White Sands: Experiences from the Outside World by Geoff Dyer
(Canongate, hardback, 240 pages. Out now.)
Review by Ian Preece
I’ve never been great on a beach. There’s all that sand getting into the suntan cream, the blistering sun frying your head to a crisp; the kids wanting an ice cream or to go ‘for a walk’. All this and the ceaseless pull of wanting to become as one with the deep blue ocean often prevents me from really getting stuck into a book. One year, pre-kids, I remember walking pretty much the length of the Isla de Tavira to reach the far side of a huge wedge of fair-weather cumulus that, rendered stationary by competing crosswinds from the sea and land, had cast our end of the beach permanently into the shade. We walked for about two hours, and eventually made it, t-shirts plastered to our backs. My god was that sunshine beautiful. The whole island/bar of sand was completely deserted; and that remains the only time I’ve ever swum naked. We could just make out the distant speck of beach we’d travelled from, resolutely cast in grey. I was still congratulating myself on outwitting the forces of nature as we took the 20p boat trip back to the mainland, a salty old Portuguese sea-farer expertly cresting the waves with his 1950s vessel, smoke from the funnel intermingling with spray, salt, the last rays of sunshine and the roaring engine.
Geoff Dyer doesn’t really do beach holidays in White Sands: Experiences from the Outside World, but this is a book that takes apart the what, where and why of travel. It takes as its underlying premise a notion that those apples from the Garden of Eden were slightly disappointing, and that the freshest and crunchiest lie elsewhere (further along the beach, in the sun). In fact, ‘from there,’ he writes, ‘to keep the history of the world as brief as possible, it is only a small step to package cruises and supermarkets stocking the full spectrum of exotic fruit.’ As you’d expect from a Dyer book, he’s fantastic on false expectation, disappointment and inconvenience (the traffic-clogged streets of Beijing) while puncturing fakery at every turn (those sweet-smelling garlands of wild and tropical flowers hung around the necks of disembarking tourists at Tahiti’s plusher hotels might as well be as artificial as the ocean-side dining experience. One night, as Dyer sits alone, surrounded by other diners – mostly overweight couples from cruise ships, murmuring to each other while tossing bits of baguette from their ‘over the water’ tables into the sea for fat fish to gobble – it occurs to him that ‘the all-you-can-eat buffet had been extended to the ocean itself’). But the multitude of fake and disappointing things in this world means those that aren’t are truly something. Or, as Dyer puts it, ‘When I am no longer capable of disappointment the romance will be gone: I may as well be dead.’
In China, he struggles with the dreary protocol of an organised visit to the Forbidden City of the Ming dynasty – until, that is, he spectacularly falls for his ‘tour guide’, a twentysomething friend of his publicist. The absurdity of an author visit to a foreign publisher is neatly mirrored in the age-old pathos of a middle-aged man’s yearning for a younger woman, captured perfectly when Dyer catches sight of his own reflection, red and sweating, slightly bulbous no doubt with mid-life indignation, in the blacked-out window of his own courtesy car. But there’s a beautifully rendered, genuine sadness of time passing underpinning the final scene of this chapter, involving some photographs and the lights of a rooftop bar, which could almost be straight from Dyer’s first novel The Colour of Memory.
Some of the writing in this book is unbelievably good: Geoff and his wife are driving north on a trip to see Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, and as Salt Lake City blurs imperceptibly into Ogden and the mountains loom and the weather begins to deteriorate (‘the Alpine winter had still not shot its wad’) the writing possesses a kind of haunted clarity, transmogrifies into the written equivalent of the cinematography of Anarane, Texas, in The Last Picture Show. Traffic scenes flash by, the hard (UK) and soft (US) shoulder are contrasted, and the misery of driving in England compared to the wide open spaces of America is noted in passing, all before the inclusion of an equally fantastic piece of writing on place from D.H. Lawrence (on Taos, New Mexico). And the Spiral Jetty itself ‒ a 1970s Richard Long-style piece of land art, a spiral of rocks that for a quarter of a century became submerged beneath the Great Salt Lake only to miraculously reappear ‘Excalibur-like’ in 1999 ‒ is compared to the ‘rain-smeared concrete of the South Bank centre’; it has aged about as well as a hastily erected council estate from the 1950s, and is, of course, all the more attractive for it.
