Hu­mour and wis­dom undimmed by the pass­ing years

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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

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