SEPTEMBER 1, 2014
WHILE READING Geoff Dyer’s latest unmissable blend of new journalism, memoir, and rumination, I couldn’t shake the feeling that he wasn’t actually getting anywhere, and therefore neither was I. This perception of (albeit enjoyable) treading water was exacerbated by the fact that I was reading Another Great Day at Sea on a tablet, only the second time I’ve ever done so for a review, and therefore unable to turn down the corner of a page, slap a sticker on a quote, or glance at a spine to guess how far I’d traveled. Due to national security concerns Dyer couldn’t mention the precise location of his subject matter, or when exactly he spent time on board (though clues in the text reveal it to have been during October 2011), and this added to the sensation of being lost in time and space. Surely, I thought, notwithstanding that Dyer’s prose is tactile, articulate, hilarious, and provocative — it can’t be denied he’s a damn fine writer — we should have reached some larger metaphorical destination by now?
But then, there on page 165 (of a total of 202), Dyer admits he feels much the same way. Jets are coming in to land over his head at 140 mph before being hooked to a halt in less than two seconds by 2,200 feet of cable, while he sits at the carrier’s fantail, trapped in a depressive cycle of self-doubt. His concern about “the clarity and fixity of the carrier’s unquestioned purpose” has given rise to more general “feelings — and questions — of purposelessness,” compounded tenfold by his decision (and this is always a mistake) to revisit works by other writers covering similar material. His confidence shattered, Dyer is entirely at sea.
Of course, this fluid and discursive style is intrinsic to Dyer’s appeal, so although he was panicking, I knew I needn’t. I knew he’d get a grip; few writers meander toward meaning with such articulate dexterity. In his essay “My Life as a Gatecrasher” (included in his collection Working the Room from 2010), he describes setting out in 1989 to write But Beautiful, his study of jazz, without any jazz credentials beyond his own enjoyment: “Writing the book would bring me to exactly the point at which I needed to be in order to be qualified to start writing it,” he said, because “it’s not what you know that’s important, it’s what your passion gives you the potential to discover.” While he’s hunched in melancholy on the carrier’s capstan I was also reminded of a line from his review of The Hunters, James Salter’s novel about fighter pilots, which Dyer considers a prophetic allegory about Salter’s career, but which could also be an allegory about the challenges of artistic endeavor: “Flying is important not simply as an end in itself but as a test of character, of how one reacts in the face of destiny […]. The pilot achieves — or fails to — a state of grace in and through his isolation.” Referring to his current feelings of isolation and inadequacy while jets thunder overhead, Dyer contends that “confidence is essential to writing […]. You can’t do it without talent but you can’t do it without confidence either […]. I was like a pilot in the process of losing it.” Dyer doesn’t lose it, but when compared to his other nonfiction works, Another Great Day at Sea has a muted tone — as though his wings were clipped — and the reason for this becomes clear when he brings it back to land with a grace and subtlety only writers of the highest caliber should attempt.
Writers in Residence, a nonprofit organization dedicated to understanding the contemporary world, commissioned Another Great Day at Sea. Together with the photographer Chris Steele-Perkins, whose crisp, unfussy photographs adorn the book, Dyer accepted their offer of a two-week assignment embedded on board the aircraft carrier USS George H. W. Bush. The “snapper,” as Dyer refers to Steele-Perkins, is a very adaptable chap, a veteran of less than salubrious surroundings, unlike the fastidious Dyer. You need not take my word for this. He lists, in his characteristic self-deprecatory prose, his various phobias beginning with the horrifying thought — given he is “constitutionally incapable of sharing” — that he may be required to bunk in a dorm together with 200 or so of the 5,000-strong crew. Indeed, the wellspring of much of the delicious irony in Dyer’s work is his “inability to get used to things.” After lobbying successfully for solitary quarters (citing that old chestnut of writers and rooms of their own), he moves on to fret about “the scran, the scoff, the grub. I’m the worst kind of fussy eater,” and with good reason. The primary objective of the head chef, supported by 112 cooks and 180 food attendants, is to ensure that the enlisted eat their way through thousands of six-pound tins of (among other delights) Country Sausage Gravy, Victory Garden Pork and Beans, and Heinz Dill Kosher Sandwich Slices. Dyer nods empathetically while interviewing the chef — this “Sisyphus scrambling up a mountain of food,” this “calorie-intensive reincarnation of the Ancient Mariner” — before insinuating himself into the good graces of the captain’s private larder.
Dyer roams the boat from fore to aft, bow to stern, like a straight, writerly version of Tim Gunn, amazed to find himself in a military-industrial environment given he doesn’t like “noisy, greasy, dangerous places,” while folding his lanky frame through the endless hatch doorways punctuating the endless corridors during the “stoopingest” two weeks of his life. He spends time in the gym, not actually exercising given that he has “a sixth sense in the realm of health and safety” and therefore “doesn’t like lifting heavy things,” but marveling in a manner that he hopes will not be construed as homoerotic at the ridiculously buff crew with their ridiculously perfect teeth, uncomfortably reminded that he is one of the oldest people on board.
