This isn’t a self-help book; it’s a book about how Geoff Dyer could do with a little help. In these genre-defying tales, he travels from Amsterdam to Cambodia, Rome to Indonesia, Libya to Burning Man in the Black Rock Desert, floundering in a sea of grievances, with fleeting moments of transcendental calm his only reward for living in a perpetual state of motion. But even as he recounts his side-splitting misadventures in each of these locales, Dyer is always able to sneak up and surprise you with insight into much more serious matters. Brilliantly riffing off our expectations of external and internal journeys, Dyer welcomes the reader as a companion, a fellow perambulator in search of something and nothing at the same time.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
In 1991 I lived for a while in New Orleans, in an apartment on Esplanade, just beyond the French Quarter, where from time to time British tourists are murdered for refusing to hand over their video cameras to the cracked-out muggers who live and work nearby. I never had any trouble—I’ve never owned a video camera, either—even though I walked everywhere at all times.
I’d decided to come to New Orleans after a girlfriend and I passed through, on our way to Los Angeles from New York. We were delivering a car, and though, usually, you are allowed only a few hundred miles more than it takes to drive cross-continent in a straight line, our car’s original mileage had not been recorded, and so we zigzagged our way across the States, exceeding the normal distance by several thousand miles and thoroughly exhausting ourselves in the process. In the course of this frenzied itinerary we’d stayed only one night in New Orleans, but it—by which I mean the French Quarter rather than the city at large—seemed like the most perfect place in the world, and I vowed that when I next had a chunk of free time, I would return. I make such vows all the time without keeping them, but on this occasion, a year after first passing through, I returned to New Orleans to live for three months.
I spent the first few nights in the Rue Royal Inn while I looked for an apartment to rent. I hoped to find a place in the heart of the Quarter, somewhere with a balcony and rocking chairs and wind chimes, overlooking other places with rocking chairs and balconies, but I ended up on the dangerous fringes of the Quarter, in a place with a tiny balcony overlooking a vacant lot which seethed with unspecified threat as I walked home at night.
The only people I knew in New Orleans were James and Ian, a gay couple in their fifties, friends of an acquaintance of a woman I knew in London. They were extremely hospitable, but because they were a good deal older than I and because they both had AIDS and liked to live quietly, I settled quickly into a routine of work and solitude. In films, whenever a man moves to a new town—even if he has served a long jail term for murdering his wife—he soon meets a woman at the checkout of the local supermarket or at the diner where he has his first breakfast. I spent much of my thirties moving to new towns, towns where I knew no one, and I never met a woman in the supermarket or the Croissant d’Or, where I had breakfast on my first morning in New Orleans. Even though I did not meet a waitress at the aptly named Croissant d’Or, I continued to have breakfast there every day because they served the best almond croissants I had (and have) ever tasted. Some days it rained for days on end, the heaviest rain I had ever seen (I’ve seen worse since), but however hard it was raining I never missed my breakfast at the Croissant d’Or, partly because of the excellence of the croissants and coffee, but mainly because going there became part of the habitual rhythm of my day.
In the evenings I went to the bar across the road, the Port of Call, where I tried, unsuccessfully, to engage the barmaid in conversation while watching the Gulf War on CNN. On the night of the first air strikes against Baghdad, the bar was rowdy with excitement and foreboding. Yellow ribbons were tied around many of the trees on Esplanade, which I walked up every day on my way to the Croissant d’Or, where, as I ate my almond croissants, I liked to read the latest reports from the Gulf, either in the New York Times or in the local paper, whose name—the Louisiana something?—I have forgotten. After breakfast I walked home and worked for as long as I could, and then strolled through the Quarter, led on, it seemed, by the sound of wind chimes, which hung from almost every building. It was January but the weather was mild, and I often sat by the Mississippi reading about New Orleans and its history. Because the city is located at the mouth of the Mississippi, its foundations are in mud, and each year the buildings sink more deeply into it. As well as being warped by the sun and rotted by rain and humidity, many of the buildings in the Quarter sloped markedly as a result of subsidence. This straying from the vertical was complemented by a horizontal drift. The volume of detritus carried south by the Mississippi was such that the river was silting itself up and changing course so that, effectively, the city was moving. Every year the streets moved a fraction of an inch in relation to the river, subtly altering the geography of the town. Decatur Street, for example, where James and Ian lived, had moved several degrees from the position recorded on nineteenth-century maps.
As I sat by the Mississippi one afternoon, a freight rumbled past on the railroad track behind me, moving very slowly. I’d always wanted to hop a freight, and I sprang up, trying to muster up the courage to leap aboard. The length of the train and its slow speed meant that I had a long time—too long—to contemplate hauling myself aboard, but I was frightened of getting into trouble or injuring myself, and I stood there for five minutes, watching the boxcars clank past, until finally there were no more carriages and the train had passed. Watching it curve out of sight, I was filled with magnolia-tinted regret, the kind of feeling you get when you see a woman in the street, when your eyes meet for a moment but you make no effort to speak to her and then she is gone and you spend the rest of the day thinking that, had you spoken, she would have been pleased, not offended, and you would, perhaps, have fallen in love with each other. You wonder what her name might have been. Angela perhaps. Instead of hopping the freight, I went back to my apartment on Esplanade and had the character in the novel I was working on do so.
