In his new book about life on an aircraft carrier, Geoff Dyer is worried — about food.
“I’m the worst kind of fussy eater,” Dyer writes. “I don’t have any generic objections to food types, but I have aversions and revulsions so intense and varied that I struggle to keep track of them myself.”
Dyer’s worst fears are realized right off: Breakfast is a “fried reek of congealed eggs, bacon and other horrors,” and he lets us know that his digestive tract has much in common with the ship’s frequently clogged toilets.
Dyer is the peripatetic, playful, often dyspeptic British writer whose previous books have considered D. H. Lawrence, the Battle of the Somme, the Andrei Tarkovsky film “Stalker,” jazz, and “Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It.” And he doesn’t eat well until the end of his trip, when he finally gets to dine with the boat’s captain.
The boat is the USS George H.W. Bush. Dyer spent two weeks aboard this carrier, “naval-gazing” as he might say. This book inaugurates a curated series from Writers in Residence, a nonprofit founded by pop philosopher Alain de Botton intent on “recording and describing key institutions of the modern world” by placing “some of the greatest writers on the planet . . . in significant organizations . . . giving them the opportunity to observe and reflect on what they see with unusual calm and depth.”
So, the plan: Drop Dyer on an aircraft carrier and see what he comes up with. This is not a bad plan. Like most Dyer fans, I know that the point of one of his books isn’t the thing described; it’s the fun of watching his mind at work.
There’s no disputing that the American aircraft carrier is a “significant organization” in the 21st century, but it’s one that presents a significant narrative difficulty: “There is never a dull moment and yet life is an endless succession of dull moments.’’ This is Dyer, more than halfway through the book, putting his finger on the very specific nature of shipboard drudgery. The narrative challenge then is to make interesting an enterprise in which success means that not much out of the ordinary happens, where “[a]n exceptional event was dealt with by the meticulous application of endlessly rehearsed routine.”
In his two weeks aboard, Dyer, too, has a routine: Ensign Paul Newell, Dyer’s primary shipboard handler, conducts him from department to department. In 45 short chapters, we see the whole boat. From the vast stores of food (8,000 pounds of chicken, 575 dozen eggs) to the shipboard dental office at which Dyer makes a same-day appointment to get a checkup on the US taxpayer’s dime, we get a sense of the sheer size of the undertaking.
We get a sense, not specs; feeling, not facts and figures. “The longer I spent on the carrier,” he writes, “the more convinced I became that, of all the kinds of writer I was not, ‘reporter’ was top of the list.” Dyer’s not interested, much, in the impressive physics involved or what all the acronyms mean. He’s interested in ideas.
More often than not, this is a sound strategy. Dyer’s antic, anxious, inventive mind is often fun to follow. But in this book I found myself quarreling with one of his flights of free association. In his ruminations on the essential sameness of the ship’s everyday happenings, Dyer reaches for a literary comparison: “W.H. Auden said that poetry makes nothing happen, and much of what happens on a carrier is dedicated to turning the boat into a poem . . . to making sure that nothing happens.”
Not only does Dyer seem to be straining as he drags out that overworked Auden assertion, he also seems wrong. Auden said poetry makes nothing happen; he didn’t say that nothing happens in poems. If the ship were a poem in this manner, then lots of things could happen within it, even as it exerted no influence on the outside world. This is exactly backward. Ideally, nothing out of the ordinary happens on a carrier so that it may retain the potential for making any number of calamitous things — of vast geopolitical import — happen.
Life aboard the USS George H.W. Bush — its daily order juxtaposed with its potential for destruction — brings to mind not Auden but his older contemporary Ezra Pound, who, in his last completed canto, sighed, “I cannot make it cohere.”
Coherence has never been Dyer’s forte. “One of the reasons I am so bad with facts is that things are always reminding me of other things,” he writes near the end of the book. That associative cast of mind makes him a compelling literary essayist. It has not necessarily equipped him to give us a systematic account of a machine that carries enough firepower to level Tehran. Rather than getting an inside account of “life aboard” the ship, it’s as though we’re standing on the beach, peering at it through a kaleidoscope.