By Ge­off Dyer, Pan­theon Books, 256 pages

Pasatiempo - - IN OTHER WORDS - Do It, forms [A Book About Jazz], White Sands.” White Sands: But Beau­ti­ful Somme The Miss­ing of the Jetty, The Light­ning Field Spi­ral

Es­say­ist Ge­off Dyer makes things up. The much­honored non­fic­tion writer ad­mits as much in the open­ing “Note” to his t rav­el­ogue Ex­pe­ri­ences From the Out­side World: “Like my ear­lier block­buster, Yoga for Peo­ple Who Can’t Be Both­ered to

this book is a mix­ture of fic­tion and non­fic­tion.” In truth, the fic­tion part of the equa­tion is triv­ial, lit­tle more than such things as chang­ing the name of his wife. But it sep­a­rates his work from the usual non­fic­tion es­say. “The main point is that the book does not de­mand to be read ac­cord­ing to how far from a presumed di­vid­ing line — a line sep­a­rat­ing cer­tain and the ex­pec­ta­tions they en­gen­der — it is as­sumed to stand,” Dyer writes. This is a book of thought as well as ex­pe­ri­ence. Truth can be ar­bi­trary, and some­times imag­i­na­tion and the imag­iner must be drawn in to get at it. In Dyer’s crit­i­cal gonzo­ism, the fact-fic­tion ques­tion doesn’t mat­ter, not as Dyer con­sid­ers his re­la­tion to a spi­ral of stone in the Great Salt Lake, or ex­am­ines his frus­tra­tion when he fails to wit­ness the North­ern Lights on a long jour­ney planned to in­clude that ex­pe­ri­ence. What he imag­ines are the whats and the whys be­yond fact and fic­tion. It’s what makes his work fas­ci­nat­ing.

Dyer’s well- in­formed imag­i­na­tion has de­fined much of his pre­vi­ous work. In 1991’s

he en­vi­sions con­ver­sa­tions be­tween Duke Elling­ton and Harry Car­ney, and adds his own chat with a photo of Bud Pow­ell at the pi­ano. The jazz book opens with a dis­claimer sim­i­lar to that in What fol­lows,” he writes in the pref­ace, “is as much imag­i­na­tive crit­i­cism as fic­tion.” He’s per­son­ally in­volved in the sto­ry­telling. His small vol­ume on how we came to un­der­stand World War I,

(1994), de­scribes his hitch­hik­ing around France to t he ceme­ter­ies where Eng­land’s war de a d are buried, col­lect­ing facts and im­pres­sions that in­form the past as he imag­ines it.

Hitch­hik­ing also plays a part in Dyer’s lat­est col­lect ion. In t he es­say “White Sands,” Dyer is t he hitch and not the hiker. He and his wife are driv­ing down U.S. 54 be­tween Alam­ogordo and El Paso af­ter a v i sit t o White Sands Na­tional Mon­u­ment, an “un­stained wilder ne s s ,” a pl ace so white that he finds it hard to be­lieve. Af­ter the Dy­ers pick up the grate­ful man, a “pleas­ant at­mos­phere filled the car.” Then they pass a sign: “NO­TICE / DO NOT PICK UP HITCHHIKERS / DE­TEN­TION FA­CIL­I­TIES IN AREA.” The mood sud­denly changes.

Many of the nine es­says in the book cen­ter on the role of aes­thetic in­stal­la­tions — par­tic­u­larly the art move­ment known as Land Art — and their im­pact on the viewer. (The book in­cludes 10 num­bered, it ali­cized, short i nter­ludes be­tween es­says that give brief glimpses into Dyer’s back­ground and var­ied in­ter­ests.) The ef­fect of these cre­ations is es­pe­cially felt in the piece on Robert Smith­son’s

the salt-stained, cir­cling con­struct that dis­ap­pears and resur­faces with the shift­ing wa­ter level of the Great Salt Lake. Dyer, in a nod to the col­lec­tive imag­i­na­tion, sug­gests that it might be more pro­found to visit the spi­ral when it’s not vis­i­ble. A jour­ney to the Watts Tow­ers in South Cen­tral Los An­ge­les in­spired by its pres­ence on a jazz al­bum cover be­comes a dis­course on what prompted Ital­ian im­mi­grant Si­mon Ro­dia to de­vote much of his life to assem­bling the sturdy land­mark. The rea­son Dyer at­tributes to Ro­dia’s ef­forts is the op­po­site of the cliché about climb­ing Mount Ever­est: “be­cause it wasn’t there.”

In Dyer’s mind, even our most mod­est in­tru­sions into the land­scape — re­mem­ber that warn­ing sign on the high­way — can change ev­ery­thing. How long these ef­fects last is sit­u­a­tional. Time and space be­come in­ter­change­able. Dyer’s ex­pe­ri­ence vis­it­ing Wal­ter De Maria’s near Que­mado ar­gues that such struc­tures need to be seen in the same long-term per­spec­tive as sa­cred and pre­his­toric sites, even as he chron­i­cles the mo­ment-to-mo­ment beauty of De Mari’s work.

New Mex­ico fig­ures promi­nently in the book, and Dyer quotes D.H. Lawrence, an­other of the au­thor’s in­ter­ests, say­ing the state was “the great­est ex­pe­ri­ence from the out­side world that I ever had.” But New Mex­ico is only a stop on a par­tic­u­larly far-f lung itin­er­ary that in­cludes Bei­jing’s For­bid­den City as well as Tahiti, the Arc­tic, and the Amer­i­can West at large. Los An­ge­les is a fo­cus: Dyer has been liv­ing there since 2014, and he’s a writer-in-res­i­dence at the Univer­sity of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia. That al­lows a pil­grim­age to the for­mer Brentwood abode of an­other of his in­ter­ests: the Ger­man ex­pa­tri­ate philoso­pher Theodor Adorno, who died in 1969. Los An­ge­les is also the site of the last jour­ney de­scribed in the book, a trip down Venice Boule­vard to a hos­pi­tal where it’s de­ter­mined Dyer’s had a stroke. It’s hard to imag­ine Dyer, even af­ter the “te­dium of life” is fully re­stored to him, feel­ing fa­tal­is­tic and want­ing to make each day count. “Life is so in­ter­est­ing I’d like to stick around for­ever, just to see what hap­pens, how it all turns out.” We can only imag­ine. — Bill Kohlhaase

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