Geoff Dyer and the Art of the Navel Gaze

The essayist sings himself and celebrates himself, but at what cost?

Sixty-three-year-old Geoff Dyer tries very hard in his new collection of intriguing essays, “The Last Days Of Roger Federer And Other Endings,” to convince us he’s lived a wondrous 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 out on something essential, and there is an undercurrent of regret beneath his scintillating prose.

Let’s begin with the good stuff.  There’s his lifelong fetish for Bob Dylan and how Dylan approaches his craft: tinkering with his songs striving for a perfection that eludes him.  Dylan has played “Tangled Up in Blue” more than 1600 times live, each rendition different from the other.  Dyer attempts to apply the same intensity to perfecting his tennis game despite his age and recurring injuries.  He confesses it is on the tennis court he feels most alive; and he isn’t bashful about his competitiveness.

‘The Last Days of Roger Federer,’ by Geoff Dyer.

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 to have never wanted; but there is something suspicious about how quickly he skids over this major life decision.  He’s an only child from a working-class family. His mother was a Methodist and did not 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 am angry at the way my parents were oppressed, but at some level I am angry with them for having internalized their oppression.”  Their household was suffocatingly quiet; Dyer was an only child and remembers being bored and lonely and unstimulated in their company. He fled early eager to experience the world.

He fills his essays with an infectious wanderlust.  He finds gratification denying the inevitable, and so far has been able to pursue his fascinations unimpeded. He has had freedoms most of us would die for unburdened by the complications of family problems and other’s expectations. But one wonders if his excessive liberty has stripped him of something equally precious.  Dyer seems a step removed from the world; an interminable wanderer and observer. Even his ex-girlfriends all agree he is the lousiest hugger. Nothing reins him in for too long.

It makes sense that he is an admirer of Jack Kerouac whom he describes as “an old style bohemian without a hippie bone in his body.”  There are other writers he has crushes on, like Louise Gluck, whose poetry has an “unapproachable intimacy” that speaks to him.  He also has high praise for Jean Rhys, Larry McMurtry, Robert Stone, Martin Amis, Milan Kundera, Shirley Hazzard and others. Perhaps because he is now a Californian, he is smitten by Eve Babitz, “who knows the winds of Southern California the way Eskimos know their snows.”

Dyer’s prose makes a lot of twists and turns.  He feels no compulsion to stay wedded to any linear narrative.  He riffs about his infatuation with J.M.W. Turner caught up in the way this artist plays with light and how it moves across a canvass.  He sees in Turner’s work an infinity of sorts that is attractive to his sense that nothing will ever really end.  He recalls having similar feelings when he was younger and would attend wild parties where he experimented with psychedelics which allowed him to enter new realms of thought that seem boundless until their effects wore off.

Soon enough, he’s contemplating Nietzsche, disturbed by his descent into madness.  There is a repeating theme that speaks to his unspoken fear of dying that runs through these pages.  Perhaps because the author himself experienced a stroke in 2014 that resulted in a temporary loss of vision on his left side.   Maybe it’s just because he is writing this work in the paranoic void of Covid isolation.  He mentions Nietzsche’s notion of ‘Eternal Recurrence’ which hints that we will repeat our living moments over and over again in a continuous loop.   Again, we see him contemplating the possibility of limitlessness and all that might imply.

Dyer idolizes men who refuse to give up. Women, no matter how resilient or creative, seem an afterthought. He speaks with an unrestrained zealousness about tennis players like Roger Federer who have attempted comebacks. His own dreams are filled with triumphant victories on the tennis court when he was younger and stronger. But sometimes these dreams backfire on him and he finds that “the ball seems to get stuck between my feet or somehow lodged in the leggy grass so that I’m stranded in a kind of stagnant dribble.  Maybe my legs twitch in the bed because I am trying to free myself from whatever entanglements have taken place in the unconscious.”  But Dyer is not interested in probing his unconscious thoughts; one can’t imagine him on a therapist’s couch. We sense he would find it unseemly. He moves in only one direction: forward and at full blast.

When he plays tennis now, he is sleepless at night, because he is so excited from the day’s activity. He relives the game in his mind over and over again, and becomes “stranded in a tormenting swirl 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 have had a surge of productivity late in life like Willem de Kooning, who was able to produce a painting a week. Again, we hear him relishing the prospect of a second act or a reinvention, going full steam undeterred by illness or anyone else’s predicaments.

Wherever he goes, music is his steady companion. He loves Van Morrison, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane. Classical music, particularly Beethoven and Wagner, enthralls him.  And of course, there’s his admiration for Dylan, whose life he believes “is so far beyond comprehension as to seem almost meaningless: the result of some tangled extrapolation of the ways his songs have brought so much meaning to the lives of people who have spent so much time trying to work out what they might mean.”

Which brings us to Dyer and his search for meaning. He has been on a journey of sorts that we sense his own disposition has thwarted; his inability to let life’s debris fall upon him. Sometimes, he worries that he’s drinking too much and tries to abstain three nights a week, but never tells us if he manages to do so. He rarely mentions his wife or close friends and one senses they are a clear second to his own preoccupations. We can’t picture him crying or mourning for anybody else.

This hollowness and dimness infuses his writing, which ironically mocks the freedom he hails. It also interferes with our attachment, which his narcissism hampers. Dyer has had decades to write, travel, party, listen to great music, and observe great art. He has had overall good health and enjoyed hours on the tennis court, and the luscious freedom to follow his curiosities. But it’s questionable whether that adds up to a well-lived life.

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Elaine Margolin

Elaine is a book critic for The Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Times Literary Supplement, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Jerusalem Post, Denver Post, and several literary journals. She has been reviewing books for over 20 years with a sense of continual wonder and joy. She tends to focus on non-fiction and biographies.

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