When you are lonely, writing can keep you company. It is also a form of self-compensation, a way of making up for things—as opposed to making things up—that did not quite happen.
As the eventless weeks went by it became warmer and more humid, and Mardi Gras drew near. A condition of renting my apartment was that I move out during Mardi Gras, when it was possible to charge four or five times the normal weekly rate. Fortunately, James and Ian were going away and they allowed me to stay in their place on Decatur which was no longer quite as close to the river as it had once been. At first it was fun, Mardi Gras. I liked the sport of trying to catch stuff—plastic beakers, beads, and other trinkets, rubbish really—thrown from the crazy floats inching through the crowded streets. It was like a cross between basketball and being in a mob of refugees scrambling for food rations thrown by soldiers. Being tall, I could outreach most people, even though there are some tall men, mainly black, in Louisiana; the whites are shorter for the most part, easy to outjump. One night I was part of a herd buffaloing along Rampart, leaping for beakers and beads, when gunshots were heard. Suddenly everyone was screaming and we were all running in panic. For some reason—it had never happened before—one of my knees gave way and I lurched forward into the person ahead of me, would have fallen to the ground if I hadn’t grabbed hold of him. This initiated another brief surge of panic, and then everyone stopped running and there were sirens and police everywhere and things returned to the normal Mardi Gras uproar.
As the carnival progressed so it became more unpleasant, almost a bore. The Quarter was jammed with college kids and tins of Budweiser and broken plastic beakers, and the streets reeked of old beer and fresh vomit. The flip side of this was the extravagant balls organized by various krewes. Ian had given me his invitation to one of these bashes, where I met Angela, a young black woman who was studying wealth accumulation at law school. The day after the ball she came round to James and Ian’s apartment wearing freshly laundered Levi’s and a red blouse. Her hair was tied back in a ribbon, also red. We stood side by side on the balcony, drinking white wine in glasses so fine you hardly dared hold them. Our hands on the balcony rail were only inches apart. I moved my hand until it almost touched hers, and then it was touching hers and she didn’t move her hand away, so I stroked her arm.
A Conversation with Geoff Dyer,
Author of YOGA FOR PEOPLE WHO CAN’T BE BOTHERED TO DO IT:
Can you say something about the title?
It’s actually something a stoner friend of mine said. I stored it away and, exactly as one would hope, years later, when I told him the title of my new book, he had no recollection of having said it. Writers need friends like that. It feels very contemporary, the expression of some kind of zeitgeisty ideal. Obviously, the title of the book is also the title of what is the pivotal piece in the book. That story is a real highpoint for the ‘I’ character or narrator or whatever you want to call him; after that it’s pretty much downhill. Also, since so much of the book is about failing to do things it seems appropriate. I mean one of the main things in the book is the way that I - I’ll dispense with the inverted commas but maybe we can just assume they’re there - failed to write a book about ruins because I fell into ruin myself. More personally, I am very prone to the ‘I can’t be bothered’ attitude to life. But this brings no contentment. On the contrary. It ends up, in a fantastically inefficient way, goading me into action, into bothering.
So is the ‘I’ you?
It’s like a tendency that I share. I’ve been to all the places in the book and the ‘I’ of the book bears a pretty close resemblance to me but the book is not reliable in the way that an atlas is expected to be. Or a work of non-fiction for that matter.
But the book is being published as non-fiction...
Oh, it’s adistinction that means absolutely nothing to me. I like to write stuff that’s only an inch from life, from what really happened, but all the art is of course in that inch. My books tend not to have the narrative and story you associate with fiction but at the same time they are arranged and structured, to put it somewhat pompously, as works of art rather than as an accumulation of information. To that extent I like to think they are more novel than many novels.
Booksellers don't know where to shelve your book. Do you have any advice
for them? Will they have to start a new category?
The most satisfying experience of this I’ve had was in London when I saw my jazz book in the best-sellers section. I knew the manager of the store a little and asked him if it was true. ‘No, of course not,’ he said. ‘But we didn’t know where else to put it.’ Actually, jazz is quite useful as an analogy in this context. Jazz as jazz - jazzy jazz - is pretty well finished. The interesting stuff is all happening on the fringes of the form where there are elements of jazz and elements of all sorts of other things as well. Jazz is a trace but it’s not a defining trace. I think something similar is happening in writing. Although great novels - novelly novels - are still being written a lot of the most interesting things are happening on the fringes of several forms. I say this and then, on reflection, I realise that such book have been around for a long time. Take, for example, my favourite book of the twentieth century, Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. What kind of book is that? If I had to sum it up I’d say it was a very long book about Yugoslavia but that wouldn’t quite do it justice. So this non-category category is quite well established. As for this new book of mine, well, I don’t know. Travel? A rather lowly genre for the most part. Comedy? An interesting category in that most of the stuff you find in it is so resolutely unfunny. Self-help? Maybe a sub-set of that: How to survive while going completely to pieces... I should also add that that issue of what kind of book it is also applies, hopefully, at the level of the individual pieces. Are they stories? Well, sort of, but they’re not like any stories I know of. Some of them are essays with lots of dialogue.
