Writer Geoff Dyer on dangerous hitchhikers, his stroke & conventions of readingby Mark Broatch
Gloucestershire-born, Los Angeles-based author Geoff Dyer is as interested in the conventions of reading as those of writing.
Geoff Dyer is not willing to state unequivocally that he did pick up a dangerous hitchhiker in the New Mexico desert.
The hitchhiker appears in the title story of Dyer’s latest book, White Sands, a collection of travel tales and artistic pilgrimages in his typically discursive, ironic, wit-laden style. It has the English narrator and his wife, Jessica, driving on Highway 54, from Alamogordo, New Mexico, to El Paso, Texas. They pick up the hitchhiker – “a black guy, in his late twenties, clean and not looking like a maniac or someone who smelled bad” – before seeing a sign:
DO NOT PICK UP HITCHHIKERS
DETENTION FACILITIES IN AREA
I’d asked if he thought the hitcher was a serious criminal.
“There’s an assumption here in your question that we really did pick up a hitchhiker. And I’m not willing to either confirm or deny that. But that’s why the book is named after that piece, because part of the fun of it is to be asked, just as I’m asking myself, we’re asking ourselves: who is this guy? Hopefully, the reader is wondering, ‘What is this? Is it fiction, is it a story? If so, at what point does it become fiction? If it is fiction, why isn’t it behaving like we expect stories to behave?’ It’s certainly not, because there are all sorts of essayistic bits in it. That’s been such a big thing for me in my writing, especially recently: you don’t know what it is. I think all these questions are quite integral to the experience of reading that piece and the book as a whole.”
What is verifiable is that there are detention facilities nearby, and that in real life the author is married to Saatchi Art curator Rebecca Wilson; they moved to Los Angeles in 2014. The rest we have to take his word for.
Dyer explains in a note that the book, “like my earlier blockbuster, Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered To Do It, is a mixture of fiction and non-fiction”. He tells me: “Obviously, nobody’s reading them as though they’re transcripts of some sort of courtroom deposition, but it just allowed for a bit more room for manoeuvring not just in terms of how I was writing but, crucially, I would hope, in terms of how they’re read.”
Dyer, who’s written a good handful of non-fiction books and four novels, has long been slippery on whom we’re being guided by: the author, a persona or a mixture. He’s an unreliable narrator you can rely on. His most recent novel, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, explores the art world of the Biennale and India’s spiritual centre in that wry, seemingly semi-autobiographical style. In-between the two sections, the narration changes from third-person to first.
He has become persuaded that people read differently depending on whether something is described as fiction or reportage, despite biography’s frequently use of the techniques of fiction and fiction being the product of an imagination based in ascertainable facts and experiences and memories.
“The distinction is one of: did it happen, didn’t it happen? But it seems to me it’s crucially one of form and the expectations people bring to certain forms. There are conventions of reading as well as conventions of writing. It can be disconcerting when you’re finding your reading experience is not conforming to the conventions that you were expecting to bring to bear. That’s one of the things that make reading my stuff interesting, I hope.”
The book visits Beijing’s Forbidden City, New Mexico’s Lightning Field, Gauguin’s Tahiti and the Spiral Jetty in Utah, and goes in search of the Northern Lights and eminent German emigres to California. It drops in cultural references like Google bombs: Theodor Adorno, Andreas Gursky, Luigi Ghirri. He admits his wife parodies his style: “Oh, we haven’t had a quote from Nietzsche for a while!”
The piece in Beijing, I ask hesitantly, involves a certain amount of literary lusting after … Min, is it? I wonder about how that goes down at home. “I thought you said lusting after men,” Dyer says, though probably only imagining if I had. “There certainly is falling for someone. Do bear in mind,” he admonishes again, “your question about the hitchhiker in White Sands. But I don’t think it’s that unusual: if you’re married you meet people. The extent to which that falling is acted upon varies from person to person.
“I know exactly the combination of fiction and stuff in that piece and I know how I stitched things together. White Sands and The Forbidden City – they’re the two pieces in the book that seemed to me to operate most obviously at the level of stories. The least essayistic, let’s say.”
One of the more essayistic pieces is his writing about having a stroke in 2014, which sounds terrifying even though it was brief and painless and left no obvious after-effects.
