences of the film and my own perceptions—however ludicrous they might be—that means there might be some chance of arriving at some kind of universal truth.
Sullivan: Another thing making it possible to hold those two aspects of the book together is a very artful wielding of footnotes. You did something with footnotes that I hadn’t quite encountered. You patterned them in such a way that we never had to flip back to find out what was working. If we were reading a footnote at the bottom of the page and it came to an end, the next page would just be a footnote completely. I was just wondering how much attention you gave to that. Did you make a study of that or did it happen naturally while you were going along?
Dyer: The footnote thing really was an expedient. When I was writing the book, it was this long kind of screed of writing the summary and whatever came into my head. And occasionally I would put a bracket around something that was obviously so extraneous. And then it was a question of just finding a way to reconcile my other thoughts about the film with my ongoing summary of the film. And at one stage I thought, “Oh, we’ll do it as a parallel text, with the summary on one page and the footnote and other stuff on the other,” but they were so out of whack that there would have been regularly a blank page on the other side. I liked the idea that, as one of the reviewers said, eventually the footnotes grow over the main body of the text like ivy or some sort of weed over a building. And I liked that that was in keeping with the nature of the Zone itself—that the manmade is always being reclaimed by the natural world. It’s funny, there’s this assumption that David Foster Wallace invented the footnote, and having written the thing in the British paper about how I was allergic to DFW, I then started copying him (I didn’t—it was just a technical expedient).[Looks at Pulphead.] I remembered there being substantial footnotes, which it doesn’t have. I think what it is is that you don’t even put your footnotes as footnotes. It’s embedded in the Sullivan paragraph.
Sullivan: Yes, I just keep writing instead of putting it as a footnote. I just keep going.
Dyer: I was talking to someone last night, and I said about these essays of yours that there’s no telling what you’re going to say next. And that carries at the level of the paragraph—you’ve got no idea of what’s going to happen next, and so it’s got that weird version of suspense—then within the larger structure of the thing, that turnaround in the opening story when you talk about your teenage years as an evangelical Christian, and within the paragraphs, each sentence can be followed by something you’re utterly unprepared for. And that’s exciting.
Sullivan: I’m glad you think so. I think it sometimes has to do with changing substances in the middle of a piece, moving from coffee to a cocktail or something. [Laughter] And then there will be a random-seeming, very abrupt change.
Dyer: The key thing is—and this is something we have in common—with these abrupt reversals or changes, the tone can accommodate that, so there’s this overriding kind of cogency.
Sullivan: I agree. I was wondering about that in the context of your career as a whole because it seems that very early on, you decided that the form of your work—that would give it a coherence across the different genres you’ve worked in and the different approaches you’ve tried—would be your voice and also just the circle of your interests. That’s the thing that has become the real signature quality of your work—that confidence that the shape of your own thoughts will be enough to give a formal structure to your books. How early on in your writing did you begin to feel this way, and what gave you the confidence to do it?
Dyer: It’s funny. I think that so often, what can give one the confidence, weirdly, is a kind of despair. Despairing of being able to do anything else. Or maybe that’s hyperbole. Maybe it’s more like resignation, really. Of just arriving at a particular style, which is what you default to given all the other things that you can’t do.
For me, I’ve always found that I was so susceptible to influence but so unable to sound like the person I was being influenced by. So it always ended up sounding like me, even when I was under the impression that I was writing this beautiful, Anglicized version of Barthesian French. It was still just this—weirdly—Gloucestershire English. I’ve said this before, but it’s so true. I think it’s been so determining for me, this absolute inability to tell a story, or to think of stories and plots.
And sometimes, as can happen with any critic, I’ll then go too far, and I’ll take my own inadequacy and use that as a rod to start beating other writers over the head. I’ll say, “Oh, I just don’t like X’s books, or it’s too story-driven.” And then that becomes some weirdly inappropriate thing. But if you can’t think of stories, then what are you left with? Well, you’re left with structure and voice.
And what about you? Do you feel that the style you’ve arrived at is some sort of compensatory thing? Did you start out to be a straight-down-the-line novelist?
Sullivan: No, I never did. And I really relate to what you said about helplessness. Because you know that you do your best writing when you follow your interests, even when they don’t go the way you’d want them to, out of a kind of politeness. I’m often sheepish about forcing my obsessions on the reader, but I know that when I indulge that, I write better. So that became the guiding thing in my work is that I kept indulging that.
