Geoff Dyer’s ‘White Sands’ Is a Secretly Romantic Travel Guide

The consensus on Geoff Dyer is that his formally promiscuous books shouldn’t work but do. “He combines fiction, autobiography, travel writing, cultural criticism, literary theory, and a kind of comic English whining,” James Wood wrote of Dyer for the New Yorker in 2009. “The result,” he goes on, “ought to be a mutant mulch but is almost always a louche and canny delight.” Five years later, New York’s Kathryn Schulz offered much the same, albeit with less free indirect Britishness. “The essential fact about Dyer’s nonfiction,” she explains, “is that it works beautifully when it shouldn’t work at all.”

Given his place as American literature’s favorite multitalented Englishman, it’s fitting that Dyer — we learn late in White Sands, his mulchy new book of essays — has relocated to Los Angeles, home of the new “British Invasion.” It also makes sense, along these lines, that Dyer refers to Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered To Do It (2003) as his “earlier blockbuster” when he wants to offer a comparison for White Sands: both are mixtures of fiction and nonfiction. “What’s the difference?” Dyer asks. (It’s the first of the book’s many quasi-rhetorical questions.) “Well, in fiction stuff can be made up or altered,” he teaches. “The main point is that the book does not demand to be read according to how far from a presumed dividing line — a line separating certain forms and the expectations they engender — it is assumed to stand.”

It might have been easier if Dyer had just said that White Sands is a travel book about space and time — or about how the lack or glut of these things can overwhelm perspective, even the vantage point that divides fiction from nonfiction. But that might be overstating it. In a book where the narrator confesses his aversion to tour guides, Dyer — svelte, aging, handsome, fit, casually erudite — acts like the Anthony Bourdain of autoliterature. But instead of offering us delicious meats, he wants us to feast our minds on the spatial genius of some global, cultural hotspots.

Unfortunately, White Sands leads with its weakest piece, “Where? What? When?” (I promised rhetorical questions.) The essay (or story) follows Dyer (or the narrator) as he visits Tahiti and other Polynesian islands on the trail of Gauguin’s ghost. And though some reviewers are already upset that Dyer here mocks Tahitians as obese (“It’s as if they discover Fat is a Feminist Issue and gobble it up”), it’s worth remembering that he has purchased the cover of fiction, which shields him from a bit of ethical and political flak. If only it saved him from his own aesthetic misfirings, which begin here and relaunch from time to time throughout White Sands. The worst of it is a thin existential wonderment about the awe and disappointment available to the 21st century traveler:

Where did I come from? Where am I going? How long have I got? But the answers to those big questions turn out to be small, or at least have to be itemised in detail if they are to have any chance of doing justice to the big questions. We are here to accrue unredeemable air miles and tier points, to try to be upgraded on aeroplanes and in hotels whenever possible, to try to alter our itineraries to include Bora-Bora and Huahine and to wish that the Internet connections were faster and more reliable.

It isn’t surprising when, later in the book, Dyer gets compared to George Clooney. As the passage goes on — and it goes on — he finds himself Up in the Air:

We are here to be bored rigid and then to wonder how it was possible to be so bored. We are here to wait at Hiva Oa Airport in the drenching humidity and to feel definitively what we have felt before, albeit only fleetingly: that we are glad we came even though we spent so much of our time wishing we hadn’t…We are here to go somewhere else.

Dyer is not at his best when he projects our shared fate (“We are here to go somewhere else”); he is too easily aroused and disappointed and self-concerned to do this work. He’s better — among the recent best, I think — when he’s telling a first-person story about contemporary life. There isn’t much of this in either “Space in Time” or “Time in Space,” two mixed essays that consider epic works of land art in America (The Lightning Field and Spiral Jetty, respectively). But there are somehow many more rhetorical questions.

The storytold entries are vast improvements. “Forbidden City,” which has a Dyer-like writer meet a beautiful woman while doing book promotion in Beijing, wonders why momentous things tend to happen on the final night of travel. In the hilarious “Northern Dark,” a couple go on a terrible, failed vacation to a Norwegian hellhole in an attempt to spot the Northern Lights. The later “White Sands” shows the same couple pick up a hitchhiker in New Mexico, only to learn that he may have come from a local detention facility. The book’s final narrative, “Beginning,” which featured in the London Review of Books in an earlier form, concerns a stroke that Dyer had (and immediately recovered from) in 2014, after he moved to Los Angeles. The story is all the more affecting for a straightforwardness that borders on nonchalance.

White Sands, which is dedicated to Dyer’s wife, gradually reveals itself to be a romance, but only when it rests — like a couple in a hotel room; it’s only during the pauses between chapters, and along with the book’s first and last images, that such a story emerges. “We are here to go somewhere else,” the narrator says in the opening story. Maybe. But if you flit too fast – between cities, genres, forms — the story itself can be easy to miss.