“It was a real shock. I’d never really given much concern to the brain before. It would wake up with a hangover some mornings, but it would get going again. It felt, on the one hand, if you were going to have a stroke, this was the best sort to have. On the other hand, it felt, not even unjust, just so random.”
Apart from his morning cappuccino and twice-baked hazelnut croissant, nothing in his life had been stroke-conducive. He plays tennis every other day, is giraffe-thin. “It just seemed like some weird lightning flash that was meant to take place in another part of the country that got redirected towards me.”
His parents, a sheet-metal worker father and school dinner lady mother from Cheltenham, who both died in 2011, had awful diets. “So my dad had cancer of the rectum. To be frank with you, he deserved it, with the crap he was eating.”
Dyer had been looking forward to signing up for a medical marijuana card, but the prospect of smoking – or rather vaporising – pot “now seemed quite dreadful”. He is on statins now and has cut down on the pastries.
I ask if he’s done with fiction and – he quotes Adorno – its “time-consuming mechanics of plot and story”. He’s always thought he had more life in him as a non-fiction writer, he responds. “But having said that, I realise I should of course reject the question.” Besides, there is plenty of fiction in the book. “It’s just that the fiction is not conforming to the standard New Yorker-type template of what the story should be.”
Perhaps I’m imagining it since we spoke a few years ago, but he seems positively cheerful these days. He is happy to be in LA, he says, despite its terrible public transport. A fellowship has turned into “nice gig” of teaching one semester a year for the next five years at USC. He loves the weather. And he’s off to play tennis as soon as we finish speaking. “It’s always been my dream to live in California and we sort of managed it.” He says at the age of 58 – his birthday was on June 5 – he suddenly has more financial security than ever before. Last year he even started a pension plan.
The course he teaches is creative writing, but at the moment it’s about reading (it’s more of a book group, one of his students protested). Who is on the list? Annie Dillard, John Berger, Ryszard Kapuściński, JA Baker’s The Peregrine, Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. Also, Australia-born Shirley Hazzard’s book The Transit of Venus. “It just grows for me every time I read it.” He’s trying to expand the idea of “literariness” beyond poetry and the novel.
He’s also worried about the quick judgement of modern society. In writing about Gauguin, Dyer is rude about Tahitian women often being fat, the men even more so. Does he worry about blowback or are we usually too polite to mention it? Political correctness used to be about the administration of universities, he says. “Now it’s seeped into the head of students to such an extent that it really inhibits their reading of somebody like Kapuściński. There it’s ‘Oh, white man passing judgment on Africans’. Similar thing when we were reading Norman Mailer’s book about Muhammad Ali [1975’s The Fight].
“I sometimes think that inhibits a closer reading about things. In that case of Tahitian women, a friend read the book and said, ‘Oh, it’s just outrageous’, and so many people have objected to it that I really think I should have toned it down a bit.” He sighs. “Even though it seemed to me that in the context of a visit to Tahiti about Gauguin, whose vision of this paradise was so bound up in the way he painted these Tahitian women, it would have been dishonest or evasive not to have engaged with that. And as a writer, it’s fatal for you to have this fear of what some sort of committee on public morals would say about your writing – that really would be the end of you, I would think.”
Dyer still has plenty of places to travel to. He’s never been to Iceland or Easter Island, piles of places in America. These experiences are not without disappointment – “if you grow up in England, you are genetically predisposed to it” – but that shows he’s still capable of some romantic yearning, he says. “To not be capable of disappointment would seem to me a form of resignation in a way. Because any kind of promise has the potential to be broken.”
WHITE SANDS: EXPERIENCES FROM THE OUTSIDE WORLD, by Geoff Dyer (Text, $40)
Follow the Listener on Twitter or Facebook.
An extra $420m is being pumped into the National Science Challenges - but the reasoning behind the increased investment won't be released.Read more
We revisit this profile on award-winning guitarist Gray Bartlett, who's just released a new album, Platinum!Read more
"We were just a bunch of engineers trying to make it work. It didn't even occur to us that anybody would want to wreck it," says Vint Cerf.Read more
Starring Academy Award nominees Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie, Mary Queen of Scots explores the turbulent life of the charismatic Mary Stuart.Read more
To choreographer Sarah Foster-Sproull, Douglas Wright was both mentor and friend.Read more