The greatest frustration with Geoff Dyer’s publications to date has little to do with the books themselves; it is where to find them. Or, for booksellers, where to shelve them. His latest, White Sands (Canongate, June), has a predictably undefinable quality: ostensibly a travel book, its author claims it is “entirely representative of my stuff in that it’s a combination of fiction and non-fiction; it’s sort of a travel book . . . but I would be really disappointed if it had much in common with a lot of the other books you find in travel.”
Dyer, speaking over the phone from his Los Angeles home, need not worry. The idea of travel is instead a point of departure (“it doesn’t require much thought for one to realise that any travel book worthy of the name has to be a departure from the standard idea of the form,” he says), the basis for 10 eclectic pieces that engage instead with the Lawrencian idea of nodality, which Dyer has probed before, most notably in what he refers to in the prologue as his “earlier blockbuster”, Yoga for People Who Can’t be Bothered to Do It.
“I first got a sense of that idea of nodality—but I didn’t use the word back then—with The Missing of the Somme; that sense of a particular place in a landscape or on a map having some kind of tremendous power to draw us to itself . . . that made me conscious and since then, really, it has been an abiding concern of mine,” he reveals.
White Sands is peppered with such concerns, with Dyer travelling (or not) to a range of such locations: the Northern Lights; Gauguin’s Tahiti; Theodor Adorno’s LA home; Walter De Maria’s Lightning Field; and Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty. Each location grants its visitor an opportunity to reflect on the human element, and herein lies the collection’s strength. Much of it is realised in Dyer’s self-effacing humour: he concedes to choosing a lumpy Adorno tome as his “summer read” for a UK newspaper as he wanted to be seen to be the sort of person who reads a lumpy Adorno tome as his summer read; he chastises himself for missing the fleeting Northern Lights because the bar he was in was screening a football match between Manchester City and Arsenal; after suffering a stroke, he reflects: “I used to pride myself on my sense of direction, but that had long gone south. Or maybe north, or east.”
The collection is tethered by Dyer’s inimitable style, his—to borrow from one of his biggest influences, John Berger—"ways of seeing", and by a sense of place. “It’s entirely about a place and it’s a dramatised, sort of, reaction to a place; people’s relationship with a place is as important as their relationships with each other,” he says. “The nice thing is that you can do things so that a human narrative unfolds, so it’s both an essay on the place and it’s a story as well, in the same way that [titular passage] ‘White Sands’ is partly an essay and it’s also a story. I like it when these different kinds of writing come together in a single entity.”
The narratives are also bound by a sort of religiosity, or anti-religiosity, with mythic elements abounding, parable-like passages and an interrogation of the concept of pilgrimage—yet, the author says “the term I would prefer to religion is that it is dealing with primal things. I think that if you are a resolute, unswerving atheist, you have that sense that you are conscious of the God-shaped hole that has been left in the wake of any religious belief, and in a way one is much more drawn to articulate why it is that certain places, or certain experiences, have a kind of power . . . that sort of appeal to instincts which might previously have been met by some kind of orthodox religious thing.”
He explored this Nietzschean thread in Yoga, writing that the German “claimed that prayer was invented to give stupid people something to do with their hands”, and musing: “Perhaps, in sacred sites, this is the function of the modern camera: to give you something to do with your hands. I didn’t have a camera, of course; all I could do was be there.” Dyer, whose next project will be a Garry Winogrand retrospective, has written extensively on the topic of photography—including a book, The Ongoing Moment, on the topic—and it is another trope that seeps through White Sands, tied to the concept of vision (“it is possible to go to Tahiti without seeing it”); nodality (referencing Antoine Wilson’s Slow Paparazzo project, which comprises photographs of places taken seconds after celebrities have departed); and experiencing time as a spatial dimension (“much geographical travel is actually a form of time travel,” he writes, “I was, to all intents and purposes, a visitor from a thousand years hence, come back to puzzle over the significance of this place”).
While he says White Sands is very much a successor to Yoga, “I guess the big difference is that there the peak experiences—that’s another way of putting it, instead of religious—are much more, sort of, hedonistic . . . and quite often drug-related.”
There is no psychedelic dimension to the new book, he hastily adds; rather it is a quest for sober peak experiences. “I have always felt that experiences that might be located in the realm of the aesthetic—such as looking at a painting or listening to an incredible piece of music—are not kind of cordoned off in some other area of your life to the stuff where other things ‘happen’, like meeting a woman that you fall in love with or something like that. Those experiences in front of certain works of art can be as absolutely as profound as something happening in real life.”
Parallel to the peak experience is another sense, its polar opposite, perhaps, one that the collection does not shy away from: disappointment. The theme is another which pervades his previous books, often embodied in a humorous tirade at his own idleness or lack of application to a given task; or his frequently hyperbolic vexation at seemingly minor irritations.
“The devastating scale and frequency of my disappointment was proof of how much I still expected and wanted from the world, of what high hopes I still had for it,” he writes in White Sands, and he says the collection is deliberately “quite frank about disappointment . . . in the Northern Lights passage, it’s all about disappointment. Nearly every experience in the book has a sort of component of disappointment . . .one which is hopefully gotten over.”
And yet, he has high hopes for White Sands. “I hope it’s not going to be a low-key affair,” he says, “because I have had plenty of low-key publications in my time, jeez, I’ve had publication experiences where the key was so low it was actually subterranean.”
When Canongate acquired Dyer’s backlist from Abacus in 2007, it commissioned Nathan Burton to give the oeuvre a coherent look—ironic given the genre- bending books’ discord. “I really wanted them all to appear in a kind of uniform edition, to give it a kind of unity,” Dyer says, before relating his excitement at the prospect of being the London Review Bookshop’s author of the month.
“So that means, you know, my whole array of books in the uniform livery will all be there,” he says. Together, at last. “That’ll be nice.”
This article originally appeared in The Bookseller magazine of 18th March 2016.