Statues in Luxor, Egypt. Photographs by Geoff Dyer.
Because Geoff Dyer’s two previous books tackled Tarkovsky’s film Stalker (Zona) and life aboard a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier (Another Great Day at Sea), one might be forgiven for approaching White Sands: Experiences from the Outside World as a stopgap work, a mere collection of previously-published essays and reportage: fan service. Rather, its seemingly straightforward travel narratives—with stops in Tahiti, the Arctic Circle, New Mexico, and China, among others—are obliquely fictionalized and rife with the author’s hopscotch intellect. Everywhere he goes Dyer finds inspired connections across music, art, and time.
Perhaps White Sands can be best summarized by the two photographs bookending the text itself, both taken during a trip to Egypt. Dyer noticed a half-ruined ancient statue of a king and queen appeared complete if one simply stood from a different vantage point: the woman’s absent form becomes instead a gesture of shyness, as if she were ducking behind her partner. The moment rewards a skewed, deep-time approach to looking at the world. In an email interview conducted during the author’s book tour, I asked him about these approaches.
Ryan Chapman Let’s start with the titular essay, in which both nothing happens—a desert drive, and a stop for gas—and, naturally, everything happens: menace, a possibly homicidal hitchhiker, gritted teeth, awkward British politeness, abandonment. It’s as if the travel narrative veered into a crime thriller. Did you come to the piece with the fingerprints of the genre in mind? And given different circumstances, would you pick up you on the side of the road?
Geoff Dyer No, no, I never have any of the usual genre suspects in mind. The narrator’s uncertainty as to what kind of person the hitchhiker really is hopefully dramatizes the reader’s uncertainty about what kind of a piece of writing he or she is reading. Is it a story? Well, if it is one then the writer, as the narrator says of the hitcher, isn’t a very good storyteller because he brings in a lot of irrelevant stuff that might normally be the preserve of the essayist. The alarm bells start ringing for the narrator and his wife when they see the sign saying “Don’t pick up hitchhikers.” Categorization works like that sign: predetermining an experience. For of these and other reasons it is the key piece in the book, and I’m so glad you’ve started by asking about it. As for whether I would pick up me—yes, of course, but then I’m always on the lookout to pick up any hitchhiker, though it seems to be a dying mode of travel these days, which is a terrible and not surprising shame. Morally, I think no hitchhiker who looks reasonably clean should ever have to wait more than ten minutes or four cars for a ride (whichever is the sooner).
RC If there were a road sign for the book itself, it might read: Do Not Predetermine Your Experience. A useful slogan for the reader to come with an open/empty mind—signaled perhaps by that spare jacket design?—and a running joke for the narrator. For instance, when “Northern Dark” opens with a stated goal to see the Arctic Circle’s Northern Lights, we know things will turn out poorly.
Zooming out a bit, “expectations unmet and upended” strikes me as one of the bigger themes of your oeuvre. (Surprised it took this long to write “oeuvre.”) Or, more precisely, a theme in White Sands, Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D. H. Lawrence, Another Great Day at Sea, and most of Otherwise Known as the Human Condition. This isn’t really a question. I’ll take the easy out and invoke Charlie Rose: “Your thoughts?”
GD Yes, unmet and upended but, crucially, often lived-up-to and sometimes exceeded. If this weren’t the case I’d be condemning myself to being only a comic writer with no access to the, um, transcendent—a place I badly want to visit and which, as far as I know, has consistently lived up to its exalted reputation. I think another related theme is whether certain previously-experienced things live up to my memory of them, the expectations engendered by memory. (If we construe this as some kind of test then the writing that results might be described as criticism.) That’s what was going on in the book about Stalker—a film that not only succeeded in this regard but which seemed even greater to me after finishing the book than it did before. Maybe there’s some of that in the Lawrence book too.
RC And of course it’s incredibly difficult to achieve transcendence at home; you have to leave. How do you come to your destinations and subjects? Many of them begin as journalism assignments, but take on new, expanded form in White Sands. Relatedly, how did the book take shape?