Is it a book of separate stories or do they need to be read together?
It’s both a collection of self-contained pieces and a fully-formed book in its own right. All sorts of little things link the individual pieces. But it really needs to be read in sequence. In a book of stories that’s usually optional but here I think it’s necessary. There’s a definite logic in the structure even if it’s not a straightforward narrative or chronological progression.
Is it inaccurate to say this book differs from your others because you're
putting yourself front and center, or do you see this as an extension of the
investigation you started in other books?
I think the books have all been pretty self-centred, as it were. This is the wager, isn’t it? It’s by remaining faithful to the contingencies and peculiarities of your own experience and the vagaries of your own nature that you stand the greatest chance of conveying something universal - especially if, like me, you’re not particularly interested in character and story...
So what are you interested in?
Tone. I like tone a lot. Tone is nearly always what clinches it for me with a writer. The struggle for me with books like this one or Out of Sheer Rage was to find a tone that could encompass all sorts of things: comedy, narrative (of sorts), lyricism and a kind of analytical, more essayistic, discursive way of writing, a tone that would enable me to move between various registers without any crunching of gears. Oh, and I like ideas. That’s something I’ve noticed recently: the way that quite a lot of highly regarded so-called literary fiction is actually completely brainless. By contrast, what first turned me on to John Berger, for example, was the abundance of ideas in his books. Having said that, I’m not arguing for the kind of elaborately argued debate that I imagine you get in Iris Murdoch; I like the quick flicker or glimmer or - as in Nietzsche - the lightning flash. There’s lots of Nietzsche in the book, obviously. That’s the thing about the Eternal Recurrence: it keeps cropping up.
Your books reek of obsessiveness. How important is obsession for you as a writer?
Well, I prefer a more modest word, hobbies or interests. I’ve had lots of them. I’ve tended to write books about things I’ve been very interested in - jazz, the First World War, or Lawrence or whatever - and then once I’ve found out what I wanted to know - once I’ve found out why these things have interested me I tend to lose interest. Each book is the record of a process of inquiry that is concluded with the last sentence. So the books are very different to each other not just in content but form too. (By the way, have you noticed the way that writers always say their books are all very different, even when they’re exactly the same?) But this variegation masks some underlying continuities. I think if you had to isolate one thing that runs through them all it would be a huge, overwhelming sense of purposelessness. Perhaps obsessiveness is the corollary of that. Now that might just be a personal indisposition but - in keeping with something we were saying earlier - it would not be at all surprising if this purposelessness were a more general condition. Maybe, in self-help style I should put this more positively: the books explore ways of finding how to keeping going when there is no larger narrative or purpose. What can take its place? Incremental enthusiasms. Peak experiences. Moments...
One of your obsessions is with decline (physical, emotional, monumental). Why is that?
It’s partly because I’m in decline, I think. I used to be so clever and now I’m becoming rather stupid. The surprising thing is that I’m actually quite enjoying it. Who knows - maybe it’s a pre-echo of enlightenment?
Maybe I’m more interested in ruin than decline. As the Leptis Magna and Detroit pieces make plain, in some ways places and people achieve their highest expression in ruination. My favourite novel of all time is probably Tender is the Night. Paris Trance was in some ways a version of Tender: about someone who, against all temptations to the contrary, managed to be true to his destiny, which was to fail. A friend said that if Paris Trance was a version of Tender then the new book was a version of The Crack-Up!
On the other hand, though, and set against this are the peak experiences which make everything else irrelevant, which actually make life worth living - Nietzsche again - and I’ve found that ruins, places where time has stood its ground, are extremely conducive to these peak experiences. And there are quite a lot of those moments in the book. There’s something almost impersonal about these moments, moments which can take many forms: at parties or at ancient monuments. I am drawn to places which exert this possibility. Places like this have something of the Zone - from Tarkovsky’s Stalker - about them. The book is a journey towards the Zone. Which is why it ends up at Black Rock City, at Burning Man.
Burning Man is the greatest thing on the planet! It’s also, for me personally, been something of a disaster in that for several years all I cared about was Burning Man. It was so all-encompassing and all-consuming. It almost finished me as a writer because it so exceeded anything I could ever imagine or invent. Some nights I just lie in bed and say the words to myself over and over: Burning Man, Burning Man, Burning Man... In terms of Burning Man I suppose that’s the question critics need to address: does this book count as a form of participation? But it’s best to not get me started on Burning Man. I become evangelical.