White Sands Experiences from the Outside World by Geoff Dyer

I’m a sucker for a nice looking cover and a bit of canny marketing from Canongate books. Which is how I ended up with this very nice looking book by Geoff Dyer. I’ve never read Geoff Dyer before, I’m sure there are lots of people who will be screaming at the screen now: ‘You’ve never read Geoff Dyer?’ and they might be right to. I suspect, having read this one it won’t be my last. White Sands is a collection of essays, described by Dyer as a blend between non-fiction and fiction, non-fiction with fictional elements. The essays centre around the experience of travel. In them Dyer describes a number of trips, all of which are simultaneously uplifting and depressing. The book starts with a trip to Tahiti, tracing the steps of Paul Gauguin. What becomes apparent very quickly is Dyer’s laconic sense of humour which translates into a very funny book:

“In lieu of tea or lunch with Gauguin’s heir, I joined some other tourists for a boat trip to a nearby island. The mini-van taking us to the boat was late, but this did not matter because, when we got to the port, the boat was not ready to sail. That was the thing about Hiva Oa: the huge wait to leave contained within it other little pockets of waiting, so that one was caught in an endless hierarchy of waiting. I was always waiting for the next bit of waiting, climaxing with the final day’s waiting, in which I would wait to be transferred to the airport, where I would wait for the plane taking me back to Tahiti before the wait for the enormous airborne wait of the flight back to L.A. (more waiting) and on to London itself.”

This reminds me a little of Alain de Botton’s book The Art of Travel, which strips away the fantasy of travel and reminds the reader of the reality – the waiting and sweating, the arguments, the disappointments, the extensive waiting through transfers, in airports, the advertising posters you don’t see, the depressing appearance of McDonalds wherever you go. Those sorts of things. Dyer has a knack of amusing repetition mixed with insight which feels, right. Like here, when he talks about parking:

“We parked. We were always parking, either parking or driving around looking for a parking place or easing out of a parking space or getting our parking ticket validated, never confident about the procedure, worried that we had parked in some place that looked like a parking space but wasn’t. Often the mere fact that a parking space was available suggested that it was not a parking space: if it had been a parking space it would already have been taken and would not have existed.”

Or here where he talks about the whiteness of White Sands:

“It’s a very good name, White Sands, even though we thought the place disappointing at first. The sand was a little discoloured, not quite white. Then, as we drove further, the sand started to creep onto the road and it became whiter and soon everything was white, even the road, and then there was no road, just this bright whiteness. We parked the car and walked into it, into the whiteness. It was hard to believe that such a place really existed. The sky was pristine blue, but the thing that must be emphasised is the whiteness of the sand, which could not have been any whiter.”

The familiarity of Geoff Dyer’s writing didn’t end with de Botton. In an essay describing a depressing trip to see the Northern Lights, a trip his wife ‘Jessica’ (one of the fictional aspects of the book) insisted upon, the whole piece resonated heavily with an extract from Jenny Diski’s Trying to Keep Still in which she describes a trip she took to the Arctic Circle which turned out to be the coldest and most uncomfortable trip of her life. In fact I think they even might have stayed in the same hotel. Yet the parallel is pleasing; I enjoy both Jenny Diski’s and Alain de Botton’s writing and if you do too there’s a lot to recommend Dyer’s series of essays here. I particularly enjoyed the essay covering a trip (fictional or not) to The Lightning Field:

“Even without the bonus of lightning, the experience of The Lightning Field transcends its reputation. Of course god does not appear. There’s a lot of space but, even as a figure of speech, there’s no room for god. The Lightning Field offers an intensity of experience that for a long time could be articulated only – or most conveniently – within the language of religion. Faced with huge experiences, we have a tendency to fall to our knees, because it’s a well-rehearsed expression of awe. Nothing about The Lightning Field prompts one to genuflect in this way.”

And I was pleased to recognise the connection between the Watts Towers, built by hand by Alan Rodia, and Don DeLillo’s Underworld in which they figure. This quote about the importance of hobbies to human existence and meaning was quite insightful:

“Contra Adorno, building the towers would seem to have been Rodia’s hobby, something he did with his free time – albeit something he pursued with unswerving single-mindedness. That’s where Adorno is wring about hobbies: a hobby can become the defining purpose of one’s life, the thing that gives it meaning even if – as in Rodia’s case – one is obliged to spend the bulk of the day doing something else to earn a living, to buy that time.”

There is a familiarity to the writing, to the themes, but the book is Dyer’s alone. It is clever, funny and extremely entertaining to read. It is philosophical in tone, ending with a description of Dyer’s unexpected stroke in his mid-fifties and this personal aspect after the humour, the amusing incidents and wryly insightful observations, lends a poignancy to the whole series. There’s more depth than the humour suggests, and more joy than the disappointment permits. It was a lovely book to read, very easy and light and yet not all at the same time. I suspect I will dip into Dyer’s oeuvre more extensively after this and in the meantime I have my lovely looking book and a series of essays I can definitely read again and again. Well worth the purchase.

White Sands is published by Canongate Books, for a change. I kinda like most everything they publish, 

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About bookbii

I'm an ordinary woman living an ordinary life in an ordinary place, and it is quietly wonderful
This entry was posted in Art, Canongate, essays, memoir, non-fiction, travel. Bookmark the permalink.

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