Stalking Geoff Dyer
Meeting one’s literary idols is a disorienting experience. They’re always so disappointingly normal. Novelists don’t have the sheen of movie stars; you are reminded that these are people who spend the majority of time alone at their desk, struggling with sentences.
Today I went to brunch in Greenpoint with girls I’ve been friends with for nearly 15 years—a comfortable, gossipy sort of brunch, the kind you always long for after watching Sex and the City but minus the zinging one-liners or TV drama. Afterward we wandered around Williamsburg for a while, and on the L train home I remembered that Geoff Dyer was signing books in Nolita at 4. It was 4:10 then; I arrived at the bookstore at 4:30, and as I stood outside the shop trying to figure out if I was too late, a tall, elegant British man in a corduroy jacket emerged, holding a bottle of water and surrounded by a sort of entourage. I just knew it was Dyer, though I didn’t have time to confirm on my iPhone that this was absolutelyforsure the same face from the book jacket, and yet here I was standing less than a yard from him and suddenly had nothing to say.
And I remembered a story my father told me about the night he arrived early for a Norman Mailer reading back in the 70s. Norman Mailer was one of his heroes—he’d just finished writing a PhD dissertation on the man—and as my dad sat in his car waiting, a car pulled up behind him and out stepped the author himself. Mailer proceeded to walk right past my father’s car window. He watched his literary idol pass; he suddenly had nothing to say.
Because I wasn’t meeting anyone for a few hours and had nothing better to do, I followed Geoff Dyer and his entourage as they walked briskly away from the bookstore. I didn’t have a plan. I suppose I had a vague fantasy that Dyer would stop at a wine bar and I would sit near him and soak up everything he said until he gave me an opening and I would interject with something so perceptive and witty that he would talk to me for the rest of the night and solve all my life problems, but it was nothing fleshed out. Mostly just impulse and too many years reading Nancy Drew and Harriet the Spy. As I tailed them, I stayed a healthy half-block behind—Dyer was so tall and distinguished it was easy to keep track—but really, I wasn’t too worried they would notice me. I doubt esoteric essayists/writers of brilliant, problematic novels worry too much about groupies.
Anyway, after a few blocks Geoff Dyer and his people disappeared into a sort of hippie-ish, vaguely Asian and nearly deserted coffee shop and cafe. I stopped, pretended to study the menu posted outside the door, and asked myself what the hell I was doing. Did I want to talk to him? I could go in there, meekly admit my quasi-stalking, tell him I loved his work, and make up for my cowardice outside the bookstore. But what would I say after that? And what if I didn’t like his response? So I walked away, and later, privately, re-read some of my favorite passages and thought of brilliant things I could have said.
It’s been bothering me, though. Why didn’t I have anything to say to the man, when his books have moved me and inspired me in deep and important ways? His writing has led to revelations I never thought I’d have and restored memories I thought I’d lost and took me to places I never thought I’d go. He’s one of my favorite living essayists—a man I deeply respect and admire. So why not tell him just that?
I think it’s because, first and foremost, it would have been more for my edification than his. Every writer likes to be told they’re a good writer, but I wouldn’t have been able to convey to him all the feelings I wanted to convey—because he was a stranger. An older British gent in a corduroy jacket who has no context for, and no interest in, my feelings about being a writer, my sense-memories from my trip to India, my feelings about divorce and dating, my general attitude toward the natural world. These things belong to me, and he helped them belong to me. But reading is a private affair. Why spoil it by offering it to someone who may or may not have anything to say in return?