Yes, But I Don’t Like Him

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.’

Yoga Geoff DyerAs 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.


35 thoughts on “Yes, But I Don’t Like Him

  1. Your review has done me well. My interest is peaked in Mr. Dyer’s book. I can relate to the limbo side of life. However, I hesitate to read his book because I am cranky, cynical, and critical by nature; so this book might drive me deeper into those places I try to avoid.

    The tastiest little morsel is how every character in a fiction novel has a purpose. I never thought about it, but that’s really quite true isn’t it? I’m going to steal it and carry it over to some atheism vs. theism debating over on this side. I think I’ll throw it , in the ring and see what happens 😉

    In all seriousness, I appreciate that you offered both sides. If you’d just droned on about his droning on I wouldn’t like him either. Since you’ve highlighted some of the lighter parts, I am more inclined to check it out. Thank you for another winning post 🙂

    • Aw, thank YOU, MI. Thinking about it, I am pretty sure you would appreciate this. Geoff Dyer is a sharp and intelligent commentator and the writing is wonderful – that alone always makes a book worth a try. As for fictional characters, I grew up understanding the world of a novel to be just that – a microcosm, which contains the world-as-imagined by an author. It will have conscious, lucid parts, and it will have unconscious shadowy ones. So characters are all consciously chosen for the roles they will play, but they will have unconscious parts too, that the writer will be unaware of having attributed to them. That’s where the fun begins! I’ll look forward immensely to seeing how the atheism-theism debates play out on your blog. And if you do read this, let me know! I’d love to hear what you think.

  2. The dirty secret of writing non-fiction from a personal perspective (memoir, travel, etc.) is that we do, indeed make a very conscious choice of voice, whether annoyingly disaffected, angry, passionate, whatever. I recently reviewed a business book that was, (unlikely but true) really well written, in an angry and funny voice, by a woman writer I met later at a conference, She told me she’d very deliberately chosen to write in that voice.

    Who we “really are as people in the world may not make us the most compelling narrators!

    • Aha! That’s very interesting to hear from a professional. You know, every time you comment, I am forcibly reminded how often I get picky over non-fiction voices. I’ve come to the conclusion that they are incredibly hard to do. Much more than fiction, where you get to move the goalposts all the time, it’s hard to please even some of the people some of the time. Perhaps it is because the voice is both personal AND a choice, a sort of staged act that is hard to sustain. I know I like to see all around a person, both the good and the bad, and I’m sure that is a) not a desire shared by every reader and b) hard to do in the context of the tale being told, which probably will require a constant voice. And I also know from my own experiences that you have to stick fairly close to your own real persona. The funny-angry voice is one I really cannot do, for instance, as it isn’t one that comes naturally in real life (I admire people who can do it, though!). Thank you for your comment – I do find all this really fascinating to think about.

      • The people who read my memoir of working retail either loved it or loathed it. Some found it intolerably whiny (which is decidedly NOT me in real life) but others liked my tart/bitchy voice (which is.)

        What drove me MAD were the many comments from readers who clearly have no idea how non-fiction is structured or organized, let alone that it is heavily edited before appearing in print.

        Even blogs are a very distinct persona we choose and sustain, at least some of us. I tend to be generally upbeat and cheery even when I am decidedly not — who wants to read a downer? So your thought that is it a sustained act is, in this respect, highly accurate.

        For an astonishing use of voice, have you read Edward St. Aubyn? Astonishing — dark, acerbic but fantastic in itself.

      • I must say, it does seem strange that there have been so many debates about the inaccuracies of non-fiction, particularly in memoir, in which authors have had to defend themselves, when the great impetus for tidying up the story comes from editors. It would be better if that publishing reality were understood!

        As for Edward St Aubyn, he is a writer who has been hovering on the periphery of my vision. Thank you for the recommendation – he has now been bumped up the list!

  3. Thanks for such a thoughtful, balanced review–as I have come to expect from you. You convinced me that I was right to take a pass on reading this book. I’d just have been to annoyed at him to appreciate your important points about choosing the persona in autobiographical writing.