Dyer shares with his English compatriot Martin Amis (along with a fascination for dentistry) an abiding affection for the United States, marbled with admiration and bafflement. He is deeply impressed by the boat’s overwhelming air of busyness; it’s “like Whitman’s ‘Song for Occupations’ in an entirely military setting.” Everywhere you looked, everywhere you went, “down every walkway and stairwell, sailors were washing, wiping, rinsing, dusting, sweeping, scrubbing, brushing, buffing, polishing, shining.” (He makes no mention of swabbing, but I assume they do that too.) All these tasks — some of which are simultaneously hair-raisingly dangerous and mind-numbingly tedious — are a perpetual rehearsal for events that everyone stresses that they hope will never occur. The USS George H. W. Bush is a floating evocation of DUTY writ large lacking nothing but a Gilbert and Sullivan soundtrack.
Dyer is particularly struck by how Americans love places where the rubber meets the road, and “the rubber seemed to meet the road all over the ship.” Every “elaborate, hypnotic choreography on display was devoted entirely to safety, to the safe unleashing of extreme violence,” and nowhere more so than on the flight deck, where controllers coordinate the movements of fighter jets on computer screens with a picture quality “roughly that of CCTV footage in a Stockwell off-licence.” After landing, each pilot walks to the front of his or her plane and pats it on the nose “as if it were a horse.” He finds himself confused by acronym-rich conversations and seduced by nights afloat among oil fields when “the sea was a prairie of glitter-green. Moon and oil well acquired circles of white light around them. Up overhead — where before there was almost nothing — was a multitude of stars, unimaginably dense, more light than sky, more star than non-star.” Yes, the whole boat, “the whole enterprise reeked of oil,” as though oil itself were the scent of America, and America the very air in which the crew lived and breathed. Every day at sea was exactly the same as the previous day at sea, and the next day at sea, God willing, would be more of the same, yet daily the captain reminded his crew that today was, nevertheless, a great day at sea, an assertion that the captain “always managed to re-italicize,” and which summed up that unique American ability “to dwell constantly in the realm of the improvable superlative.”
It would be tempting to see the boat as a microcosm of the United States, but it is not; it is a microcosm of certain parts of the United States, mainly the Midwest and South. The majority of the crew hail from one or the other, and the majority of the lower ranks are drawn from the working — not the middle or upper — classes. One crew member argues that “you have a choice to get an education or not,” but the fact is you only have such a choice if you can afford it, and many of the enlisted joined the Navy to secure access to college. In the unlikely scenario that the American government ever mandates free higher education (as is available in my home country of Scotland), I suspect military recruitment levels would be directly affected.
In addition, although the on-board chapel changes function according to the requirements of different religious denominations, fewer than 100 crew members out of 5,000 identify themselves as Jewish, Buddhist, or Muslim. This is an overwhelmingly Christian boat. “We’ve gotten so far away from where this country was founded,” the flight deck commander tells Dyer, “It was founded on Christianity.” Dyer was tempted to reply that, on the contrary, the United States was not founded on Christianity but on the principle of religious freedom — hardly a splitting of hairs — but he keeps silent, restricting his opinions to the page where he stresses that the commander was the kind of man you would trust without hesitation to protect your wife and children yet “the nearest thing to a zealot I had ever met,” and references the late Christopher Hitchens’s belief that “unexamined extremist Christian conservatism is the cultural norm in many military circles.” Dyer’s unwillingness to engage the crew directly over sensitive religious, political, or social issues, because he believes his role as an observer is incompatible with argumentative debate, results in some situations — unfortunately — in which he neither asks nor tells.
The irony, of course, is that if the USS George H. W. Bush were, in actuality, a microcosm of America, or rather a microcosm of that idealized America in which individuals of all gender, religious, political, ethnic, and sexual diversities enjoyed equal rights of liberty, equality, and freedom of speech, then it is possible that the center of its military might, of which this aircraft carrier is the most tangible example, could not hold. What Dyer terms the “hall of mirrors” — to see around oneself a reflection of identical values and beliefs — may be the very thing that allows this boat not only to stay afloat but also to excel. Or is this precisely what a predominantly conservative military establishment would have us believe?