Dyer: That’s something we have in common. Too often, self-indulgence is used in the pejorative sense.
Sullivan: Let’s reclaim it! [Laughter]
Dyer: And I feel like we’re here to indulge ourselves. Whenever someone says to me of a book, “Oh, that’s so self-indulgent,” I think…
Sullivan: “Do you have a copy?”
Dyer: Exactly that. And you can tell when writers are really enjoying themselves. And they tend to be in those self-indulgent passages. …So you started by saying “despair and resignation,” and I chipped in and added “helplessness.”
Sullivan: That’s the beginning of a plot forming, there… Well, should we ask how many people in the room have seen Stalker, so that if we start talking about it, we won’t… How many people have seen the Tarkovsky film? A third? That makes me feel less ignorant. I ended up watching it in Russian, too, so I probably have a skewed view.
Dyer: That is extremely interesting because I got a note from the German translator the other day, and there’s a key moment in my book when he’s quoting from the English version of the film (which I’ve seen). And the subtitle says: “Here we are, home at last” when they’ve gotten in to the Zone. Of course it’s a big moment. And the German translator (who of course doesn’t just have two languages—it seems he speaks Russian as well) says that in the Russian and German versions he doesn’t say, “home at last.” He just says, “here we are.” I like the way that this thing—the Zone—is reconfiguring itself according to what people bring to it. So the film is not absolutely a fixed entity but is manifesting itself in these different ways. I’ve actually seen a slightly different film from you. How is your Russian?
Sullivan: I speak hardly a word. But it’s a good film to watch in a foreign language. It’s almost like watching mime. There’s so little dialogue, and you can tell without it what’s going on emotionally with the characters, and so I was able to follow. And also having read your description of it. But an interesting thing: you first mentioned the film in a paragraph in your work about the Burning Man festival out in the southwest—in Nevada. You attended Burning Man several times, did you not? I think you’ve mentioned it in five of your books? [Laughter] I’m positive about that. I maybe don’t know about music, but I know about that.
Dyer: Yes, well at least I’ve not been to—what’s the name of that festival that you’ve been to?—Crossover Festival?
Sullivan: Haven’t been yet, you mean.
Dyer: Yes, I first went to Burning Man in 1999, and for four or five years I was so evangelical about it. It was the biggest thing in my life, and I still regard it as my greatest achievement, that I’ve gone to Burning Man. I still believe in it—absolutely. I certainly never want to go again. [Laughter]
The Zone in this film is this imaginary place, of course, but it seemed to me (and this is something I forgot to say in the book) that it’s of a piece with other things I’ve been interested in. I’ve always been interested in real zones—places that have this kind of special power. I’ve looked through the books I’ve done, and I’d liken it to these places where if you have some sort of Geiger counter, you go there and the Geiger counter would start going mad because these places have some special power. So—
Sullivan: A vortex, as our hippies would say in this country.
Dyer: Yes—what’s that dreadful place in…
Dyer: Yes, exactly.
Sullivan: That’s the vortex. A lot of power there. [Laughter]
Dyer: If there was some power there, they’re really merchandized it out of existence, haven’t they? Yes, so, loads of places like that. The cemeteries on the Somme have that incredible kind of power. And this idea of the Black Rock Desert. The first time when Burning Man moved out to the desert, and 80 people drew a line in the sand and said, “On the other side of this line, there’s a different world.” And then they all held hands and crossed that line, and incredibly, created a different world. And then later on I went to the lightning field—I mean, the power of that place. And then the most powerful place I’ve ever been, in Varanasi, in India, where if you had any kind of Geiger counter there, it would just break. The whole thing would shatter because of the vibrational power that that place has as the result of the Hindu practices that have taken place there. I don’t know if Richard Dawkins has been there, but he would be irrational not to see the molecules of the buildings have physically changed as the result of thousands of years of—you don’t have to believe that the world was created when Shiva wept a tear—to think that this is a place where different rules of physics attain. I really, really like the Zone. In a weird way, even when I’m listening to music, that’s all that I really want to do is just get into a trance-act with music in some sort of zone. You’ve been in that zone with Guns N’ Roses, haven’t you?
Sullivan: [Laughter] About once a week. But that connects directly to many of the things you say about the film.