    • Bless you, MD, thank you. I’m not a great fan of that ‘naughty boy’ sort of persona, although Geoff Dyer does it well. But still, it was irritating at times! I often find it a relief when there’s one book I can cross off my monstrous TBR! 🙂

  4. I would love to read your book as a “prissy, uptight, overachieving school ma’am.” I fear I would find that voice only too “relatable.” 🙂

  5. I know other readers who have read a number of Geoff Dyer’s books and have liked them so I read your take on his work with interest. To be honest I’m not sure I would be his best audience either for many of the reasons you mention. You would think I would want to reach for him now since I am feeling just as cantankerous as he seems to be, but maybe it’s a case of two positives clashing (or whatever the scientific equivalent is). Still, good to know his writing is admirable, sometimes that’s just enough to make a book appealing and appreciated.

    • I think it’s definitely a book that would benefit from the reader being in the right mood. It really is very well written, and clever too. I got a bit tired of him in places, as my heart always goes to writers who can make me laugh and see the funny side. Dyer IS funny, but his humour is deadpan and often dark and, well, sometimes I just need a bit more compassion mixed in with it. I’d love to know how he strikes you, but at the same time, I can quite see that he wouldn’t necessarily hit the spot! He’s not the first author I’d press into your hands! 🙂

  6. The irony is that Dyer is actually a man of great enthusiasms, as seen in his book about jazz, his book about photography, his book about (a single) film. I suspect that in this particular book he has taken one element of his personality, and overplayed it, and I must admit that when I read this book many years ago I admired it but felt a little unsatisfied at the end – as you probably know I tend to try to look for the positive in any given situation.
    Reminds me a little of reading the travel writer Paul Theroux, who always comes across as so grumpy and disillusioned that I wonder why he wanted to leave home in the first place.I remember in one of his books he depicted a small town on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica as one of the worst places he had ever been. His list of the reasons why he hated it included almost exactly the same reasons why I enjoyed it so much when I was there.
    As for narrative voice in non-fiction, I suppose there is an element of construction – we all have a view of who we are and try to interpret our history in terms of how we like to see ourselves, whether we are writers or not. But to create a persona that is not true to ourselves seems to me disingenuous, and I would like to hope that people who know me well would see the narrative voice of my memoirs as being recognisably the person they have come to know.

    • How interesting – I haven’t read his book on Jazz, and maybe I should now as it’s intriguing to think of him with this enthusiastic side. I’m feeling a bit relieved in a way, though, that you also found this one a tad unsatisfying. It isn’t at all the sort of travel voice I’d associate with your books! And whilst it’s a bit presumptuous as I don’t know you personally, I have found your writing to feel completely free of artifice or contrivance and supposed that it was because you are a more coherent person than most. That’s how you come across, anyway!

  7. I certainly agree with Neil Ansels coment above.
    I was utterly unprepared to read that Dyer wrote a book like this. This is the same man who wrote “But Beautiful”…. Hard to believe.
    I suppose I’m very far away from a prissy anything. While I like being sober, I can understand that certain people would try out certain drugs, as a mind altering experience. Especially someting like magic mushrooms. I don’t mind that at all. I mind the universal acceptability of alcohol, pharmaceuticals and other legal drugs far more. What is legal and what is not is far more political than anything else. Addiction is the problem, not taking the drugs. I’ve never met anyone who got addicted to magic mushrooms but grew up with someone addicted to “mother’s little helpers”.
    Anyway…. I don’t see myself reading this book any day soon.

    • I am wondering whether Geoff Dyer has had different periods in his writing, a bit like Picasso in his painting! The two books I’ve read by him, this and Out of Sheer Rage have both been in the same disenchanted, disenfranchised voice. Maybe I should read something earlier to see how different it is. As for drugs, well, I have a problem with pleasures that run the risk of being self-destructive. I’m not sure that medicines are so much better in terms of what they do to people, but on the whole they are taken without much choice in the matter. Some poor soul may well become addicted to antidepressants that have been prescribed for an intolerable condition, but that doesn’t feel the same to me as swallowing an E tablet at a nightclub. Though I do wish that Western medicine didn’t come with so many frightful side effects!

      • I didn’t really mean prescription drugs which are actually prescribed but those which are abused. I see cases of abuse of sleeping pills and tranquilizers at work. I think my point was rather to differentiate. E is horribly dangerous. I’ve seen really tragic things too.
        As for Geoff Dyer I loved “But Beautiful” and even want to read it again. I haven’t read Zona yet, just browsedit also sounded pretty enthusiastic. I suppose he has different periods.

