Restless, humorous, shamelessly casual, reading Geoff Dyer is somewhat like an after-lunch conversation with a slightly eccentric uncle, a man who has traveled, who has an infectious love of jazz, a headful of ideas, and a preference for tofu over turkey. —Jason DeYoung
White Sands: Experiences from the Outside World
Pantheon Books, 2016
256 pages, $25
In his Paris Review interview, Geoff Dyer says this about his travels: “I like—and am on the lookout for—places where time has stood its ground… I like being in new places, having adventures, and examining the point where the place and the self interact or merge.”
Restless, humorous, shamelessly casual, reading Geoff Dyer is somewhat like an after-lunch conversation with a slightly eccentric uncle, a man who has traveled, who has an infectious love of jazz, a headful of ideas, and a preference for tofu over turkey. He is also a man who has a point, but has to arrive at it in his own way, on is own time, lest he never get there at all. And the point that he does get to is never what you expected, and it doesn’t quite live up to the promises or the possibilities of his narrative, because he’s an artist of disappointment and inverted expectations. In some ways, he does it to be funny. It’s part of his British humor to make peace with things less than perfect: “I’m English. Ninety-eight percent of anything always sounds good to me,” he says after being told by a doctor that he might not regain one-hundred percent of his eyesight back after a small stroke. But he also does it as an observant and attentive traveler, as when he describes the ruination of outdoor artwork by fencing.
Disarming, humorous prose aside, Dyer’s writing is multi-layered and complex. He tells us that he wants to understand and apply meaning to what he sees and experiences. Yes, he might be disappointed, but he makes something of it, often reshaping what is clearly a non-experience into something worth experiencing: fully accepting the moss-sheading counsel of Annie Dillard, who supplies one of the opening epigraphs to White Sands:
The point of going somewhere like the Napo River in Ecuador is not to see the most spectacular anything. It’s simply to see what is there. We are here on the planet only once, and might as well get a feel for the place.
Geoff Dyer is the author of gobs of books, including novels, essay collections, and book-length works of nonfiction, and it’s his nonfiction for which is his best known. His two most recent books are Zona (which I reviewed for Numéro Cinq) and Another Great Day at Sea: Life Aboard the USS George H.W. Bush. But White Sands is in some ways a gathering point, a return perhaps, to Dyer’s various interests that he explored in other books such as But Beautiful (on jazz), The Ongoing Moment (on photography), and Out of Seer Rage (a quasi-memoir devoted to Dyer’s own desire to write a “sober academic study” of DH Lawrence —he never does; he just writes a book about wanting to write one). He is not necessarily retreading ground in White Sands, but as he says in the book, he has been feeling things from his youth—such as the music of Pharoah Sanders and Coltrane—gripping him like they haven’t in decades.
Pharoah Sander’s “Upper Egypt & Lower Egypt” Somehow a song made to accompany Dyer’s work, as he writes in White Sands, “Upper Egypt & Lower Egypt” is “ten minutes of random percussion and bass and plonking around that never seems like getting anywhere.”
It isn’t easy to say what White Sands is—an essay collection or a collection of narratives?—because of a rather confounding Author’s Note. “[T]his book is a mixture of fiction and non-fiction,” it reads, “What’s the difference? Well, in fiction stuff can be made up or altered….The main point is that the book does not demand to be read according to how far from a presumed dividing line…it is presumed to stand. In this regard White Sands is both the figure at the center of the carpet and a blank space on the map.” Dyer’s also on record of saying that he doesn’t like the term “travel essay,” and that he has created personas for himself in his “non-fiction” before, notably in Out of Seer Rage, all of which tells me that taxonomies be damned here.
Hence, despite reading like a collection of essays in tone and form, for this review, I’m going to call White Sands a collection of narratives, which ought to be a baggy enough label to hold it. It includes nine large narratives, most around twenty to thirty pages in length, with ten mini chapter narratives framing the larger ones—it kind of reminds you of Hemingway’s In Our Time, with its flash-length chapters wedged between full-length stories. These short chapters act as the through line on which the larger, more in-depth narratives hang, and they give shape to the book. The opening chapter, for instance, is about a “hump” of land that Dyer and his friends played on in school. This hump is part of his “personal landscape”—“if we had decided to take peyote or set fire to one of our schoolmate, this is where we would have done it,” he writes. The following, larger narrative deals tangentially with the landscape of Polynesia, where Dyer glumly retraces the footsteps of Gauguin. These mini narratives have various degrees of connection to the larger ones, but they’re important to White Sands overall structure and focus, because it’s where themes are introduced and patterns of thought are reinforced, most notably is DH Lawrence’s idea of “nodality.”
In an essay on Taos, New Mexico, Lawrence says that there are “choice spots on the earth, where the spirit dwelt,” places that create “nodality,” where “when you get there you feel something final. There is an arrival.” These places form due to some fluke of geomorphology or develop a special quality, generally prehistoric. These are places in olden days where people believed that sterility could be cured or sacrifice could be laid and rain would come. Often, it has been forgotten what makes these places so special, with just its ruins as reminders of their singularity. Stonehenge, in popular imagination, might be something of the sort; for DH Lawrence, it was Taos, New Mexico.
White Sands is Dyer’s travels to find secular “nodalities”—areas that have acquired “the bleak gravity and elemental aura of prehistory,” places where time has perhaps stood its ground. He visits the aforementioned Spiral Jetty and Walter De Maria’s Lightning Field—a name that sounds more exciting than the actual artwork. He ventures to far northern Norway to glimpse the Northern Lights, and takes pilgrimages to the Brentwood homes of German philosophers who had fled the Nazis. He spends a day in China’s Forbidden City. And, of course, he visits White Sands, New Mexico, but he’s there for only a single paragraph.
