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22 June 2022

Geoff Dyer and the art of slacking off

The author’s workshy alter-egos made his books a delight. Now in sober late middle age, has the ultimate skiver lost his roguish touch?

By Lola Seaton

“Many people leave university with only a vague idea of what they might do for a living, but I knew exactly what I wanted to do,” Geoff Dyer recalls in his essay from 2002, “On the Roof”: “sign on the dole”. Rather than pursuing postgraduate study, “a path of greater and greater specialisation”, in the 1980s Dyer spent his twenties “reading whatever interested me”, courtesy of the residual generosity of the postwar welfare state, and honing “a policy of quitting”: “As soon as I get fed up, bored, tired, or weary of anything,” he wrote in his 2004 essay “Sacked”, “I abandon it. Books, films, writing assignments, relationships – I just give up on them.”

Dyer’s life as a dedicated slacker and staunch hedonist is of a piece with his life as a serial gate-crasher and dilettante. His books take up eclectic subjects – jazz, the First World War, photography, Andrei Tarkovsky, DH Lawrence – about which he is, at the outset, pointedly unqualified to write. From his first book, Ways of Telling (1986), Dyer has emphasised that writing is a form of learning: “This book is intended for those who – like me when I began working on it – want to know more about John Berger’s work.”

Answering only to one’s enthusiasms might sound effortless. But, for Dyer, sustaining his interest in his interests long enough to finish anything requires a carefully stewarded naivety, preserving some of the mystery of his subject by delicately stage-managing his own emergence from ignorance: “If I’d known what I needed to know before writing the book I would have had no interest in doing so,” Dyer has said of his work on jazz. So, he explains in the course of his acclaimed book about (not writing about) DH Lawrence, Out of Sheer Rage (1997), “I’d have to make sure that I finished writing my book at exactly the moment that I had satisfied my curiosity.”

It’s no wonder, given the intricate demands of this punishing regime of persevering only with what interests him, that Dyer’s oeuvre is shadowed by a scrapyard of unconsummated writing assignments. Out of Sheer Rage, which opens with an indelible portrait of a writer gripped by paralysing indecision, on the brink of quitting, is Dyer’s most sustained study of the phenomenon of not writing a book. But the delinquent, derailed writer – carried away by the adventure the assignment prompted (and, often, funded) – is a recurring figure in Dyer’s work. The protagonist of his third novel, Paris Trance (1998), moves to Paris to write a book but abandons it “in the instant that he began leading the life intended to serve as its research”. And in both halves of Dyer’s diptych novel, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi (2009), a journalist becomes distracted from their commission: the first is too busy enjoying the parties, sex and stimulants of the Venice Biennale, and the second ends up extending his stay in Varanasi, aimlessly, for months.

[See also: Geoff Dyer: How to grow old in America]

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As Dyer’s impressive output – well over a dozen books – would lead one to suspect, there is some distance between Dyer (“a grammar school boy” who does “his homework”) and his waylaid, bon-vivant avatars. “Unreliability is not the sole preserve of fictional narrators,” Dyer has written, and his slippery books flout the distinction between fiction and non-fiction – his novels tend to draw on his own experience and his non-fiction works often include invented elements. The truant narrator of Out of Sheer Rage struggling to write a book, for example, is in part a persona sedulously evoked by the man who evidently can write one, and has.

The Last Days of Roger Federer is a meandering, recursive discussion of the twilights of Bob Dylan, Nietzsche, Beethoven, Turner, and Keith Jarrett, among other artists, writers and musicians, featuring autobiographical meditations on lateness, lastness, maturity and degeneration – intellectual and physical. Divided into three parts, each made up of 60 numbered sections of varying lengths, some as short as a sentence, the book is – apparently – 86,400 words long, to match the number of seconds in a day. (Dyer has rather dubiously described this abstract, imperceptible fact as the book’s “structure”.) Last Days is a departure from Dyer’s past works in ways one might expect from a book about decline and giving up, written by an author in late middle-age during lockdown. There’s a final return to Burning Man festival in Nevada’s Black Rock desert, which Dyer attended in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and an underwhelming experience of taking the psychedelic drug DMT; but such vestigial bouts of hedonism are rare for Dyer, now 64 and settled in California. He no longer enjoys getting stoned, his drinking has dwindled to a trickle, and the parties and overseas jaunts have largely dried up. Instead of the “psychedelic sublime”, there are post-tennis “death-naps”.

