Desert Course

The first essay of Geoff Dyer’s new collection, White Sands, features the perpetually unsatisfied author on a junket to Tahiti. He’s supposed to be writing about Gauguin, whose famous painting Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? gives the piece its title, but—and this will be no surprise to readers of Dyer—he winds up writing about writing about Gauguin. Turns out tropical paradise is no paradise. The trip may be free, but it sure ain’t fun. The food is bad and overpriced; the view from the hotel is compromised; the monuments are just dumb rocks. And then there are the people.

There’s no use putting it off any longer. The unaskable question is crying out to be asked. Not “Where are we going?” but “What are the women like?” Are they babes? No one was more eager to answer this question than Gauguin himself, and the answer, obviously, was yes, they’re total babes in a babelicious paradise of unashamed babedom.

Not anymore, they’re not! Or, rather, not for long.

So, yes, Tahitian women, they’re really beautiful—especially when they’re young. Then, almost overnight, they get incredibly fat. It’s as if they discover Fat Is a Feminist Issue and gobble it up. They don’t just read it; they eat it. Not to be outdone, the dudes get even fatter. It’s like some calorific battle of the sexes. The most popular sport here is canoeing, but the thing at which Polynesians really excel is weightlifting, otherwise known as walking or standing.

In this passage Dyer seems to be daring the reader to take offense. So, yes, offense—I’ll bite. (Get it?) But it’s not Dyer’s fat-shaming that’s offensive; it’s his presumption that this fat-shaming is interesting. He is aware of Tahiti’s colonial legacy, but mostly he wants to relish the puns: “Everything here costs a big fat arm and a leg.”

“Where? What? Where?,” and its floundering toward an idea, is representative of the problems with White Sands, a book in search of a subject. Ostensibly, the pieces are bound by the notion of place: The author travels to the Forbidden City in Beijing; visits the Land-art sites The Lightning Field and Spiral Jetty; stops by Adorno’s old house in Brentwood. These longer essays are interspersed with sketches of charged locations: a special dirt hump in a park where Dyer played as a kid; a sandstone promontory outside Cheltenham; a beach that people photograph because a couple died there. There are clever moments and flashes of humor and a few high points, but nothing in it feels especially urgent or revelatory. “Place” is a flimsy premise, if only because all writing is in some way about place. There is a thread throughout about pilgrimage, but what little Dyer has to say about it is unconvincing. “That is the essential difference between religious and secular pilgrimage,” he writes, “the latter always has the potential to disappoint.” To be sure, a religious pilgrimage couldn’t disappoint in the same way as a secular one. But the notion that it couldn’t disappoint at all falls somewhere between contestable and silly. It’s like he just wrote down the first thing that came into his head.

It’s not that Dyer isn’t capable of marvels. But here, at the height of his career—he’s ridiculously well-decorated with awards and fellowships—he’s not writing at the height of his powers. The laziest moments tend to appear as conclusions, when he’s feeling the pressure of finding the plot (or meeting a deadline). He finishes a piece on the Watts Towers, mosaic-encrusted spires built by Simon Rodia between 1921 and 1954, like so: “Maybe the only answer to the question of why Rodia built his monument is a negative version of Hillary’s famous response about why he had climbed Everest: because it wasn’t there.” Fair enough, though one could say the same about every artist who has ever lived. Or take this moment, toward the end of the piece on Spiral Jetty: “André Malraux famously cherished the idea of a museum without walls. In a way, places like the Spiral Jetty are jails without walls. They are always about time, about how long they can detain or hold you.” This isn’t wrong, necessarily, but it isn’t necessarily true. Mostly it’s unjustified. Why is holding a matter of detention rather than something else—care, perhaps, or interest, or support? Is the experience of Land art at all illuminated by reference to the coercions of state power? I have as many bad things to say about the art world as anyone else, but is it really as bad as jail?

Dyer seems to have swallowed the myth that surrounds certain very exceptional prose stylists, which is that it doesn’t matter whatthey write about or what they say, so long as they say it well. Alas, the “what” always matters. Dyer used to know this. His earlier works—But Beautiful: A Book About Jazz; Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D. H. Lawrence; The Ongoing Moment, his meditation on photography—were sustained, passionate investigations. His digressions and asides were worth underlining because they had been thought through and were written in the service of some real obsession about which he knew an enormous amount; simply, they mattered. But—and this was also the case with his book on the USS George H. W. Bush—there are billowing plumes of smoke in White Sands, and little fire.