Dyer’s realization that his description of the boat as a “hall of mirrors” is actually an inadvertent quote from Tom Wolfe’s 1975 essay about fighter pilots in Vietnam, “The Truest Sport: Jousting with Sam and Charlie,” which triggers an “oh shit sensation of self-confidence draining.” I guess bringing up Wolfe didn’t rub enough salt in his wounds because he also mentions Annie Dillard’s essay about a stunt pilot from her 1989 collection The Writing Life. It takes a very confident writer to reference the works of others in relation to his or her current project and infer that they did a better job: what if readers are tempted to toggle onto the web to read those very essays and find they agree with him? To my mind, however, Dyer is the equal if not the better of Dillard and Wolfe (and Salter), and I suspect he knows it. He knows he can share feelings of creative inadequacy without risking his authority. I suspect, also, that he deliberately placed the scene on the carrier’s fantail late in the book so that his readers endure that sensation of treading water prior to his crisis, in order to feel the heft of its causes and consequences. Narrative construction in nonfiction is no less artificial than in fiction, but that does not necessarily imply that Dyer — with his coy self-deprecation and flâneur facade — is more manipulative or his intent less true.
Another trigger of Dyer’s mental nausea, as mentioned earlier, is the boat’s purpose, or rather its purposelessness. Surely “the very existence of such a weapon demands that it be used,” while its cruising over the world’s most dangerous waters seems recklessly provocative. After all, “it could not have been at risk if it had not been there.” If a similarly powerful weapon belonging to a foreign nation were discovered puttering off the coast of Maine there would be national and international uproar. Geopolitical pundits might interpret this as an example of American exceptionalism, but others might argue it is proof of American hypocrisy. However, not only is Dyer questioning the boat’s purpose, he is questioning his own. I believe that the deeper, more personal reason for his despondency is because he is currently navigating one of life’s most turbulent rites of passage.
Four months before Dyer began this on-board assignment his mother died, and three weeks after he returned to dry land so did his father. His remarks on their passing in Another Great Day at Sea are brief yet pivotal, I believe, to understanding this book’s undercurrent, that subtle tidal pull of reticence. So I returned to three of Dyer’s essays about his earlier years — “On Being an Only Child,” “On the Roof,” and “Sacked” — which are also collected in Working the Room.
Growing up in England Dyer enjoyed the good fortune of free health care, free schooling, free college education, and social security support when out of work. “I say ‘free,’ but it was paid for, of course,” he explains in “On the Roof,” “by the sweat of my father’s labor.” In his family’s home, “work, like tidiness, was an absolute moral value,” and time and again on board the carrier Dyer meets enlisted men and women whose lives embody the similar compromises and scaled-down hopes endured by his parents. Obedience and the “removal of the possibility of complaint” are the very essence of a military career. “I found myself thinking of my mum and dad,” he writes in Another Great Day at Sea, because they
had impressed on me the importance of accepting things. It wasn’t one’s ability to change things that was important; it was one’s capacity to put up with things, to suck them up. A direct product of their oppression, their lack of opportunity, this stoicism served them well […] I, on the other hand, with the gradual expansion of opportunity offered by grammar school and then Oxford, became aware of an inability to accept anything.
On one occasion during his current assignment he was almost “hemorrhaging tears” with the effort of not having a tantrum over a computer glitch. What had not been obvious to Dyer before was now abundantly clear: “that something sucking was a precondition to its being sucked up.”
An observation about his parents from “On Being an Only Child” also mirrors the awkward complexity of his relationship with the boat’s crew: that the life he has led and “the life I would go on to lead would be so different from theirs, and the most important part of this difference was the way it could never be explained or articulated to them by me.” Stymied by his unwillingness to say things that might be perceived as disrespectful, refusing to break what we Scots term the rule of hospitality, Dyer’s only response to the dizzying gulf between himself and those serving on the USS George H. W. Bush is silence. No wonder parts of the book feel muted. No wonder he questions his purpose. His sheepish embarrassment when faced with the enlisted men and women’s devotion to duty is that of the pacifist, middle-class liberal, enjoying the fruits of a democracy (however flawed) that he did nothing to earn, who now finds himself in the company of those who are willing and ready to pay for it. Freedom is not free, and here, on this boat, is one of the places where the buck stops. “Being a civilian and therefore without rank meant that I was treated as though I outranked everyone,” he writes. “This willingness to step aside, to let me pass, was a demonstration, at the level of courtesy, of a larger point: they were willing to lay down their lives for me, for us.” It is not so surprising then that in the final pages of this fascinating, if understated, book, this normally wry atheist should find himself turning to prayer, praying for the safety of those on the boat for whom he has such tremendous admiration while having so little in common. “I didn’t pray when either of my parents were dying or after they were dead,” he admits, “I just sucked it up, until, after a time, it didn’t feel like sucking something up; it just felt like life, life underwritten by the constant suggestion of death.”
Another Great Day at Sea illustrates perfectly how a gifted writer functions as a barometer, not only for our shared humanity, but also of his or her own inner reverberations. This would be a very different book had Dyer written it before the deaths of his parents (to whom it is dedicated), or had still to write it in the decades to come, long after their passing had receded in his emotional wake. Approaching the end of Another Great Day at Sea, having been surrounded by 5,000 avatars of hard work and sucking it up, has brought Dyer to exactly the point he needed to be to write about — however subtly and aslant — his own mum and dad.