White Sands: Experiences from the Outside World by Geoff Dyer review
Latest essays show the world is catching up with what their author has always been about
Geoff Dyer: has changed the literary game around him. Photograph: Jason Oddy
White Sands: Experiences from the Outside World
It is easy to underestimate the scope of what Geoff Dyer has accomplished. Because his work comes draped not in, say, the sombre, Germanic trappings of a WG Sebald, or the hyperseriousness of a Susan Sontag, but in the affable, jokey garb of a literary trickster, as comfortable riffing about drugs as he is meditating on Theodor Adorno or the Land Art movement, we might assume he is a lesser consideration than is the case.
Dyer is sui generis. His jewel-laden oeuvre evokes the possibility of an alternative literary universe, abundant with sparkling works that stand out from the grey mass of books that could have been written by pretty much anybody.
Dyer’s 14th book has most in common with what he playfully calls his “earlier blockbuster”, Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It. A few comparisons will be of service. Both books are composed of travel narratives that fuse fiction and nonfiction, comedy and criticism, the personal and the external. The disparate, globe-hopping parts are rendered whole by the narrativised vicissitudes of Dyer’s precarious mental state.
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Both books involve music, slapstick, artworks, the search for transcendent experience, and journeys to places that hum with what DH Lawrence (as quoted by Dyer) called a certain “nodality”.
Those are the common elements; the books differ in some key ways. White Sands is the work of a man approaching 60, whereas Yoga, published in 2003, was written when Dyer was in his early 40s.
White Sands is nowhere near as funny – but then, Yoga was the funniest book since Martin Amis’s novel London Fields. Reading it, you were so busy wiping your eyes from laughing that it took a moment to realise how beautiful it was, how rare and profound. In its unlikely way, Yoga was a masterpiece.
White Sands does not have that book’s personal intensity. The Dyer of 2016 appears to be happily married and in the mellow autumn of his life. Where once there was a screwball delirium to the writing, a steady calm has lately alighted on it. The threat of midlife breakdown that made parts of Yoga unnerving has receded.
While Dyer would never want to be a solemn writer (he is not above describing Tahiti as teeming with “total babes in a babelicious paradise of unashamed babedom”), his newfound stability forecloses some of the riveting perilousness of earlier works.
Perhaps this is as it should be: we wouldn’t want a man of Dyer’s years describing how he couldn’t get his trousers on while messed up on shrooms in an Amsterdam toilet (that being a standout moment from the earlier book, which was comprised wholly of standout moments).
That said, new perils do emerge – the final section recounts a stroke that Dyer suffered shortly after moving to California in 2014. Earlier, he finds himself haunted by the jazz music that had inflamed his youth: this resurgence of emotion, he observes, has “something deathly about it”.
In the colourful opening essay, Dyer travels to Tahiti, where Gauguin painted his cosmically epic, and epically titled, Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?
Answering a similarly elemental question, Dyer suggests a possible purpose to life: “We are here to go somewhere else.”
The thematic core of White Sands is a meditation on Elihu Vedder’s painting The Questioner of the Sphinx. To Dyer, the painting “seems emblematic of the experiences that crop up repeatedly in this book: of trying to work out what a certain place – a certain way of marking the landscape – means; what it’s trying to tell us; what we go to it for”.
Dyer’s metathemes arrive on schedule: “an all-engulfing purposelessness”; jazz as the locus of an unquenchable enthusiasm; the quandaries of a life given over to writing.
Not all of it is convincing: a Lost in Translation-style encounter with a woman in Beijing feels like the willed, incantatory summoning of desire – the desire for desire – rather than desire’s scorching expression. (For that, see Dyer’s achingly gorgeous novel Paris Trance.)
A long piece on a work of outsider architecture, the Watts Towers, is engaging only in fits and starts (although it does include some rich reflections on authorial ambition and every writer’s fear “that each book might be their last”).
Like much of Dyer’s output, White Sands brims with “thwarted expectations and disappointed hopes”: books that never get written; other books, crucial to research, that get lost along the way; sights that never get seen. (Even the Northern Lights turn out to be the Northern Dark.)
Disappointment is both motif and investigative method, almost a credo: “When I am no longer capable of disappointment the romance will be gone: I may as well be dead”. The search for elsewhere is plagued by the constant desire to be somewhere else.
The possibility of transcendence in a secular world recurs throughout, most frequently via works of art. Characteristically, Dyer rises above the sniggering, schoolboy’s cynicism so common among English writers to address what might unfashionably be called the great existential questions.
And whereas a Great American Bedwetter like David Foster Wallace will pussyfoot around for 10 torturous pages before squirmingly admitting a concern for such issues, Dyer plunges right in there. The effect is typically refreshing.
One of the most entertaining sections, Pilgrimage, recounts Dyer and his wife’s visits to the former homes of Adorno, Mann and other “gods of high culture” who were exiled in LA during the war.
Dyer’s gloss on Adorno’s aphoristic Minima Moralia would serve equally well for his own books: “There’s a lot of stuff like this . . . the kind of observations you might get in fiction, minus the time-consuming mechanics of plot and story.”
A visit to Utah’s wilderness sculpture The Lightning Field proffers some widescreen, illuminating pages.
While White Sands is less thrillingly volatile than Dyer’s readers might hope for, it is no less rich in insight, candour and breadth of interest. If Dyer’s work now lacks the shock of the new, the sense of form-breaking progressivism that made first reading him such an electrifying experience, it is only because he has changed the game around him, altering the field within his lifetime. Like Kraftwerk in the 1980s, Dyer is now in the position where the world is catching up with what he has long been about.
Traces of him can be discerned widely, in the work of authors who, frustrated by the conventionalism of even much highly praised writing, found in Dyer a blazer of trails towards a literary Utopia wherein the borders have been erased, where prose can move lightly between the true and the invented, the narrative and the meditative, the rant and the paean.
White Sands is a fun, breezy, contemplative stage on an unpredictable journey we can only hope will take us to still more beguiling elsewheres.
Rob Doyle’s collection of short stories, This Is the Ritual, is published by Bloomsbury and the Lilliput Press