  8. Your comments helped me understand my own ambivalence hen I read Geoff Dyer’s Yoga for people who can’t be bothered to do it.
    I think my appreciation for jazz is rooted in But Beautiful that I had read when it was published in paperback in 1998 and I was discovering jazz.
    And a spooky coincidence: I asked my daughter what she was reading, last weekend, and she said – this – and held up a copy of Yoga. She had been attracted by this typical sentence from p2. ‘Everything in this book really happened, but some of the things that happened only happened in my head; by the same token, all the things that didn’t happen didn’t happen there too’.
    And I was intrigued by the title. Yoga for people who can’t be bothered to do it
    So 4 reasons to anticipate pleasure: picked for your creative non-fiction course, my experiences of Dyer, my daughter’s selection and the title. But when I’d finished reading it, I was overwhelmed with the feeling that I had been too timid all my life, and that Dyer had at least put himself in the way of a number of experiences, while I had immersed myself in a career, in England, in motherhood … I resolved this after a sleepless night by remembering the title. I didn’t need to do these things because Dyer has.
    At his best his writing is amusing, has melancholic disdain and has a good knack of making the reader see things differently, which I like in writing. But I got very irritated by the sixth-form humour of being stoned and incapable in Paris, Amsterdam or wherever. That kind of thing is hilarious to the participants, but I found it tedious and full of spurious cleverness. I like your parallel with students who adopt attitudes of boredom, contempt and are too clever for their own good.
    He has an ability to evoke a setting and the people in it and his relationship to them, indeed he is just another person in his book. I had been wondering why my experiences of travel were so problematic. Dyer appears to have travelled effortlessly, as though he has no need of an itinerary or schedule, no funds, no other life or commitments. But when I came to the description of his visit to Libya, he captured the worst of lonely foreign travel. I was really glad he was doing it.
    I haven’t yet caught up with what my daughter thought.

    • Caroline, that is such an interesting comment. While I was writing this review, I did wonder whether I shouldn’t say something about Dyer’s courage in putting himself in these various places. He may be disaffected, but he is at least searching for some kind of transcendent experience, we suppose, the Zone of which he speaks. But then I felt that there was a web of contradictions underlying his motivations that I couldn’t quite unravel. It seemed that some of the travel was for journalistic assignment, and some just random, and a lot of the places he went – Thailand and Rome and Paris – are perfectly ordinary destinations these days. Like you I wondered where his cash was coming from, and what sort of life he left behind him. I liked and admired his honesty (a confession: I hate travel, can’t bear being treated like cattle, have no patience for the endless delays and problems and no great desire to see places simply to say I’ve seen them), but I don’t think for a second that you need to feel in any way inadequate in comparison. It was Dyer’s odd refusal – or maybe inability – to get anything out of the experiences he was in that irritated me and yet seemed such a vital part of his narrative persona. You could go round the corner and have a more meaningful experience, it seems, than Geoff Dyer did going halfway round the world. Such a strange and confusing and yet intriguing book. Do let us know what your daughter thinks, won’t you? I’d love to know.

  9. I haven’t read anything by Mr. Dyer (although I’ve read reviews of some of his stuff) so I can’t judge, of course. But I am one of those annoyingly irritating types who was born with a sunny disposition. I can’t help it. Really, I can’t. I first became aware of it when I was in the 4th grade and a group of “cool girls” said they didn’t like me because I was a “goody-two shoes,” explained one of the coolest among them. Then my Dad used to say, “You gotta hit Lindy over ‘da head wid a brick to get her upset.” It’s not that life has been all beer and skittles for me – and I’ve certainly had times when I was in a very dark place, wanting to find my way out. So far, I’ve always managed to do find it. I’m not sure I could spend too much time with Mr. Dyer. Like you, I think I’d run out of patience. But I might give him a try just to find out.