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But the new book is notable, too, for not being about a writer digressing from his task. On the contrary:though itcontains the customary reference to an aborted predecessor – a study of a trio including Beethoven and Turner – Last Days, it appears, was not a book Dyer was tempted to abandon. The Dyer of Out of Sheer Rage regards sitting at a desk plugging away as “an intolerable waste of a life, of a writer’s life especially”; here Dyer is seen happily, undistractedly fiddling with his manuscript: “I don’t want to do anything except sit around writing – more accurately, revising – this book.” Rather than a pretext for escapades, writing is a refuge from the “irritations and calamities of the world beyond the desk”, and “something to do with my time”.

Several reviewers have complained of the new book’s baggy solipsism, its desultory, unfiltered quality: it’s “as if every thought that came to mind was so endearing that it deserved to be recorded in full”, observed Jennifer Szalai; John Self discerned passages of “verbal Dyerhoea”; Simon Kuper described the book as a “bucket for stray thoughts”. But the “stray thought” is Dyer’s métier, virtually his medium. His digressive riffing and ranting on the overtly irrelevant, trivial and petty is elsewhere a reliable source of amusement and illumination. Sobriety, isolation, immobility, injury, the general shrivelling of life under lockdown are undoubtedly testing conditions, but Dyer’s Midas touch can make an odyssey in pursuit of the perfect pastry grippingly entertaining and strangely profound.

Why, then, are Dyer’s ruminations less consistently engaging here? Not, perhaps, because they are hit-and-miss – though there are underwhelming moments (“just because something’s a classic doesn’t mean it’s any good. Status is not a guarantee of quality”) – but because they are presented as emanating directly from Dyer, unmarinated by his pungent literary alter-ego: not the lively musings of a dreamy or cartoonishly agitated writer playing hooky, but the plainer reflections of a diligent author contentedly at work. An epigraph from Roland Barthes instructed readers of Out of Sheer Rage to treat everything as “spoken by a character in a novel”; Dyer describes Last Days, by contrast, as a container of his consciousness, “a diary of what the writer was up to during the period of its composition”.

[See also: Out with the old: is neoliberalism really dying?]

“For the writer, work is characterised by the absolute cessation of physical movement… by a suspension of life,” Dyer observes in Out of Sheer Rage – lockdown, in other words. It’s as though with life in general approaching the condition of the writer, the compellingly ambiguous distinction between Dyer and his authorial persona has dimmed too, meaning the narrator of Last Days is in effect too reliable. It is not so much the intoxicants that are lacking but this intoxicating element of guile, the thrill of being in the presence of a wily fiction. I was reminded that Janet Malcolm – a writer who shared Dyer’s postmodern interest in exposing the mechanics of story-telling and unreliable narrators – abandoned an autobiography because, used to being an amanuensis for others (her “self-inventive collaborators”), she bored herself.

At the end of Out of Sheer Rage, Dyer reflects that “I’ve devoted more of my life to thoughts of giving up than anyone else I can think of”, and in the postscript to Last Days writes that his abiding “theme, I have no doubt, is giving up”. The interest of the new book fluctuates for the reader not simply because they might not share Dyer’s enthusiasms, but perhaps because Dyer himself, notwithstanding his reports of grateful absorption, isn’t continuously interested. Has Dyer the expert skiver and principled amateur succumbed to the lure of specialisation – chosen a subject he is already a master of and so not truly curious about?

[See also: Bob Stanley’s pre-history of pop breathes life into a lost musical era]

What about the tennis? Dyer has joked that it’s only on court “that I feel I’m living the life of the writer to the full”. Beleaguered by injuries, he’s mostly not playing it in Last Days. He loves Federer – who hardly features – because he shows that “the most efficient way to play tennis was also the most beautiful”. By fusing elegance and efficacy, languor and success, Federer represents a resolution of the dilemma enlivening Dyer’s work between ease and exertion, pleasure and achievement, inclination and rigour. Embodying the detour as straight line, he approaches Dyer’s idea of a “true artist” – someone, as he puts it in Last Days, “who made use of everything that had happened” to them. In this vision, the life effortlessly and exhaustively serves the writing and the writing the life. Every experience, however errant, is redeemed, and nothing wasted.

The Last Days of Roger Federer and Other Endings
Geoff Dyer
Canongate, 304pp, £20

[See also: For the first time in my professional life, I am defeated by a book]

This article appears in the 22 Jun 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Britain isn’t working