Later on, in a chapter where Geoff and his wife make a pilgrimage to Theodore Adorno’s house in suburban Brentwood, near Santa Monica, there’s a great riff on the state of the ideal Los Angeles lawn which culminates in a revelatory moment wherein Dyer realises that, rather than hitting upon a liberating, philosophical breakthrough in time management (lush green grass that only grows to a specified length so doesn’t have to be cut, therefore saving time for intellectual pursuit rather than gardening, just the kind of thing Adorno, a cultural critic and thinker famous for pouring scorn on frivolous art forms like jazz, might have heartily approved of) he’s conceived of nothing more than a lawnmower commercial. I loved the mini-riff on being a ‘badge-wearing Adorno reader’ (while also confessing to struggling with difficult books about Adorno). And I liked how other 1970s cultural studies heavyweights form a sort of background presence in White Sands while never getting in the way of a good gag, usually at the author’s own expense. (There’s an excellent paragraph reproduced from Raymond Williams’s The Country and the City concerning the ‘robbery and fraud’ and exploitation behind country houses that I shall wheel out the next time someone mentions their weekend visit to a stately home.)
And in a chapter on Los Angeles’s Watts Towers, Dyer refutes Adorno’s dismissive line on hobbies, pointing out that ‘a hobby can become the defining purpose of one’s life’. A ‘hobby’ these days has become the preserve of lost, middle-aged men pottering about in their sheds and attics with model railway layouts, or even sitting by a stream with a fishing rod ‒ something to be kept very separate from the serious business of earning a living. There seems no doubt Sabato ‘Sam’ Rodia was mocked during the long, lonely journey (1921‒1954) of constructing the twisted, Gaudíesque towers of concrete filled with shards of broken tiles, the green glass of old Canada Dry bottles and other bits of junk he found lying around the Watts district of LA. In a far less magnificent, but vaguely similar way, visitors to our house might one day finally cease from pointing out that I have too many records and just leave me in peace to track down the original vinyl of serious albums like Don Cherry’s Brown Rice, the cover photo of which features the trumpeter staring somewhat warily into the lens, the Watts Towers silhouetted against a clear sky at dusk behind him (sadly but unsurprisingly cropped from the cd version). The Watts Towers chapter is entitled ‘The Ballad of Jimmy Garrison’ and is probably the finest in the book, strung around a guided tour of the towers and featuring, as one of its many detours, a page or two on how the music, films and books of your early twenties can come back to you ‘with a force that had been dormant for much of the intervening thirty years’.
But the piece also contains the one very faint bum note in the book: Dyer rueing, well, expostulating at fair length, Dyer-like, on his coming and going, his failure to commit, but also to never let go of writing what ‒ from the brief flash of writing here on Albert Ayler’s ‘Ghosts’ as a potential American national anthem, the ‘cosmic bebop of John Coltrane’ and Ayler’s sad and unsolved death in the East River in 1970 ‒ sounds a terrific book on the mystery of the blistering tenor saxophonist’s last days. Only if you’re Geoff Dyer can you have the luxury of switching mid-course from a commissioned title on tennis to a book about Tarkovsky’s Stalker. Life’s too short to not write it, the Ayler book would come out just beautiful, the sound would be just great (to misquote Art Pepper) ‒ and everyone else has to do battle with a publishing world stuffed to the gills with Annabelles, Seraphinas and Tamsins on the look-out for new takes on mindfulness, cup cakes and YouTube celebrity blogging.
But not for more than one second do you seriously begrudge him his freedom to vacillate, of course. The chapter which includes an account of Dyer high-speed dog-sledging in Norway in the bitter night of January is so funny I came close to disgracing myself on public transport. Funny, that is, until it threatens to turn sour, before redemption arrives in the form of a Norwegian air hostess. Which is a bit like how all of Geoff Dyer’s greatest books pan out. You think he’s pushed it too far, stretched honesty to the point most would pull back from, is so disappointed with life that it can’t really be worth living any more, before concluding ‒ in the light of getting back to grumbling about traffic after a stroke ‒ ‘Life is so interesting, I’d like to stick around for ever, just to see what happens, how it all turns out.’
White Sands is a truly great addition to the Dyer canon – up there with Out of Sheer Rage, The Colour of Memory and Working the Room, probably his top three. My only regret is that I didn’t save it for the beach.