By Geoff Dyer, Pantheon Books, 256 pages
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