There’s an amazing description on page eight of the book that shows how much visual attention had gone into your watching of the film in a way that reminded me of John Berger, someone you’ve written about. This is a description of just the look of the film in Stalker:
Even to describe the black-and-white of Stalker as black-and-white is to tint what we’re seeing with an inappropriate suggestion of the rainbow. Technically this concentrated sepia was achieved by filming in colour and printing in black and white. The result is a kind of submonochrome in which the spectrum has been so compressed that it might turn out to be a source of energy, like oil and almost as dark, but with a gold sheen too.
Not having seen the film, I would have admired that anyway just as a piece of prose, but having seen it, it is just so dead-on for the way the film looks. And there were many other things that you noticed that showed that level of attention. One of the most beautiful observations in the book is your note that Tarkovsky is often very subtly zooming in or zooming back out in a way that’s almost imperceptible, but as a result the film itself seems to breathe. I found that very moving and beautiful.
That’s not a question, but it’s praise. [Laughter] So… respond to that praise.
Dyer: It felt good! [Laughter] That chakra was really being unblocked.
Sullivan: Another amazing thing that maybe you could elaborate on (that’s one step closer to a question). This is one of the many places in the book where you mention a very strange and seemingly significant fact in the most glancing way, just in a sentence, and you don’t return to it. But the fact that many people died in the making of this film: the original film editor burned up in a fire with the original film stock; Tarkovsky had a coronary working on the film; there was a poisonous creek running through the landscape, and many people believe this gave cancer to some of the people who worked on it. Is that true?
Dyer: I believe so, although the whole thing is so saturated in myth. This film about a mythical place is itself accreted with myth. But it seems to me this is not at all uncommon. It’s not really often that we hear about these great masterpieces where it all went smoothly, we all had a great time, everyone got on, it came in under budget, and we got it done early.
If you think of the documentaries that have been made about Apocalypse Now and Fitzcarraldo, it’s always this thing about epic falling outs, disaster being courted, huge financial danger—typically the film is right on the brink of collapsing, and then somehow it gets made.
I don’t know the extent that we want to totally geek out on Stalker, but what happens, I think in maybe all of these instances, the troubles they have end up becoming integral to the success of the film.
So in this case, it turns out that they’d used up half of the budget, and everything they’d shot had turned out faulty. There’s a huge debate about whose fault it was, and everyone blames everyone else. But the film was just over with. And that long pause—the stress of it nearly killed Tarkovsky—that proved to be really important because it was in that hiatus that he reconceptualized the character of the stalker and changed him from being a hustler—I think the word Tarkovsky used is a ‘bandit’ or ‘drug-dealer’ type—changes him from being that to being this real, passionate believer and apostle in the Zone. And I think one of the things that affects us so deeply is the stalker’s absolute belief in this place.
I’ve watched it so many times now, and there’s that moment when he gets to the Zone, and he goes off to have a little walk on his own, and he collapses into the vegetation in this state of just bliss that this place that he loves so much, that he’s pinned his whole life on, is as he remembered it. And it’s just—I find it incredibly profound and moving.
One of the simplest motives for me in writing the book was when Coetzee is talking in Diary of a Bad Year about some passages in Dostoevsky, and he says, “I’ve read these pages so many times, and still I find myself sobbing uncontrollably when I am moved.” And then he says, “Why is it that I’ve never become inured to their power?” And for me, this film’s power seems to me to have been increasing over time. You know, it’s been thirty years since I first saw it. And in a way, Stalker is collapsing with relief that it hasn’t disappointed him. And this is another way in which my responses to the film are embedded within something I’m seeing on screen. Because yeah, I’ve seen this film so many times. And its power is undiminished.
Sullivan: And the film is woven into your life whether or not you want it to be, and so there is a feeling of natural recording with the footnotes and with the ancillary observations. I think that’s part of what makes it sing.
Sullivan: How many times have you seen it?
Dyer: It’s funny. It’s difficult to say now because I’ve actually had it running on my computer in different bits. But I think I must have seen it on the big screen fifteen times.
If you were to write a long essay about a film, what film might it be?
Sullivan: Hmm. The Wizard of Oz? Which you confess to never having seen in the book—how is that possible? That’s something I wanted to ask you. Is that strange for an English person never to have seen that film? Here you’d almost have to be raised in a basement chained to a radiator or something not to have seen it at some point.
