The opposite of stately and plump, Geoff Dyer walked into Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington D.C., tall and gangly. Even though he is 56 years old and an Honorary Fellow at Oxford, the author is still cloaked with the slightly adolescent air of a slacker. So, it wasn't entirely inappropriate when I greeted him and said, "I am your table tennis nemesis."
"I am ready," he replied. "You can only sharpen a knife so much. And this knife is as sharp as it can be." Then he walked off with Anna Thorn, the erudite booker of these sorts of events.
The first two—The Colour of Memory and The Search—are both novels more than 20 years old, but have never been released in the U.S. The third, Another Great Day at Sea, is a nonfiction work that finds Dyer—an English author known for his "druggy" ruminations, not the American political reporter of the same name—aboard a U.S. aircraft carrier. One of the things he had hoped to do aboard the ship was play pingpong. He managed some "table football," as the Brits call "foosball," but was denied the pleasure of pingpong.
So, when I learned he would be at Politics and Prose, right beside Comet, the pingpong bar and pizza joint, I wrote an email to his PR person suggesting that we conduct the interview while we played a game. She seemed doubtful. A minute later, however, I had an email saying that he was bringing his paddle. I didn't know that the fucking paddle was handmade for him in China, but I still had the suspicion that he would be able to beat me. So I went into training. The night before my trip down to the District, I went up to the Windup Space, where I normally play. And I practiced. I did pretty well—and borrowed a paddle from the bar, so I could also pretend to have my own paddle—but then I got drunk, which meant I was hung over for my match with Dyer.
This fit the patterns of how things had previously gone between us. I was supposed to interview Dyer once before, when we were both in New York for Tarkovsky Interruptus, an event surrounding his book Zona, a contemplation on the film Stalker, which turned out, like all of Dyer's books, to actually be about everything and nothing. We were supposed to meet at 4 p.m. I was interviewing two twin artists across town. We were getting on great. They assured me that I could make it to his hotel in 15 minutes. I couldn't. I found myself running, darting through crowds like an action hero, drenched with sweat, coughing from all the cigarettes I still smoked back then, and when I arrived, breathless, he had already gone.
I thought of that as I rode the train down to Washington, reading The Search, Dyer's second book—and perhaps the only one in his oeuvre to have a plot. In it, Walker, a "tracker," searches for a man named Malory in the days before the internet and cellphones. Throughout the course of the book, set in several imaginary cities inspired by Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities, Walker abandons external clues and relies "more heavily on thinking himself into Malory's shoes" and duplicating his movements, imagining what he might do—in the way a novelist would approach her subject. I looked out the window at the damp landscape passing by and tried to take the same approach in my hunt for Geoff Dyer.
I wanted to make sure I had my shit together, a little bit at least. The pingpong scheme was so great that I couldn't let it be ruined. Because, even if I lost, I would win. The humor in Another Great Day at Sea comes from placing Dyer in an alien environment where he is out of sorts and ill-placed, surrounded by people who are far more competent than he is. Not only does he find himself out of his depth with the sailors, but also with real "embedded journalists" writing about the military—he frets, brilliantly, about how right Thomas Wolfe's stuff on pilots really was. By contrast, Dyer calls his own trip a "vacation." He is a master at self-deprecation; if I lost the game, I would steal his shtick.
But first there was the reading, which had shockingly poor attendance for a writer as good as Dyer. He started with a bit from The Colour of Memory, which he said was "the book that set me on the course of constantly going off course." Like Laurence Sterne, Dyer is an essentially digressive writer. Originally published in 1989, The Colour of Memory follows the narrator and a group of his friends around the Brixton neighborhood in what Dyer called "the height of the Thatcherite era," which he describes as "an idyllic time, because it was possible to live in London with very little money."
I had almost finished reading the book when, in the midst of my pingpong preparations, I lost the bag I was carrying it in from bar to bar.
At the reading, most of the time was spent talking about Another Great Day at Sea, which I had read in its entirety. The book came out of a writers-in-residence program begun by the pop philosopher Alain de Botton, who wrote a book about spending a week in Heathrow Airport and assigns other writers similar projects. Dyer loved model airplanes as a child, and said an American aircraft carrier was his first and obvious choice. A couple weeks ago, de Botton admitted to Dyer that when they were setting up the excursion, the Navy thought he was that other, more dire Dyer. When someone asked why he didn't choose a British carrier, he first joked about how they don't have any carriers anymore ("We're still broke from World War II") and spoke movingly about the toxicity of the British class system ("The great triumph of American Democracy: Anyone can speak to anyone else."). The thing he didn't like about the American ship was that there was no beer.
