Home alone

Yoga for People Who Can't Be Bothered to Do It

Geoff Dyer <em>Abacus, 238pp, £10.99</em>


Bewildered by a 12-hour cocktail of mushrooms, marijuana, coffee and red wine, the writer Geoff Dyer once became convinced that he and his friends had checked in to somewhere called the Hotel Oblivion. Worse than that: they couldn't remember where it was. Recrossing the bridges of Amsterdam in the neon rain - or was it the same bridge? - Dyer confuses the Dutch city with, alternately, London, Sydney, Paris and Copenhagen. And then, in a blur of absolute lucidity, he realises: "There is some place I have not yet been to, some place of which every other place has been no more than a premonition."

Dyer's quest for that "other place" is the yearning heart of this unconventional travel book. Each chapter finds (and sometimes loses) the author in a different, seemingly random, location. These include Cambodia, Detroit, Libya and Rome. A shifting series of companions emerge from and disappear into a heat-distorted backdrop of landmark architecture and uncertain seas.

As a constant traveller, Dyer says he has become troubled by two lines that Auden wrote in 1936: "Home, the centre where the three or four things/That happen to a man do happen". Dyer feels that home is the place where least has happened to him. He could be right: the only things he describes himself doing at home are watching television, failing to go to a party and packing. He hopes he is more like Steinbeck, who said: "I have homes everywhere, [many of which] I have not seen yet. That is perhaps why I am restless. I haven't seen all my homes."

The book begins with Dyer in New Orleans, where he spends three months living and trying to write in an apartment on the dangerous fringes of the Quarter. He has unrealistic hopes of romance: "In films, whenever a man moves to a new town - even if he has served a long jail term for murdering his wife - he soon meets a woman at the checkout of the local supermarket or at the diner where he has his first breakfast."

Dyer doesn't meet a waitress at the Croissant d'Or, but he continues to breakfast there every morning because the almond croissants it serves are the best he has ever tasted. Every night he goes to the same bar across the street where he tries to engage the waitress in conversation while watching the first Gulf war on CNN. Although he has better luck with girls elsewhere, this routine drifting seems par for the course: despite his intellectual energy, Dyer loiters through most days, hence the strange title. His slow pace is a good thing for the reader, too, because it gives this talented writer the time to ponder his surroundings, and many of his descriptive passages are wonderfully vivid, even hallucinogenic. This is Dyer on Indonesia:

"The surrounding vegetation - foliage so dense the trees had lost track of whose leaves were whose - was a rainbow coalition of one colour: green. There was an infinity of greens, rendered all the greener by splashes of red hibiscus and the herons floating past, so white and big it seemed as if sheets hung out to dry had suddenly taken wing. All other colours - even purple and black - were shades of green. Greenness here was less a colour than a colonising impulse."

Like most other things - no matter how glorious, tragic or funny - greenness leads Dyer back to the oblivion that Philip Larkin says undercuts everything.

Dyer never discovers the "zone" he claims to seek on his travels. He discovers instead that solo travel can have the curious effect of eroding the self. But Dyer, a writer who has consistently put himself at the centre of his work, treats travel as if it were a drug designed to heighten the self. By the closing chapters, the drug is no longer working and Dyer's egotistical philosophising collapses in on itself to leave him, often, in tears. He is even unable to find the favourite sunglasses that "made everything so much better - clearer, trippy, brighter - than it ever could have been without them". You feel for the poor boy.

Helen Brown writes the Daily Telegraph's weekly books diary

This article first appeared in the 21 April 2003 issue of the New Statesman, The road to Damascus