Dyer: Yeah, you know, it’s one of the unfortunate things about this layer to the book is any change that I make has a huge knock-on effect because there are no chapters. That was one of those. At the end of that note on The Wizard of Oz I say I’ve never seen it and I’m not going to. It was one of these things… Sometimes one’s professions of ignorance are in themselves illuminating, and that seems to me to be, well, that was just stupid. And several people have pounced on that, and I’ve realized, yeah, they’re right to have done that because it was foolish, but I can’t do anything about it. Normally, with a more traditionally organized book, you can cut things. But that idiotic remark, which has served no purpose other than to irritate people, is stuck there.
Sullivan: To me it was refreshing because it disarmed you as a film snob and made us come to the book a little more with our defenses down. And so you can maybe just incorporate that as a reason to have done it.
Dyer: Oh, OK.
Sullivan: If anyone asks about it.
Dyer: One of the reasons it comes up is that it’s that shift from black to white in both films that’s important. Again, at the risk of geeking out, when it was first transmitted on TV in Britain, the film starts in black and white, and so they just transmitted it in black and white. Because one of the unbelievably lovely moments is when they arrive in the Zone and we go into color.
Sullivan: I was curious if maybe writing the book will rob you of the pleasure of watching the film. Sometimes I hate going back to things I’ve written about unless they were really, really important to me (and I know that this film is important to you). But I wondered if maybe it would rob you of some of the pleasure of watching it because now it’s associated with your own work, and it’s no fun to think of your own work.
Dyer: Well, tomorrow we’re showing a DVD of Stalker, and we’re going to interrupt it and talk over it. I’m quite looking forward to it, actually, and not just for the interruptions, but for actually seeing it again. I feel this film is so inexhaustible. I feel it’s like Garry Winogrand or something. You know, I would just never, ever get sick of looking at Garry Winogrand pictures. And then with other stuff, when you’ve written a book about something, you really know a lot about it. With jazz, I really went through a long period where I couldn’t listen to a note of jazz. And then of course you end up coming back to it. Strangely for me, I’m not at all going through a period of allergy to it where I can’t be alone in the same room as this film.
Sullivan: Are you still into rave and trance music?
Sullivan: You were for a period, no? Which I thought extraordinary in a man who would begin with a swipe about music tastes. [Laughter] This puts us on common ground.
Dyer: They say it’s the punch that you don’t see coming! I didn’t see that coming.
Sullivan: A counterpunch…
Dyer: No, I mean certainly what happened with music was that I immatured with age. I liked jazz, and through jazz I got into Indian classical music. And then I did get really into electronic dance music, and thank God I did. To have missed out on that would have been—I was just about young enough to have got into that. And I think for a while, musically, it was the most exciting thing happening.
Sullivan: And you could write to it. You mentioned that somewhere in one of your books, that you could write to it because it was kind of timeless—it has a floating time signature, so it doesn’t distract. Is that accurate?
Dyer: This is one of the greatest advantages of being the world’s leading expert on the work of Geoff Dyer. I can put you straight on that. No, it was not that kind of music (which is entirely distracting) but more than kind of zero-beat or ambient music. Obviously, words in music are hopelessly distracting. Rhythm is distracting. So it’s in this book where I say I was listening to a lot of William Basinski or Stars of the Lid, where it puts you in that—I’m going to use the word “liminal” though I don’t actually know what it means—but I think that kind of thing can put you in some sort of liminal space. By which I might try to mean subliminal, I don’t actually know. What do you listen to when you’re writing?
Dyer: I can’t listen to music at all. My thoughts just scatter when I do. White noise can be helpful sometimes, just even the sound of the city is better than total silence. But I’ve never been able to do with music.
Even instrumental music… If you start, then the music tends to have some sort of narrative in it. Even classical music, I get too drawn into the narrative of it, and it just demands too much attention. And so you want music where almost nothing is happening—
Dyer: [Laughter] Yeah… Do you feel that one of the tests of nonfiction is that one becomes absorbed of it irrespective of the subject matter? So for me, with your Guns N’ Roses essay, which I know I’ve been rude about… I know I’ve not been rude about it in print, but…
Sullivan: I think you’ve been very kind about it.
Dyer: I really couldn’t be less interested in anything than Guns N’ Roses, but of course I really loved your essay about Guns N’ Roses in spite of its subject matter. It seems to me that that’s a key to all of this stuff, isn’t it?