That was our cue to go next door. After the queue that had formed for him to sign books dispersed, that is. When we made it over to the bar, I ordered a couple pints of IPA, while Dyer went into the bathroom to change into his pingpong clothes—a flannel shirt and some Adidas track pants. "I get so sweaty when I play," he said.
When he returned, I said I hoped I could record our game and do an interview while playing. "If you're not going to be serious, I'm going to find someone else to play with," he said, scanning the room and clearly uninterested, for the moment, in a journalistic conversation.
The blue table seemed to stretch out endlessly between us like the flight deck of an aircraft carrier, and Dyer showed the same precision that he finds in the pilots in his book. The white balls came perfectly onto my deck, occasionally even catching on the net, so that they stopped suddenly and toppled safely over onto my side and out of my clumsy, lunging reach.
I did manage to hold my own. He would get way ahead, then I'd narrow his lead with three or four points in a row. Anna Thorn, from the bookstore, joined us. Once, I hit the ball and it almost went up her skirt. "Things almost just got really interesting," Dyer said.
"I think that would mean he won," Thorn said.
That was the only way I could have won, especially after Dyer unleashed what I dubbed his "D.H. Lawrence shot" that came Out of Sheer Rage, and sent the ball slamming against my side of the table and then straight past me to nestle itself in the black curtains covering the walls. Out of Sheer Rage is Dyer's book about not being able to write a book about D.H. Lawrence that then, somehow, becomes the book about Lawrence. "That's what I look forward to: no longer having anything to do with Lawrence," he wrote late in Rage. His Lawrence shot made me feel that way about Dyer himself. But even worse, it made him feel that way about me, because he soon banished me from the game to play against 19-year-old Harrison Hughes, a kid whose playing caught Dyer's eye.
I was rooting for Hughes, big time. I was also extremely glad that Thorn had joined us, since, not being quite up to his table tennis standards, I was now of very little interest to Dyer, who was truly obsessed with the game. And Thorn, who ordered vegetarian pizza and more beer, was great company. Still, I wanted to help Hughes, and since my snapper (as Dyer calls the photographer Chris Steele-Perkins who accompanied him aboard the ship in Another Great Day at Sea) couldn't come, I needed to take pictures (including the monstrous action shot on this page). In his eccentric history of photography, The Ongoing Moment, Dyer writes that a great photo shows the future of its subject and I hoped that, by catching him with a flash in the eyes, my photos would show a future in which I was vindicated because someone, my new protégé Harrison, would kick Dyer's ass.
As it turned out, in their epic five rounds of best two-out-of-three games, Dyer barely nicked out a victory. But Harrison's father, Harry, who played "old school" with a sandpaper paddle, did end up schooling Dyer, who, it must be said, is a great pingpong player, improvising in a way that was almost reckless But Beautiful: Like Lester Young on the sax, he played with the paddle tilted off to one side and as he got deeper into his game, the paddle moved a few degrees further from the vertical, until he was playing horizontally . . . You never got the impression he was lifting it up, it was as if the paddle became lighter and lighter, floating away from him.
He played so well, in fact, that he was invited into a secret back room, the pingpong underground. "You have to be of a certain caliber," he said, looking down at me. "And, I'm afraid you weren't invited, just to be clear." Still, I was allowed to come back and watch. Thorn and I kept talking about books while Dyer played against Harrison, Harry, and another guy who was good enough to make the cut. "This place is heaven," Dyer said . I was having a good time myself. So much so, that I missed the last MARC train and ordered another beer. Finally, as the bar was closing and Thorn prepared to drive a thoroughly sweaty and happy Dyer, floating a bit in his pingpong trance, back to his hotel, I convinced Harrison, the true hero of the evening, to drive me home for $60 (since he couldn't provide a receipt, I'm hoping this line will work for the IRS and the Baltimore Sun Media Group). All in all, it was another great night at the bar.