Humour and wisdom undimmed by the passing years
Geoff Dyer’s 2003 book Yoga for People Who Can’t be Bothered to Do It merges memoir, criticism and fiction in what is putatively a collection of travel essays. It is an exuberant and restless mix, and through chronicling drug adventures in Ko Pha-Ngan and Amsterdam, and longer stays in cities such as New Orleans and Rome, Dyer creates a form and style all his own. It is also frequently hilarious. It is the genius of Dyer’s work that he is able to remain highbrow — that is, maintain deep critical engagement with a subject — while being laugh-out-loud funny. As a consequence the English writer’s book jackets carry quotes from literary heavyweights but also from comedian and actor Steve Martin.
White Sands: Experiences from the Outside World is a sequel of sorts to the earlier collection. For a writer whose other titles include Paris Trance and Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, it is a surprisingly un-punning title, but he has lost none of his wit.
All of Dyer’s abiding concerns can be found here: photography, continental philosophy, various literary heroes (most unshakably DH Lawrence), art, jazz, drugs, himself. There are a few international excursions, trips to China’s Forbidden City and Paul Gauguin’s Tahiti, for example, but most of the book centres on American subjects, and his new life at Venice Beach, Los Angeles, about which he often rhapsodises: ‘‘The sky is routinely blue, then it gets bluer still and then goes on to achieve a bluer blue than ever seemed possible: a blue so intense that the earlier blue might as well have been a coloured shade of grey.’’
There are road trips to distinctive pieces of ‘‘land art’’ — Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, Walter De Maria’s Lightning Field — but pilgrimages to more proximate sites as well, such as the house in LA where German cultural critic Theodor Adorno lived out his days as part of a community of emigres that included Thomas Mann and Bertolt Brecht. According to Dyer, Adorno in a bathing suit looked ‘‘not so much puny as unformed, embryonic even’’.
These essays are interspersed with short vignettes that include recollections of his English childhood, and critical riffs on photographs that are reproduced alongside them. The vignettes often return to Lawrence’s idea of nodality — how and why ‘‘certain places in a landscape develop a special quality’’.
In Out of Sheer Rage, his 1997 book on the struggle to overcome distraction and boredom to write a critical study of Lawrence, Dyer writes: ‘‘To be interested in something is to be involved in what is essentially a stressful relationship with that thing, to suffer anxiety on its behalf.’’ This stressful relationship, and this anxiety, is in evidence throughout White Sands. He suffers anxiety on behalf of LA’s Watts Towers because they have been hobbled by an ignominiously tall fence and buzz-killing prohibitions from tour guides such as ‘‘ Do not climb on the towers’’; he suffers anxiety on behalf of Gauguin’s Tahiti because it is a tourist trap and Gauguin was a lech and he knew this already and can’t remember why he wanted to go there in the first place; and ultimately he suffers anxiety on behalf of the thing he is most interested in, his own preservation, which is the source of much of the humour here.
Dyer, like all of us, has aged in the past 13 years, and the tenor of White Sands reflects this, because he can’t stop going on about it. He was in his early 40s and lamenting the slide into middle age when he wrote most of the pieces in Yoga. Dyer likes to involve himself, Gonzostyle, in the activities he writes about and he knew then that his E-taking, dance partying days were numbered. This time around he is lamenting his physical decline: ‘‘I’m as strong and supple as a pane of thin glass.’’
There was a sting in the tail in Yoga: an essay about suffering a nervous breakdown. Dyer is a happier man in White Sands, but again the most personally consequential piece of the collection is found at the end. This is an essay, which happens also to be one of the funniest, about suffering a stroke.
He is shocked he has had a stroke at 55, partly because he has been for most of his life almost
Detail from the cover of White Sands by Geoff Dyer