Talk to me this week, and you’ll probably hear me mention the name “Geoff Dyer.” I say his name nearly every hour, ringing it like a bell that hangs over a city, marking the forward movement of time. Even now, writing something like the previous sentence, I feel like I’m aping his style: earthly and ethereal. (Of course, I strain for eloquence far more than he does.) Read Dyer for a while and this’ll happen to you too: you’ll start to observe what he observes, think the way he thinks.
If this is true (which it is), how can I explain that I have no idea what the hell Dyer’s new book is exactly? It’s called White Sands; so far, so good. Essays, I suppose—but of what nature? Travel writing? Well, he certainly goes to a lot of places (e.g., Tahiti, Beijing), but he never seems like a tourist. Or is it art writing? There’s a piece on Gauguin, ekphrastic writing about the Lightning Field and the Watts Towers, meditations on Adorno—but this is aimed in an emotional direction, not a theoretical one. Or is it all fiction? Certain pieces—especially one about a potentially dangerous hitchhiker—seem so tidy as to train the credulity of “truthfulness.”
Of course, if you’ve read Dyer before—or read other nonfiction writers who are loosely compatible, like Nick Flynn or Maggie Nelson—none of this will surprise you. Certainly it doesn’t surprise Dyer himself, who begins his book with a note on the truthfulness of what’s within: “this book is a mixture of fiction and non-fiction. What’s the difference?” In a sense, White Sands is an attempt to answer this question—or, if not answer the question, at least remind you it remains unanswered on page after page.
I ask Dyer about this on the phone—a question he probably gets a lot. Do readers gain something by wondering actively about truth vs. fiction? He thinks so, because it helps free his audience from certain conventions of reading—importantly reading, “not writing, because I’ve never bothered about that.” In these pieces, then, is “Geoff Dyer” a character? “He’s the narrator,” Dyer says, “but the ‘I’ can also be an invention. The ‘I’ has elements of the real me, but more importantly, it’s a personal construct or stylistic device.”
He elaborates: “In a lot of books I’ve written, the idea is to achieve a form appropriate to the subject written about.” In particular, he addresses his relationship to art—and the immense, visual style he uses in this book—as creating an immersive experience for the reader. And the pieces themselves are almost always about Dyer’s experience of the art works (or cities, countries, people—themselves works of art) he’s writing about, not anything approaching straightforward, academic history. He tells me about the first essay in the collection, “Where? What? When?” ostensibly about Gauguin, but actually about…well, what? In the piece, he goes to Gauguin’s longtime home, Tahiti, “but crucially, the most interesting things that happen turn out not to be Gauguin-related. The things you see out of the corner of your eye turn out to be as important as the things you’re focused on.”
Even when Dyer gets philosophical, he does so, he says, “in my non-philosophically-trained way. A lot of philosophers would laugh at my philosophy, but that’s fine.” Sometimes he gets metaphysical, yes, “but I like the way that ‘metaphysical’ contains the word ‘physical.’ ” In other words, Dyer waxes profound on the nature of art or natural phenomena throughout this book, but “those chapters are experiential.” The Northern Lights may mean a lot in the scope of human consciousness, for instance, but they’re a pain for him and his wife (the book’s other central character) to get to physically, and Dyer inserts that pain into the action of his work.
One of my favorite pieces in this book is also, on its face, one of the most academic ones: “Pilgrimage,” which traces a trek to “Teddy” Adorno’s house in Los Angeles, where Dyer has recently moved (in the city, I mean, not the house—though wouldn’t that be something?). This piece contains so much: close readings of Adorno, a history of his life in L.A., Dyer’s own experiences in his new home. It’s literary writing, yes—which is to say, writing about literature—but it gives you a firmer sense of driving directions than most literary criticism does. Finally, he approaches the house and speaks to its current resident, who seems to barely understand why Dyer has visited. “How do you spell ‘Adorno’ again?” she asks.
I ask Dyer about a piece like this. He obviously made the pilgrimage—but did he make it with writing about it in mind? Does he write his first drafts as he lives experiences, making the actual crafting of sentences a matter of revising life? “Going to the Adorno house,” he says, “I went in with my antennae in a state of full receptivity.” He jokes about his own natural obliviousness—“sometimes, if I’m walking down the street, my wife will say, ‘Did you see that?,’ and I have no idea”—but in a case like the Adorno trip, he’s looking for something special. “I’ve got a Geiger counter on,” he says, “and it’s clicking.”
In this essay, he also introduces the notion of “badge author”—somebody you read for pleasure, yes, but also to be the kind of person who reads that particular author. Self-identity, really. Adorno is one, according to Dyer; Knausgaardanother. Naturally I have to ask Dyer: does he aspire to being a “badge author?” “With the exception of Knausaard,” he says, “it’s usually a euphemism for an author who doesn’t sell very well.” Yes, he respects the notion, and he respects those authors, but he may be too funny, too personable to really attain that status. (When I first get on the phone with him—I call him at 9am exactly—he’s giddy with excitement at my punctuality.)
“I’m so happy,” he says, “that the fourth word of my book is a gag.” He’s referring to this sentence: “Like my earlier blockbuster, Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered To Do It…” He goes on to discuss the relationship between that earlier book and White Sands, but that fourth word: blockbuster. The earlier book was no such thing, but Dyer doesn’t care—doesn’t take it too seriously. It’s good to be funny, he thinks, “so long as I’m not condemned to only being funny. Dreadful thing, to limit one’s capacity for all kinds of other stuff, like wonder and admiration.”
A lot lives in White Sands, and a lot lives in Dyer’s brain. Leaving our conversation, I’m even less sure what this book is, but even more intrigued. After all, I don’t always understand what’s going on in my own brain, either.
Benjamin Rybeck is the marketing director at Brazos Bookstore, and the author of a novel, The Sadness, forthcoming in June from Unnamed Press. He lives in Houston.