Nicole Mansour reviews Geoff Dyer’s new novel White Sands, giving a appraisal of its literary merits.
Geoff Dyer, White Sands: Experiences from the Outside World (Pantheon, 2016) 256pp.
In spring of this year, I visited Rei Naito’s Matrix on the art island of Teshima, in Japan’s Seto Sea. I had no real expectations for my visit, or for the unique creative collaboration between Naito and architect, Ryue Nishizawa, whose oval-shaped, concrete shell – the Teshima Art Museum – houses the artist’s remarkable installation. But upon my arrival there – by ferry to the island, followed by a short bus ride to the museum, and a secluded walk along a quiet, tree lined path to the exhibit itself – I suddenly became aware of my expectations not only being exceeded but entirely obliterated. Entering the space – its elliptical dome with two great ovoid windows at either end welcoming the pure May light, the small droplets of water mysteriously trickling across the floor, the gentle breeze from the inland sea drifting past and carrying with it the voices of birds and the scent of those trees and their blooming buds we’d just wandered past – my expectations fell away. I was no longer distracted by ferry timetables or the day’s itinerary, by the unpredicted heat, or my next fill of matcha ice cream. As the minutes ticked away toward an hour or more, the space continued to unfold before me. And I was simply content to let myself be overwhelmed.
In his latest collection of essays, White Sands: Experiences from the Outside World, British writer Geoff Dyer lucidly and eruditely considers this idea of arrival and anticipation, of an ‘experience of space that unfolds over time’; occasionally, he also ponders the disappointments and anticlimaxes we encounter on our journeys. But always he allows himself the full experience of place and time, defines the subtleties of ‘elsewhere’, and consents – for better or worse – to be overwhelmed.
Dyer begins his collection with an expedition to Tahiti, where he has been dispatched to do research for an upcoming essay on artist Paul Gauguin. Yet what proposes to be a recollection of an idyllic adventure in an island paradise is swiftly turned into amusing calamity: Dyer loses his research material in flight transit, is less than inspired by his visit to Gauguin’s grave (‘pretty much a non-experience’), suffers a bout of heat rash, and eventually arrives at the conclusion that the Pacific is something akin to a ‘watery pancake’. Then there is his hilariously disillusioning trip to Norway. Seeking the emerald surrealism of the Northern Lights, Dyer subsequently finds himself in a frozen, limitless darkness, with no glimpse of Aurora Borealis to be found, his humour as sharp and biting as the frosty conditions in which he describes.
But not all Dyer’s journeys entail globetrotting or a change of time zones. Some are far more philosophical, such as that entitled ‘Pilgrimage’, in which he weaves an excursion to Theodor Adorno’s former house in Brentwood, Los Angeles with cycling along the bicycle path to Santa Monica and the pleasure of watching people take part in ‘acro’ yoga on Muscle Beach. Indeed, Dyer seamlessly meanders from place to place, offering pleasant surprises all along the way: from the alluring company of his Forbidden City ‘tour guide’ on a hot and bizarrely smog-free day in Beijing, to Watts Towers and jazz in LA, picking up a hitchhiker on the drive back from White Sands, and meditating on Elihu Vedder’s painting, The Questioner of the Sphinx.
Perhaps Dyer’s most sublime moments can be found in his chapters on Walter de Maria’s The Lightening Field and Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty. The author’s visits to each of these impressive land art installations – in New Mexico and Utah respectively – are beautifully composed contemplations on the metaphysical. Dyer’s transcendental observations particularly resonated with me, acting as a pleasant reminder of the besieging wonder I’d experienced on Teshima Island.
Dyer’s essays are full of dizzying digressions and unexpected connections; they are a unique amalgam of criticism and humour. Always is he elusively blurring the lines between fiction and non-fiction, most notably in referring to his wife, Rebecca, to whom he dedicated this book to, but calling her Jessica whenever she makes an appearance within its pages.
In his closing chapter, Dyer embarks upon something of an inner journey, as he recounts the ischemic stroke he suffered in 2014. His full recovery – despite some minor loss of vision in his left eye – is palpable in these essays, which are endlessly playful, witty, and philosophical. Even if his eyesight isn’t one hundred per cent, Dyer’s perceptiveness never misses a beat.
Nicole Mansour is originally from Sydney and is a graduate of the Actors Centre Australia, a former inhabitant of Buenos Aires, London, Melbourne, and Hong Kong. She has recently completed a BA in literature. Her writing has appeared online at Thresholds and Graphite, and her essay, ‘Beyond the Barren Landscape: Elizabeth Harrower’s A Few Days in the Country’ was longlisted for Thresholds 2016 Feature Competition.