Sullivan: Yeah, I completely agree because the thing I’m writing about is already an attempt to write about something else 99% of the time. And so it’s more important to me that the reader just get into the spirit of the metaphor, whatever it is. And I’m already hoping that whatever the immediate subject matter is will just be a vehicle on the way to this other thing. In a way, it’s even OK if the reader hates it and reacts with a kind of inner violence against the subject. That can be just as useful because then you feel like, OK, we’re both trying to crawl out of it together. Rather than, I’m attempting to purge myself of this misguided affection for whatever it is (Axl Rose in this case).
Dyer: This seems to me to be something we have in common, but you’re not obliged to agree. It seems to me that the essays here and many of my essays are journeys, really, of one kind or another. Sometimes they’re physical road journeys like in your first piece, but more usually they’re some kind of epistemological journey from either relative ignorance or bafflement— curiosity—toward some kind of knowledge and/or understanding. And you know, people talk about Montaigne or whatever, but that aspect of the essay is something that is not often emphasized. Do you feel that’s what your essays are?
Sullivan: Absolutely. I mean, I pray that’s what they are because that’s their potential value. I rarely set out feeling that I have an opinion on the subject that’s interesting enough for the reader. I try not to get into opinion mongering. I hope that the quest, or as you’re saying the journey to understand the thing better, will itself be intense and pure enough to bring the reader along to a place of greater understanding. That’s the only way it’s going to happen. It’s about sensibility. It’s about tacking into your own ignorance and trying to eliminate it somehow.
Dyer: I know even before we started tonight, we were disagreeing about the form this would take. John kept saying, “I want to talk to you about your new book.” But if it’s OK, let’s turn the tables a little bit.
Dyer: In the essay on Mister Lytle, you talk about your apprenticeship years of arriving at your own style. I’d love to hear a little bit about the writers that you were influenced by. How you arrived at this totally distinct style of yours.
Sullivan: I don’t know—I just feel like a chronically bad answerer of that question. I feel like every writer I have come into contact with has had some influence on my style. But definitely that year spent living with Lytle was formative, and he really drilled me in 19th-century French and Russian novelists. And from the American tradition, Hawthorne has meant a lot to me. DeQuincey is a writer who means a lot to me. And Hazlitt I know is someone who is a guiding spirit for you too, right? His eclecticism and insistence on his own eclecticism and lack of an apology for it. That’s someone I think of whenever people say, “I like this book, but it seems to go all over the place.” Well, there’s a long tradition of going all over the place that is as long a tradition as anything else.
Dyer: Yes, there sure is…
Sullivan: I don’t know, it seems to be earlier writers for me who end up giving me more by way of influence, probably because I feel like I can read them and digest them in a way that’s less complicated. When it comes to thinking about your contemporaries and what they meant to you, there’s so much static of competitiveness. Even when it takes the opposite manifestation, and you feel like someone is a comrade. All of that makes it harder to see what the writer has done and what you can draw from it or steal from it. So, I like dead writers. [Laughter]
Can I ask you about a remark you made in the book about the Coen brothers? Which did not seem flip—you accuse yourself of being flip with the Wizard of Oz thing, but you describe their films as “witless.” I’ve heard a lot of Americans criticize the Coen brothers, but it’s usually the opposite criticism that’s made—that they’re too clever by half, that it’s all wit and no heart. And so I just was hoping you could expand on that.
Dyer: Oh, with great pleasure! [Laughter]
There was an occasion when The Threepenny Review was hosting this symposium on Almodóvar, and I was really pleased to contribute to that because I really hate his films, but then I duly wrote something and they didn’t publish it because they thought it was too abusive. And I’ve been waiting for a symposium where I can really pitch into the Coen brothers, and it’s really quite simple, I think.
Here is the fact of the matter: I have a G.S.o.H. I really do have a Great Sense of Humor. We’re not going to debate it—just accept it. [Laughter] And when I’m in a Coen brothers film, in a cinema, I’m surrounded by all of these people laughing their heads off, and I’m sitting there stone-faced. And the reason I’m not laughing and they are is because I have a sense of humor and they don’t. What one realizes is that even people without a sense of humor want to have a laugh. Because it’s fun to laugh, of course. I always come back to this one bit. You know how sometimes you can see someone make a gesture in a novel, and it’s some kind of insight into their soul? It’s that sequence in Fargo, that bit where the guy says, “I need unguent.” Do you remember that bit? That is humor for people with no sense of humor. And after that I just despised them with every fiber of my being. And I even thought that the stoner film, what’s that one called? [An audience member suggests The Big Lebowski] Yes, even that is—well, I can see that we all love Jeff Bridges and all this kind of stuff—but that became tiresome so quickly. Then just the pointlessness of many of the films. I’m a huge fan of Cormac McCarthy. I think Cormac McCarthy is a great genius, but I thought that book No Country for Old Men was basically a kid’s book, really, because it had such childish attitudes toward violence. So, weirdly, that seemed to me to be a successful film, in a way. It seems to me that they are childish filmmakers. And then the remake of True Grit. It just seemed entirely pointless to me.