    • Lol! If only I could arrange the universe to my wish, I’d send you and Mr Dyer together to some nice little island (a not too unhygienic one) and get to be a fly on the wall! Perhaps you’re just the tonic he needs. Even intermittent cloud would seem wonderfully temperate against his gloom. In the meantime, I’d love to know what you make of his writing. He is a very good writer, credit where it’s due, and that’s always worth a try, particularly in the form of a no-risk library copy. 🙂

  10. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this most insightful post. Your first paragraph grabbed my attention right away in that, yes, I totally agree with your view there. We’ve lost our faith and trust in authorities, and whoever that claims to have authority, that includes everyone with his own experience. Since everyone has a voice, and in this postmodern world of ours, isn’t it true that each voice represents a narrative, making us an ‘authority’ of our own experience? Now, as you’ve so clearly premised, even that is untrustworthy, even a non-fiction, supposedly ‘true’ account of our own experience, can be distorted, or exaggerated, for any reasons, maybe just so a writer can sell more copies. Here in GD’s case, how ‘accurate’ is he portraying himself? As you’ve pointed out, you suspect that public persona just may not be all of it, that hidden behind that facade there’s ‘a pure good boy’. But why the facade? Now, I haven’t read any of his books, but reading your review, about how mushroom-drenched he was or floating with raw sewage… I have the feeling that, like in the movies, they could well be for special effects, sensationalism just to sell a product. Mind you, I have a suspicion too that that product may not be just a book, but, a persona. You may not be in his target market, but I’m sure there are lots who are. 😉

    • Thank you, dear Arti! I am sure that Geoff Dyer has found himself a very large audience, and perfectly justifiably as he is a very good writer indeed. If there can be such a thing as deadpan sensationalism then I’m pretty sure he has cornered the market in it! 🙂 You’re right there’s a kind of schadenfreude at work, incorporated into his essays, in exaggerating the sort of awful bits of travellers’ tales that are an inevitable part of the experience. I should think his writing is pretty evocative for a lot of people who’ve done the South-East Asia trail. I think there’s an original combination here of gorgeous literary writing and a sort of average-Joe’s meat-headed outlook. He definitely brings an unusual sort of authority – the authority of eloquence – to his slightly sordid confessions! It’s not quite my thing, but I admire parts of it.

  11. Memoir can be hard, can’t it? Where in fiction the I/narrator/voice can be enjoyed even if it is unlikeable, nonfiction to a certain extent asks us to like the voice. We don’t have to agree with it, but we need to feel a certain simpatico with it I think, which makes for a challenge sometimes! I’ve not read Dyer before but I get the feeling he is not for everyone. I’m not sure I’d like him but then sometimes you never know until you start reading.

    • Well and this is the thing, you really do not know until you start reading! And I always think that we are far more influenced by mood, and whatever the previous book was, and expectation than we realise. I do like your choice of the word ‘simpatico’, yes, that’s exactly what I enjoy feeling when it comes to non-fiction.

  12. I’ve had a copy of this book lying about for ages and I enjoyed both your and Caroline’s reviews of it. I am not a great fan of travel literature – with the notable exception of A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush – but do you know, I am intrigued by this.

    I too have swum with raw sewage, so you don’t have to be cool to do that. Heh.

    • Heh! I await with bated breath for the swimming-with-sewage story to feature on your site. You’ve got to satisfy my curiosity now! Like you, I rarely read travel literature; it’s not my favourite form of non-fiction. But this was very, very readable, it has to be said. Would love to know what you think of it.

  13. This is a by-the-way observation, not to be taken too seriously, perhaps, but I wonder if people who have one job for many years perfect one voice more than those of us who do a little of this, a little of that. I feel like my voice is always changing, and that travel writers are particularly prone to sounding a bit irritable (recently I read David Sedaris’s essay on how we show our worst–or is it our true–selves at airports and then endured my way through a number of airports while thinking about it).

    • Well I think you may be on to something there! My voice has definitely evolved due to blogging and to switching out of the academic track. And if what David Sedaris says about airports is true, I am a terrible, terrible person. 🙂

  14. I was thinking that perhaps this book would be one way to experience travel without having to go to such places and then had the similar thought that your review gives me permission in skip reading the book. I am curious about the clever writing and deadpan humor but I don’t think I will make time for it. LOVED this post and all the comments.

    • Care, where there are so many fantastic books out there, decisions have to be made! I’m glad I read it as it definitely contributes to my creative non-fiction reading. But beyond that. I wouldn’t say it’s one of those must-read books. I couldn’t agree more that reading about travel is a good way to get a vicarious experience! And review reading does sound splendidly analogous to that! 🙂

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