‘White Sands’ by Geoff Dyer
Text Publishing; $32.99
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What’s the difference between the non-experience of an experience and the experience of a non-experience? It is a particularly Dyeresque kind of riddle that keeps nagging throughout Geoff Dyer’s White Sands: Experiences from the outside world. A wild blend of travelogue, fiction and essay, the book affirms the English writer’s unrivalled capacity to playfully contest the segregation of genres. And, as a collection of linked journeys that often fail to meet the travellers’ expectations, White Sands reads like an extended riff on Elizabeth Bishop’s bathos-infused question: “Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?”
It begins with a journey to French Polynesia, where Dyer plans to write about the role of the exotic in the work of Gauguin. But it’s too hot, he is distracted by heat rash, the food is terrible, and the day he goes to visit the Cultural Centre he discovers that it doesn’t yet exist. We then move on, with a trip to New Mexico to see Walter De Maria’s massive outdoor artwork The Lightning Field (although no lightning strikes while he is there), and to Norway to witness the Northern Lights (the aurora, however, never appears).
Throughout these and other journeys, undertaken in midlife, Dyer is often “waiting for the next bit of waiting” or realising that he’s “here to go somewhere else”. His attentiveness to anticlimax and distraction is both hilarious and profound, allowing for serial digressions into continental aesthetics, twice-baked hazelnut croissants, land art, American teeth, secular pilgrimage, et cetera.
When attending to the subject at hand, Dyer’s thinking is often hypothetical, drawn to the question of how future people will make sense of what he’s seeing. How will tourists “two hundred years hence” experience the steel poles that define The Lightning Field or a beach in Thailand where two tourists were murdered? A pre-occupation with ruins appears throughout Dyer’s oeuvre and plays a prominent role in White Sands, pushing the author towards the realisation “that much geographical travel is actually a form of time travel”. In structure, White Sands resembles Dyer’s Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It (2003). But its philosophical vision is more closely aligned with the concerns of Zona (2012), Dyer’s work on Andrei Tarkovsky. All films, Dyer argues, are journeys into time, echoing Tarkovsky’s claim that we go to the cinema for an experience of time. Although in ‘Tarkovsky-time’, boredom is taken to a new level, and provokes “a special intensity of attention”.
During such a journey, time may feel wasted, lost or yet to be gained. Against expectations, this sentiment lends a propulsive force to the pieces in White Sands, in which missed and delayed experiences contribute to Dyer’s increasing sense of amiable purposelessness. This leaves room for him to dwell, with some genius, on the accidental pleasures of disappointment.
Stephanie Bishop is a lecturer in creative writing at the University of New South Wales. Her new novel is The Other Side of the World.