I suppose if there was a message to the 20th century, it was that there is no longer anyone trustworthy at the wheel. Not necessarily in a cosmic sense, but in an ordinary, human one. Politicians have lost almost all credibility, kings and queens are for gossip magazines, leaders of industry only make the news in the wake of some great catastrophe. We’ve lost faith in all kinds of authority. We’ve gone through the era of the hero, and through the era of the anti-hero and we’re out the other side in the land of the lowest common denominator. And that’s a place where Geoff Dyer is quite at home:
I had been drifting for years, and now – like the lone cloud we’d seen at Hadrian’s villa – I had drifted to a standstill. I may not have admitted it at the time – if that afternoon was a turning point, then I responded as one invariably does at such moments, by failing to turn – but at some level I knew I had been kidding myself: that all the intellectual discipline and ambition of my earlier years had been dissipated by half-hearted drug abuse, indolence and disappointment, that I lacked purpose and direction and had even less idea of what I wanted from life now than I had when I was twenty or thirty even, that I was well on the way to becoming a ruin myself, and that that was fine by me.’
As the title may hint – Yoga For People Who Can’t Be Bothered To Do It – this is a book of travel writing for the world-weary and the disaffected. It’s about going to the four corners of the world and finding not a great deal to do in any of them. He has a horrible time in sullen, tourist-unfriendly Libya, visiting ancient monuments that fail to move him; gets marooned at midday in three foot of water in a vast lake in sweltering Cambodia, where raw sewage floats past; can’t put a new pair of trousers on in rain-soaked Amsterdam because he’s too out of it on magic mushrooms, and when incipient depression accompanies him to Detroit, he decides to take a tour around the desolate and abandoned areas of the city. Well it sounds like a rotten job, but I guess someone has to do it. The only really upbeat chapter is the one that bears the title, in which he falls in love with a lively American woman at a sanctuary in Thailand (his attraction is drawn by the way she copes so bravely with being stung by a fleet of jellyfish). It was, in consequence, the essay I liked best.
If all this sounds like travel writing to slit your wrists to, there is redemption in the form of a Beckettian dry, deadpan humour. Geoff Dyer really knows how to tap into the sheer cussedness of the human spirit, its refusal to cooperate with the imperative to enjoy oneself and our basic ability to allow potentially magical experiences to be ruined by small but insistent gripes. There is a fine honesty at the core of the book, in the recognition that an awful lot of travel does involve doing things or being in places that are dirty, dull or just not quite right at the time. And most admirable of all, there is a great deal of exquisite writing. Credit where it’s due, this really is a wonderfully written book, the voice flawless in its amusingly melancholic disdain, the descriptions original and highly perceptive. I really felt as if I was with Geoff Dyer in his far-flung locations, even if they weren’t places that either of us truly wanted to be.
I admired this book greatly, but could not bring myself to like it, because I could not bring myself to like Geoff Dyer. He made me think of the boys who’d sit at the back in the graduate seminars: dissimulating protective boredom, mocking and contemptuous and too clever for their own good. To be fair to Dyer, there are times, towards the end of the book, when he allows a little real emotion to soak through, and I liked him the better for it. But sometimes I just wanted to give him a boot up the backside and tell him to get over himself; there is no way an author of as many books – and award-winning ones at that – could ever be so hopeless, so lazy or so unfulfilled.
I’ve often complained before that readers are too bothered about liking characters in books, and I hold to this when it comes to fiction. Every character in a fictional universe has been created for a purpose. To get the most out of that universe, it’s best to accept that unsympathetic characters may just need to be that way for the story to unfold as it does. When it comes to personality-led non-fiction, though, I find the contact between reader and narrator to be too tight, too intimate, too real, to gain any sort of useful emotional distance. Geoff Dyer’s voice appeals to the piggy side of human nature, and he invites the reader to be okay with consistently low-level failure, out of our own idiocies and weaknesses. I am not okay with this. I am, for instance, completely out of patience with people who do drugs. I do not look upon it indulgently as the sort of thing anyone could fall into. If Geoff Dyer had the misfortune to read any non-fiction by me, he would find me a prissy, uptight, overachieving school ma’am type. Which I am. I disapproved of him and his silly magic mushrooms. But I suppose I suspected that his persona was at least partially false. For all that humans are destined to fail and mess up, we are equally hardwired to try and to aspire. Geoff Dyer obviously likes the waster persona he wears in his narratives, but I think I know his secret. I would put good money on there being a part of him that’s pure good boy, diligent, assiduous and hard-working. He would just consider it too uncool to be on view.