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12 August 2016

The wonder that refuses to show up: White Sands by Geoff Dyer

“The scale and frequency of my disappointment,” Dyer writes in his new essay collection, “was proof of how much I still expected and wanted from the world.”

By Philip Maughan

The life of the painter Paul Gauguin, Geoff Dyer writes at the start of his second collection of travel essays, was “centrifugal, from the centre to the edge”. Dyer has travelled to Tahiti, in the South Pacific, to step into the shoes of Gauguin, the “syphilitic old lech” who was disappointed, on arriving in 1891, to find the place had been “wretchedly debased by Civilisation”. This debasement has only intensified in the intervening years, to the degree that Dyer feels embarrassed “in this once-natural paradise that had to be cosmetically improved and maintained in order to look perfectly natural”.

While on the hunt for Gauguin’s grave – “It merits a stop of about two minutes, max, and visiting it was pretty much a non-experience” – Dyer discovers a different monument: “Naopua A Puufaifiau, Soldat: Mort Pour La France 1914-18”. This is a memorial to the Tahitian dead of the First World War, a counterpoint to the Frenchman’s voyage to the tropics which represents a “centripetal movement compelling someone from the fringes of the world to the epicentre of history”. As Dyer writes, “From that moment on, it would be impossible, even in paradise, to live in a way that was untouched by history.”

Immediately, we are in familiar territory. Dyer’s 1994 investigation into the cultural legacy of the First World War, The Missing of the Somme (recently reissued to mark the battle’s centenary), is a roving, theoretical, sometimes lecture-like essay given narrative pull by the author’s journey to see the celebrated monument at Thiepval, in northern France, designed by Edwin Lut­yens to honour over 72,000 missing British soldiers. In White Sands, the old touchstones are back: a central interest in painting and photography, a weaving of criticism, reportage and fiction, and an educated-in-the-1980s fondness for using words such as “history” in a manner that implies a capital “H”. But where in 1994 Dyer was a clever young man, out to prove himself through the magnitude of his chosen subjects, by the mid-2010s he has entered middle age and acquired a dose of Californian chill.

That is mainly because California is where he now lives. The destinations in White Sands range from Tahiti, Beijing and Longyearbyen in northern Norway to day trips across the American west, visiting Walter De Maria’s Lightning Field in New Mexico and Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty in Utah, two seminal constructions of the late 1960s and 1970s land art movement. “I spent the first decade of the century telling anyone who would listen that I wanted to end my days in California,” Dyer writes in “Pilgrimage”, a nerdy pastiche of a Hollywood star maps trail, in which he and his wife seek out the former home of the German philosopher Theodor “Teddy” Adorno. “One of the people I said this to, in San Francisco, was quick to put me right: you don’t end your days in California, he said, you begin them.”

This suggestion of renewal is not accidental. Dyer’s previous book of travel essays, Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It, led him to confront his physical and emotional ruination, standing outside the Roman ruins of Leptis Magna in Libya, and the narrative trajectory in White Sands also focuses inwards, like that of the Tahitians sent to fight on the killing fields of Europe, as Dyer orbits his new home in Venice Beach, Los Angeles. It is at home, in fact, that he suffers a (minor) stroke in the concluding chapter of the book – making the title his 2009 novel, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, appear eerily prophetic. Though one could, of course, put a more philoso­phical, New Age spin on the road travelled in both Yoga . . . and White Sands, and see them as a path towards enlightenment, the dissolution of the self and rebirth.

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If White Sands has a unifying theme – and I’m not totally convinced that it does – it is the interplay of landscape (space) and time. Just in case you missed it, this is pointed out on page 84. Discussing The Questioner of the Sphinx (1863), a painting by the American symbolist Elihu Vedder in which a cloaked figure places his head against the lips of a giant sphinx’s head, Dyer writes: “[The] painting seems emblematic of the experiences that crop up repeatedly in this book: of trying to work out what a certain place – a certain way of marking the landscape – means; what it’s trying to tell us; what we go to it for.”

Thankfully, this Robert Macfarlane-type patter is kept to a minimum, confined to short narrative interludes between the main essays. For the most part, wherever Dyer goes, awe and reverence refuse to show up. “The devastating scale and frequency of my disappointment,” he says, attempting to cast this in a positive light, “was proof of how much I still expected and wanted from the world.” Where Yoga . . . opened with a quotation from an Auden poem – “Who cannot draw the map of his life . . .” to which the cocksure response from Dyer was “I can’t (or can’t yet)” – White Sands presents a narrower range of experiences yet somehow manages to feel broader. It is a calmer, humbler exploration of the wonder that may (or may not) be waiting in the world beyond oneself.

Philip Maughan is a Berlin-based writer

This article appears in the 10 Aug 2016 issue of the New Statesman, From the Somme to lraq