Spiral Jetty, Robert Smithson, 1970
Compared to Lawrence’s rapturous writing—“[T]he moment I saw the brilliant, proud morning shine high over the deserts of Santa Fe, something stood still in my soul” —Dyer’s accounts of these places are calmer, sedate at times, except for his expression of discomfort, for which there are many. His discomfort, however, is our laughter, and this is when Dyer is at his best. At heart he’s a clever guy with a droll sense of humor, and I want to quote a few choice passages here:
I changed into one of those hospital gowns that tie up at the back, the purpose of which seems to be to enfeeble you, to reduce your capacity for independent action. To walk even few steps risks the ignominy of exposing your bottom to the world. (“Stroke of Luck”)
Nevertheless, we did what you do when you come to a place for a Euro city break: we went for a walk, one of the most horrible walks we had ever embarked on. The Norwegian word for ‘stroll’ is best translated as ‘grim battle for survival…’ (“Northern Lights”)
My heart sank. My heart is prone to sinking, and although few words have the capacity to make it sink as rapidly or deeply as the word ‘guide,’ plenty of others make it sink like a slow stone: words like ‘having to’ or ‘listen to,’ as in having to listen to a guide tell me stuff about the Forbidden City I could read about in a book back home, by which time any desire to do so would have sunk without trace. (“Forbidden City”)
Many of Gauguin’s most famous paintings are of Tahitian babes who were young and sexy and ate fruit and looked like they were always happy to go to bed with a syphilitic old letch whose legs were covered in weeping eczema.…. [In truth] the missionaries made them wear something called a Mother Hubbard. (“Where? What? Where”)
Notwithstanding a clear label to put on the works in White Sands (and why the hell should we need one?!) Dyer is a master of smartly structured narrative form. The pieces here range from straight up personal narratives to hybridized works of storytelling, essay, and criticism. He deploys techniques of iteration of conflict, “power of three,” and estrangement, all the while delightfully dipping and diving through jazz lore and the works from academic heavyweights such as Raymond Williams, Fredric Jameson, and Robert Hughes. Even his shaggy-dog-ness is carefully structured. “Pilgrimage” is a good example of this, because the narrative flows cosmically through the landscape of a Sunday morning in Los Angles, to the front door of Theodore Adorno’s Brentwood home, then passes into a contemporary reflection on Minima Moralia (text Adorno started in the depths of World War II and finished in sunny LA in 1949, while in exile), before surfacing with the narrator opining on age, acro adagio, Susan Sontag’s own pilgrimage to visit Thomas Mann, and the photography of Antoine Wilson, who calls himself “the slow paparazzo,” taking pictures of places where celebrities were within minutes of their leaving. The piece is really quite something, recharging and recycling the themes and thoughts of the entire book, yet never seeming to repeat the same story, as if turning a multifaceted cut crystal, continually finding new angles.
The Questioner of the Sphinx, Elihu Vedders, 1863
In Chapter Four, Dyer spells out what these broad experiences in the book sum up to be. To illustrate it, he call on a painting by Elihu Vedders called The Questioner of the Sphinx. Dyer writes: “His painting seems emblematic of the experience 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.” Yes, this is there, in the book, but there’s something else too, and that is negative space, and lots of it. In narrative after narrative, we have descriptions of missed opportunities, of the time and space enclosing experiences that weren’t special or didn’t live up to their “marketing,” or of a lifelong desire for an “elsewhere.” In one of the chapter narratives, the narrator, presumably Dyer himself, talks about his rich aunt sending postcards to him a child from the American Southwest which gave the young Geoffery his “first sense of elsewhere; an elsewhere that seemed the opposite of everywhere and everything I knew” in Cheltenham, England.
Finding this “elsewhere,” whether good or bad, is what he strives for in his “experiences from the outside world” (another phrase from DH Lawrence). In this search he finds mostly the mysterious negative space surrounding fulfillment. He struggles to know what to make of it, and White Sands second epigraph, from Kafka, might shed some light on this struggle. It reads:
There remains the inexplicable mass of rock. The legend tried to explain the inexplicable. As it came out of the substratum of truth it had in turn to end in the inexplicable.
Inexplicable, ineffable, a deep space or inner space, places to lose one self: we see this over and over in Dyer’s work. “I would have liked to spend hours in there, a whole day even,” he writes about an art installation that desensitized its participants with beat-less music and saturating, soft blue lights—it’s a place to escape the chafe of time, perhaps.
White Sands is a remarkably well-thought out work. The more you pull at it the more it reveals to have additional streams of life and layers. In spite of all Dyer’s disappointments, it’s a hopeful and satisfying read, too. It’s a book one can’t help but feel some inspiration from, especially when Dyer writes from his Romantic heritage: “Life is so interesting I’d like to stick around forever, just to see what happens, how it all turns out.”
Jason DeYoung lives in Atlanta, Georgia. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous publications, including Booth, Corium, The Austin Review (web), The Los Angeles Review, New Orleans Review, Monkeybicycle, Music & Literature (web), 3:AM, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s Best American Mystery Stories 2012. He is a Senior Editor at Numéro Cinq Magazine.
- Again from the Paris Review interview: “Fiction, nonfiction—the two are bleeding into each other all the time.”↵
- DH Lawrence, Selected Essays. “Mexico and New Mexico,” Page 182. Penguin Books Ltd., 1986.↵
- But the drollest passage I know in Dyer’s work comes from a wonderful book called Otherwise Know as the Human Condition (2011) in an essay called “Sex and Hotels.” Just for chuckles, here it is: “Hotels are synonymous with sex. Sex in a hotel is romantic, daring, unbridled, wild. Sex in a hotel is sexy. If you’ve been having a sexy time at home you’ll have a sexier time in a hotel. And it’s even more fun if there are two of you.”↵