GD Some were expanded assignments, others were things I wrote after I went to a place for whatever reason—but not on assignment—and something happened. Or, crucially, after nothing happened; and then later, in the writing, it is made to happen, made to look as though it happened. The transitions in those pieces are interesting, I think. By transition I mean the moment at which something goes from being an account to becoming a story. Sometimes that happens early, but rarely in the first paragraph. Sometimes it lasts the entire length of the piece. Sometimes it never happens. Those would be the more essayistic pieces.
As for the book as a whole, there was a sequence I had in mind, and then I added some linking passages which bind not just what’s gone before to what comes next, but which help bring the whole book together as a kind of supporting mesh. And the whole thing is bookended by those two photographs of the Egyptian statue. The link between them is discussed in the final pages, but it’s enacted or dramatized very fleetingly in the Beijing story. For that and other reasons I’m tempted to change the order and put that story first, if I can, for the paperback and subsequent translations.
RC Because I’m impatient, I wanted to bring up “The Ballad of Jimmy Garrison,” a kind of all encompassing, omnivoracious piece that manages to address Don Cherry, Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers, white flight, African nationalism, Coltrane, outsider art, ambition, suicide, failure… It’s a bravura work. I admit to being gobsmacked at the density of references balanced with the ease of the connective thoughts. How did it all come together? Like the title itself, were there decade-old notes and passages revived for the piece?
GD The title was another last-minute change. Right up until the end—I mean, the very last set of proofs—it was called “Something Big.” It’s actually all new, all written after I visited the towers, but it refers back to long-standing passions and interests (all the jazz stuff, Burning Man, John Berger). Rodia’s long and absolute absorption in this one work seemed naturally to lead me to reflect on my own inability to stick with just one thing over a long period of time. I should say also that the reason we were listening to that Pharoah Sanders track “Upper and Lower Egypt” on the way to the towers was to provide a link with the stuff about Egypt at the end of the book. Jeez, what a great track that is. I can remember so clearly the afternoon when my friend bought that album—Tauhid—and I bought Archie Shepp’s Fire Music in Brixton market in 1987, after the hurricane that had unexpectedly swept through southern England. After buying those albums we did some mushrooms, went to Clapham Common, and walked into what became the closing scene of my first novel, The Colour of Memory. That was nearly thirty years ago—roughly the time Rodia spent building his towers. Ha!
RC Some novelists write the same book over and over again, a charge I doubt anyone would level at your body of work. It appears rather the opposite: most of your books come about through particular and perhaps unrepeatable circumstances, and while there’s certainly the Dyerian through-line, I suspect the man who wrote Zona would have taken a much different approach than the man who wrote But Beautiful.
GD Yes, I take a certain amount of pride in the books’ variety of subject matter and form. Or, to put it negatively, I get impatient when critics say that all my books are this or that because there are always significant exceptions to those generalized claims. To put it positively, I’m glad that the work is still proving elusive enough to resist attempts to gather it all up in a critical hamper or net. Having said that, White Sands is somewhat of a return to Yoga For People Who Can’t Be Bothered To Do It, in that it might be categorized as a travel book. But I think it goes to some new places—formally as well as geographically.
RC White Sands declares as much in the author’s note, eliding distinctions between fiction and fact—distinctions that seem to madden book critics, but what can you do.
The short coda (“10”) points, perhaps, to the real, secret theme of the book: not distance, but time! Perhaps I should have picked up on that sooner. Are you thinking more about time, in light of the events described in “Beginning”?
GD Well, not so secret given that two of the chapters have the word “time” in the titles! Time has always been a theme and an interest, the way certain things or places persist, endure and change in the face of all the things that are transient. I like it when these come together as they do, very strangely, in that pair of photographs. I don’t think that I have a greatly enhanced sense of time’s passing because of the stroke described in that last chapter; it’s more the just incredible way that time speeds up as you get older. I’m currently aboard what Martin Amis calls the bullet train of the fifties. Let’s assume I live till seventy on the three-score-years-and-ten paradigm. If that is translated into the seven days of the week then for me it’s about 10pm on a Saturday night now—with much of Sunday traditionally wiped out by a hangover. But that knowledge doesn’t actually make any difference to how one lives on a day-to-day basis.