Most writers of books have only one story to tell; it is the one wrapped around a piece of emotional wisdom the author has made his or her own. If the writers are any good at what they do, the story deepens with each book that is written. If they are less than good, the story will simply repeat itself at the same level at which it originally took shape. In time, the work of the better writer will come to feel enriched by the clear renewal of lived experience, while the work of the lesser one will come to seem ever more reduced. I hold this truth to be self-evident for the writers of fiction and nonfiction alike.
For more than 30 years now, Geoff Dyer has given us book after book after book dominated by the sound of a conversational voice wildly stimulated by its own neurotic moodiness—depressed one minute, galvanized the next; on the one hand, in love with pathological inertness, on the other, mad to pursue sensory satisfaction. Whatever the putative subject of these books, it is this voice, or rather this persona, that produces the reading pleasure that has made thousands of readers all over the world keep coming back for more. To a very considerable degree, this persona is the subject of Geoff Dyer’s books.
I can still remember the moment I picked up a copy of Out of Sheer Rage in a bookstore a few years after it had first been published and stood there reading until the shop closed, so amazed was I by the brilliance of the writing—by which I do not mean the sentences alone. I mean the strong literary quality that seemed to bind the persona and the material together. Dyer had put on the page humanity’s deepest dilemma, its own self-dividedness, and he had done it through the classic misery of the author who cannot bring himself to write his intended scholarly work—in this case on D. H. Lawrence—when all the while he cannot walk away from it.
The smarts, the pathos, the desperate humor inherent in the condition—Dyer had captured all of this; he had milked it to such a fine extent that his accomplishment seemed not only original but very nearly unique. At the time, perhaps like most of his American readers, I assumed Out of Sheer Rage was Dyer’s first book, and greeted it as a magnificent introduction to a writer who no doubt was going places. I didn’t realize it was his sixth and that it represented an already developed modus operandi, one that was destined to animate the innumerable books that have followed Out of Sheer Rage.
The newest entry in this astonishingly productive enterprise is the book in hand, The Last Days of Roger Federer. It had been years since I’d spent time with Dyer’s work, and I was eager to see how that deliciously remembered persona had been progressing. To my very great surprise, I’ve come away more puzzled than pleasured. There is much here to enjoy: the familiar spirit of digression, the razor-sharp wit, the distressing obsessiveness, along with those dictionary-size amounts of information about—you name it, Dyer has something to say about it. Yet somehow the pages fail to accumulate into something larger than the sum of their discrete selves. The book is advertised as being about the lives of creative people nearing their end, and, to the degree that anxiety over aging runs like a thread through the prose, it is, but that anxiety provides only coloration, not an organizing principle. In time, the reader comes to realize there is no organizing principle.
The Last Days of Roger Federer is composed not of traditional chapters but of numbered segments that, quite nakedly, accommodate Dyer’s signature predilection for associative thinking, and they do so to a fare-thee-well. Dyer rambles as superbly as ever about whatever comes to mind after the lead sentence has been written, but like a Möbius strip, the segments repeatedly loop back on themselves, making room again and again either for one of those very familiar obsessions of his (sex, booze, music, tennis) or for one of the many figures he writes of with the awe reserved for heroes (is it common for a man over 60 to have heroes?), among whom are Bob Dylan, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Roger Federer. Especially Nietzsche. He finds his way into almost everything.
There’s a long piece of nostalgia based on trains and the nasty world we live in now that their use has been diminished (it takes up four numbered sections). Here, Dyer invokes the work of many poets—Philip Larkin, Thomas Gray, Oliver Goldsmith, Wordsworth. There’s a part about the time he, Dyer, missed the last train to Oxford when he was a student; we also get a reference in “this meandering milk train of a narrative” to Nietzsche, who, on a train ride, as the Romanian philosopher E. M. Cioran described it, “always asked for a mirror” because he “no longer knew who he was, kept looking for himself … had no instrument at hand but the clumsiest, the most lamentable …”; we also have two and a half pages on the use of the train in the 1945 film Brief Encounter.
I couldn’t help but remember how, in Out of Sheer Rage, every time Lawrence, the hero of the hour, was mentioned, no matter how casually he got tucked into the prose, his presence enriched the book. Here, it seemed that Nietzsche popped up on automatic, somewhat like Zelig, simply to demand that attention be paid to his presence. Rather than feeling gratified by the great philosopher’s appearances, I felt, Whaaat?
Self-conscious remarks sprinkled about The Last Days indicate Dyer’s own unease regarding this book, at the same time that they expose a certain defensiveness. For instance, partway through he observes, somewhat drily, “so many little things that substitute for the lack of a larger goal that continue to crop up in the course of one’s journey through life.” I’d thought he was about to address this pithy insight, but no; immediately afterward come a few straight-faced pages on his passion for stealing tiny bottles of shampoo from hotel rooms. In another place he actually writes, “Is it pointless to add that this book is … a diary of what the writer was up to during the period of its composition?” Diary, indeed. If ever there was a writer’s plea to be let off the hook for having stitched together rather than written the book you are reading, I think this is it.
There’s a significant distinction to be made between those writers who’ve been compelled to develop a working life around a single piece of lived experience—the one that gives them their story—and those who’ve been unable to do much more than flash on the experience, not really stay with it. Dyer, I think, is one of the latter. To have seen so early in his career the anomie at the heart of boredom, stasis, inertia—what a gift that was. But then came the task of disciplining himself to the insight, gathering real information around it, putting flesh on its skeleton. Ah, that proved too exhausting!
But what if Dyer hadn’t made a professional identity out of not cohering? What if insecurity and vanity had not stopped him in place (“Wouldn’t it be marvelous if it were possible to be a serious writer without taking oneself at all seriously … I mean while actually doing the work”)? What if what he’d understood 25 years ago could have grown and deepened so that today he’d actually have something to say about aging—instead of skimming (as he does) a surface that yields up nothing more than the banality of declining physical powers on the tennis court? That tennis court! It has a lot to answer for.