The arrival of a new Geoff Dyer book is an occasion for which I drop everything. He’s known for the variety of his work — he’s written about jazz, photography, World War I, an aircraft carrier, Venice, and film — and for never really letting on when he’s taking liberties (some of his books are purely fiction and some are purely non-fiction, but many of them live somewhere in the middle.) His agility at handling diverse subject matter is masterful, and the appeal of his work — to me — is being in the company of Geoff Dyer. Whether he’s touring an aircraft carrier, imagining a mid-century jazz club in New York, or having a boring time in Tahiti, he’s witty, insightful, casually brilliant, and frequently profound.
White Sands is a collection of travel writing, in which Dyer visits the Forbidden City in Beijing, the Lightning Field in New Mexico, the Watts Towers in Los Angeles, the northern lights in Svalbard, the Spiral Jetty in Utah, a philosopher’s house, and Tahiti. We recently spoke on the phone about the shifting meaning of a place, how expectations affect travel, and, perhaps inevitably, D.H. Lawrence.
The Millions: How would you describe the common theme of the pieces in this book?
Geoff Dyer: I think there are several ongoing concerns. The way that disappointment gives way to its opposite, perhaps. The way that places have some kind of almost special energy to them. And I guess the relationship between places that don’t change, that have stayed the same for a while, and the stuff that’s sort of changing in and around them — and what that tends to be is the people, the various human dramas that are enacted within certain spaces or arenas.
TM: Your earlier book, Yoga For People Who Can’t Be Bothered To Do It, was also a travel memoir, but a self-deprecating one, in which you frequently highlight that you’re not a model tourist. In this book you seem to be more focused on the sites you’re visiting. Do you think you have loftier expectations for travel than you used to?
GD: I’m glad I’m capable of disappointment because that shows I still have high hopes for the world. This book recalls a whole load of excited, optimistic feelings about going to places. I’ve always found certain aspects of traveling a bit of a bore, as everybody does. But I would hope that in both books that it’s not just me moaning and groaning and being disappointed. I would hope that in different ways nearly every pieces in this new book ends with me affirming that I’m glad I came, even if the thing that made the trip worthwhile isn’t necessarily the thing I went thinking was going to be great. That’s why the Gauguin piece goes first [“Where? What? Where?”, in which Dyer visits Tahiti, a place that inspired Gauguin, and is unimpressed]. It really was a worthwhile trip even though Gauguin-wise it really didn’t deliver at all.
TM: Do you think there’s a different kind of value in visiting a place and not having the feeling you’re supposed to feel?
GD: What I do feel absolutely is that you can’t fake it. You go to a place and you either have the great experience or you don’t. And I’ve been to a number of places where it just didn’t happen for me, and it’s very difficult to write convincingly about the experience of a place if you really haven’t had it.
I guess the single most disappointing place was Svalbard, where we were hoping to see the Northern Lights, and that just doesn’t happen [“Northern Dark”]. That’s probably the most purely comic piece. So that would be a piece where the only redeeming quality the trip had was that it generated a piece of writing.
TM: Both Yoga and White Sands explore both sides of travel — some experiences are transcendent, others deeply unsatisfying. What do you think the tipping point is? What is it that can make or break an experience like that. Is it completely unpredictable?
GD: Stonehenge is a place that seems so great, but the reality of it has been so consistently disappointing for so many people, compared with the great scenes that happen there in Tess of the D’Urbervilles, for example, or the painting by Turner. That’s partly the fault of the English tourism board, the way they’ve built a road sort of right next to it, and have done everything they can to shrink the place, dilute it of the great primal power it should have. So some places have a lengthy history of disappointment, other times it can be subjective. But I think that’s one of the interesting things about the best travel writing — it’s that intersection of the sensibility of the person with the place. You get it over and over again in Lawrence, who’s such a big figure for me. Sometimes Lawrence is offering you an account of a place and it almost seems to have no objective value as an assessment of that place, it’s so obviously a projection of whatever Lawrence has going on in his head at the time. Other times he seems to just really intuit something that is going on there in the place, in the landscape, like the amazing essay called “A Letter from Germany” from the early 1920s. You can feel he gets this premonition, this feeling, of what would be the eventual rise of Nazism. He just feels it, not through any political observation at the time, just through something like the trembling of the leaves of the black forest. The key is the relationship between an entirely unreliable subjective response, a response which might actually be a projection, and something which is more susceptible to what the place has actually got going on — I think that’s the fertile area, that meeting between a sensibility and a place.
TM: A lot of the places you visit in this book have been built in the last 100 years. Do you think places like that are more likely to produce a spontaneous response because they don’t have as many centuries as connotation attached to them?
GD: I guess the ultimate example of that would be Venice. Mary McCarthy famously said of Venice, “It’s impossible to say anything about Venice that’s not been said before…including this remark.” Venice is so steeped in its own history. You don’t just see the place, you see it through the accretion of various layers of response to it, but then that also gives you something to write about. You can talk about how the image of Venice is mediated. I wouldn’t say that I’d come down on either the utterly familiar or utterly unfamiliar side of things, it’s just that individuals respond to certain places powerfully, others not, but I don’t feel it’s determined by how well known they are.
TM: Whereas when you visited Gauguin’s Tahiti, it seems like it had lost layers, it was a less interesting and magical place than it had been for him.
GD: At various stages of their development, place acquire and lose a kind of magic. Of course it would have been great to be with Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda on the French riviera back in the day, but now it’s been finished, I can’t imagine having a great experience there. Places are subject to history, they can lose their power.
TM: As a writer, your life’s work has been creative, but I can’t go visit it. Do you think that’s part of what attracts you to these singular, physical works?
GD: Not really. I just like the idea of site-specific art, of going to a place and having an experience that is unique to a certain place, as opposed to works of art that you can see in various museums around the world.
I think it certainly interests me about places when people have these designs for it be one thing and then it becomes another, and I’m particularly interested in places that fall into ruin and how it is that they maintain or acquire a different charge than the one they originally had, the way that, for example, a Christian church when it falls into ruin seems to have its air of detachment extended in some ways.
TM: That reminds me of what you wrote about the Watts Towers in “The Ballad of Jimmy Garrison,” that their “capacity to create legends about themselves was self-generating and inexhaustible.”
GD: Right. I think in that particular case I was referring to [the Towers’] status as not being quite respectable art pieces, and there’s so much potentially unreliable information on them. I think it’s because they weren’t properly catalogued and studied in a way that serous art pieces were, they were so ripe for myths to grow up around them. But they certainly lend themselves very well to all sorts of large readings. I guess they’re emblematic in another way that we’re not quite sure how to read them. For me it’s always been an important that part of the fun of my books is that there’s some uncertainty as to what they are and how they are to be read, because what exactly are they? What kind of books are they?