Geoff Dyer and the art of the navel gaze
Sixty-three-year-old Geoff Dyer strives very hard in his new collection of intriguing essays, “The Last Days of Roger Federer and Other Endingsto convince us that he lived a wonderful life. And if you can measure such a life by having endless hours to indulge your passions without restraint or distraction, he surely has. But he seems to have missed something essential, and there is a grain of regret beneath his scintillating prose.
Let’s start with the good stuff. There’s his lifelong fetish for Bob Dylan and the way Dylan approaches his craft: tinkering with his songs, striving for a perfection that eludes him. Dylan has performed “Tangled Up in Blue” over 1,600 times live, with each rendition different from the next. Dyer tries to apply the same intensity to perfect his tennis game despite his age and recurring injuries. He admits that it is on the tennis court that he feels most alive; and he is not hampered by his competitiveness.
Dyer has been married for decades to an art curator. They live in Southern California, where he teaches writing. There are no children; something he claims he never wanted; but there’s something suspicious about how quickly he slips up on this major life decision. He is an only child from a working-class family. Her mother was a Methodist and didn’t drink. His father was a sheet metal worker. Dyer tells us very little about his parents; and less about his feelings for them. He says quietly, “I’m angry at the way my parents were oppressed, but on some level, I’m angry at them for internalizing their oppression.” Their house was suffocatingly quiet; Dyer was an only child and remembers being bored, lonely and unstimulated in their company. He fled early eager to discover the world.
He fills his essays with an infectious wanderlust. He finds satisfaction in denying the inevitable, and so far he has been able to pursue his fascinations unhindered. He had freedoms most of us would die for, free from the complications of family issues and the expectations of others. But one wonders if his excessive freedom has not stripped him of something so precious. Dyer seems one step away from the world; a wanderer and an endless observer. Even his ex-girlfriends all agree that he is the worst hugger. Nothing holds him back too long.
It makes sense that he’s an admirer of Jack Kerouac whom he describes as “an old-fashioned bohemian without a hippie bone in his body”. There are other writers he has a crush on, like Louise Gluck, whose poetry has an “inaccessible intimacy” that speaks to him. He also praises Jean Rhys, Larry McMurtry, Robert Stone, Martin Amis, Milan Kundera, Shirley Hazzard and others. Perhaps because he is now a Californian, he falls under the spell of Eve Babitz, “who knows the winds of southern California as the Eskimos know their snows”.
Dyer’s prose is full of twists and turns. He feels no obligation to stick to a linear narrative. He riffs on his infatuation with JMW Turner caught up with the way this artist plays with light and how it moves across a canvas. He sees in Turner’s work an infinity of kinds that appeal to his sense that nothing will ever truly end. He remembers having similar feelings when he was younger and attending wild parties where he experimented with psychedelics that allowed him to enter new realms of thought that seemed limitless until their effects wear off.
Soon he is contemplating Nietzsche, troubled by his descent into madness. There’s a recurring theme of his unspoken fear of dying that runs through these pages. Possibly because the author himself suffered a stroke in 2014 which resulted in temporary loss of vision on the left side. Maybe it’s just because he’s writing this work in the paranoid vacuum of Covid isolation. He mentions Nietzsche’s notion of “eternal recurrence” which implies that we will repeat our life moments over and over again in a continuous loop. Again we see him contemplating the possibility of the unlimited and all that that might entail.
Dyer idolizes men who refuse to give up. Women, no matter how resilient or creative, seem like an afterthought. He speaks with unbridled zeal about tennis players like Roger Federer who have tried to come back. His own dreams are filled with triumphant victories on the tennis court when he was younger and stronger. But sometimes those dreams backfire and he finds that “the ball seems to get stuck between my feet or somehow lodged in the leggy grass, so I’m stuck in a kind of stagnant dribble. Maybe my legs are shaking in bed because I’m trying to free myself from any entanglement that has happened in the unconscious. But Dyer is not interested in probing his unconscious thoughts; you can’t imagine him on a therapist’s couch. We feel that he would find that inappropriate. It moves in one direction only: forward and at full throttle.
When he plays tennis now, he doesn’t sleep at night, so excited he is with the day’s activity. He relives the game over and over again in his mind and finds himself “stuck in a tormenting whirlwind of yellow balls that gradually become a Slazenger-sponsored meteor in the tramlines of space”. In the art world, he seems drawn to those artists who had a late-life productivity spurt like Willem de Kooning, who was able to produce one painting a week. Again, we hear him relish the prospect of a second act or reinvention, full steam ahead undeterred by illness or someone else’s struggles.
Wherever he goes, music is his faithful companion. He likes Van Morrison, Miles Davis and John Coltrane. Classical music, especially Beethoven and Wagner, fascinates him. And of course there’s his admiration for Dylan, whose life he says is “so beyond comprehension that it seems almost meaningless: the result of a tangled extrapolation of how his songs have brought so much meaning to the lives of people who have spent so much time trying to figure out what they might mean.
Which brings us to Dyer and his quest for meaning. He’s been on a sort of journey that we feel his own disposition has thwarted; his inability to let the debris of life fall upon him. Sometimes he worries about drinking too much and tries to abstain three nights a week, but never tells us if he succeeds. He rarely mentions his wife or close friends and one senses that they are clearly second to his own concerns. We can’t imagine him crying or someone else crying.
This hollowness and this vagueness permeate his writing, which ironically mocks the freedom he salutes. He also interferes with our attachment, which his narcissism hinders. Dyer has had decades to write, travel, party, listen to great music and observe great art. He had good general health and spent hours on the tennis court, and the delightful freedom to follow his sights. But it is debatable whether this corresponds to a life well lived.