Sullivan: What about Raising Arizona, though?
Dyer: Oh, that is just unspeakably… [Laughter]
Sullivan: Satisfyingly shocking, is what you’re saying? But he’s talking about the pajamas. When the cops are asking the father who has had his child kidnapped, and they’re asking him to describe the pajamas and he says, “I don’t know, they had Yodas and shit on them. They were pajamas.” Come on, that’s witty.
Dyer: I don’t know, it might be. I can’t remember Raising Arizona at all, this is the problem. All I can remember is the vehemence of my own aversion to it.
Sullivan: That’s what makes us essayists. Your reaction dwarfs the reality, and so we write about the reactions.
Dyer: One of the characters you so movingly portrayed in [“Upon This Rock”] is this guy, Pee Wee, and in the dedication, of course, he dies in 2007. Would you be able to tell us what happened?
Sullivan: Yeah, it was terrible. He was very young when I met him and still quite young when he died. He got a job working in railroad safety. This is what I was told because I keep in once-a-year touch with another of the guys from that crazy band of Christians that I ended up running around with. He said that Pee Wee had been given a job on the railroad moving big pieces of equipment on and off the tracks, and one of them fell on him one day. And this was apparently not an uncommon thing. The group of guys was really messed up by it, and I think drifted apart as the result of it. He was some kind of glue in that whole thing.
Dyer: The passage I was looking for, John, is early on. It’s one of these things that happens. Obviously, I read this after I finished my book, and this description here of these Christians that you’re hanging out with, “They were accepting of every kind of weirdness, and they had that light that people who are pursuing something higher give off.” And had I read that—that’s exactly the light that the Stalker gives off, isn’t it? That radiant look that he has in spite of his abjectness as well. I say “in spite of,” but of course it’s absolutely wrapped up in his wretchedness and abjectness. When you’re writing stories about people, is that something that you’re always on the lookout for in them? Some sort of light like that? Even Bunny Wailer has it in some sort of blasted-apart way?
Sullivan: Yes, I think so. A lot of it depends on the age of the character when you encounter them, or where they are in their lives, because that light can also turn into a kind of darkness. But whatever it is, it’s a separateness, a devotion to something that has caused their destiny to become warped somehow relative to what it might have been or to the destinies of people around them. And I do seem to go like a compass toward people like that.
Dyer: What’s that lovely phrase that you use in the Mister Lytle essay? It’s that description of the South—you were under “the tragic spell of the South.” And do you feel there’s a greater chance of finding people like that in the South?
Sullivan: A greater chance for me to find them. [Laughter] I’m keyed to it. Probably everybody has a landscape they’re keyed to that way. They seem to pop up for me when I go down there. Often in my own family.
Let me just read one thing from Zona – one sentence. I’m sorry. There is no other writer on Earth who would have made this observation, so to me it’s just a distilled little drop of Geoff Dyer. In the Zone, this phone rings, and you make the observation that this would also happen in Stalingrad as the soldiers were picking through the devastation, strange things like that would happen: a phone would ring, or they’d find somebody making breakfast. Something normal and civilized-seeming.
It says, “[The phone has] a rotary dial, so this sequence has added fascination as gestural archeology. It evolutionary terms the index finger enjoyed a long period of dominance in the era of the rotary phone but this action is now close to extinct. The index finger is entering a phase of quietude and disuse while the thumb enjoys a renaissance in the age of texting and mobiles.” [Laughter]
Now, we’re laughing, and it does have humor to it, but it’s also dead on. I don’t know how you do it.
Dyer: I came to the mobile phone very late. So when I got one I noticed that…
Sullivan: Your thumb was hurting?
Dyer: That’s an example of, the sort of thing—we began by talking about that embarrassing stuff. Putting in the little observation that rings true for you, and the chances are the more stupid that observation is, the greater the chance other people will have noticed something similar.
“Reader’s Block,” by Geoff Dyer
“My Debt to Ireland,” by John Jeremiah Sullivan