Ken Price, Liquid Rock, 2004, acrylic and ink on paper, 17 3/4 × 13 7/8". © Estate of Ken Price, Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery

At his best, Dyer is humorous and erudite, a rare combination. He uses his novelistic gifts—documenting social behaviors, seamlessly following streams of thought, juxtaposing observation and dialogue—to capture ephemera, fleetingness, beauty. His evocative descriptions dwell in hidden and passing moments. From But Beautiful: “The city quiet as a beach, the noise of traffic like a tide. Neon sleeping in puddles. Places shutting and staying open. People saying goodbye outside bars, walking home alone. Work still going on, the city repairing itself.” There is an essential lostness to his prose, like he never got over the youthful insight that each moment is slipping away, that there is no present, only future and past. His tone is light, and yet he’s always ready with a pertinent, slightly-show-offy-but-somehow-not-snobbish quotation. (“Asked about the consequences of the French Revolution, Chou En-lai replied, ‘It’s too soon to tell.’”) His writing runs across wet concrete, leaving indelible marks behind.

That’s the poetic, intellectual Dyer. There’s also the churlish Dyer, the bleak neurotic who is always willing to let a fine day at the beach be ruined by one black fly, the one with an eye for the ironies and burdens of bourgeois life, like how difficult it is to find a parking spot in LA. The tension and payoff of reading Dyer occur when his bad attitude, his boredom and laziness, are animated by his bursts of brilliance, and the way you see the world is actually transformed. Even his wallowing and complaining can be perversely joyful. That’s the case in the essay in White Sands on a miserable trip to see the northern lights. When the lights finally make an appearance, Dyer and his wife are in a hotel bar watching soccer. Then the lights make a second appearance—on the other side of the plane, while they’re flying out of town. “Northern Dark” works where the essay on Gauguin falls short because it doesn’t strain for epiphany. It is entirely committed to its failure. Nothing is learned. Nothing is gained.

Dyer is a terrific portraitist, which does make you wonder why he organized White Sands around places rather than people. In addition to “Northern Dark,” the best pieces are “Forbidden City,” in which he falls for a woman on his last day in Beijing, and the title essay. That one begins with him and his wife on Highway 54, sixty miles south of New Mexico’s famed gypsum dune field. They stop to pick up a hitchhiker: “a black guy, in his late twenties, clean and not looking like a maniac or someone who smelled bad.” He turns out to be from Little Rock, and Dyer mentions saxophonist Pharoah Sanders. “It was a pointless thing to say,” he writes, “but I have this need to show off, to show that I know things; in this instance to show that I knew about jazz, about black jazz musicians. The guy, evidently, was not a jazz fan.”

I’m not sure it’s pointless—I might describe it more as loaded: Dyer, the middle-aged white Englishman and lover of American culture, failing to be down with a black American. I would also call it a little predictable, but hey, so is life. The ride goes on pleasantly enough until a moment later when they pass a sign warning drivers not to pick up hitchhikers: DETENTION FACILITIES IN AREA. The mood gets tense, strangled, and eventually Dyer and his wife drive off while the hitchhiker is using the bathroom at a gas station. If this is an ethical test, have they passed it or failed it? They did, after all, offer a stranger hospitality. Why should their hospitality extend to becoming an accessory to a crime? Or did they allow their prejudice—that an escaped convict or ex-convict (the man claims that he got out “more’n a year ago”) would be prone to violence—to get the better of them? None of this is resolved; it can’t be. The questions of what we owe one another, of who passes through and who is left behind, could never be summed up in a few pages. Still, one wishes that before Dyer peeled out of the station, he had asked the hitchhiker what he thought of Spiral Jetty. They could have had a nice talk on the meaning of holding.

If White Sands were by anyone else, I would probably think it was pretty good. But it’s by Geoff Dyer. “The devastating scale and frequency of my disappointment,” Dyer writes about Tahiti, “was proof of how much I still expected and wanted from the world, of what high hopes I still had of it.” I know how he feels.

Christine Smallwood writes the New Books column for Harper’s Magazine.