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Editor’s Choice: ‘White Sands’ by Geoff Dyer

White Sands by Geoff Dyer, Pantheon, 233 pages, $25. We’re in trouble with genre here in this book by one of the finest and most fascinating writers we have before it even begins. Dyer explains in a prefatory note shoved in our face: “this book is a mixture of fiction and non-fiction” What’s the difference to Dyer? “Well in fiction, stuff can be made up or altered. My wife is called Rebecca whereas in these pages, the narrator’s wife is called Jessica.” What’s the point? “The book does not demand to be read according to how far from a presumed dividing line” between such familiar forms of writing and “the expectations they engender.” In other words, find your Keatsian “negative capability” and expect nothing. Dyer’s forms are his own.

Among the more heartening literary visitations during our stellar spring was Geoff Dyer talking about “White Sands” in Hallwalls in late April (others were Maggie Nelson and, of course, Karl Ove Knausgaard, courtesy of Babel.) “White Sands” is out now, subtitled “experiences from the outside world.”

They begin with the narrator in Tahiti in search of what Gaugin saw there. What “the narrator” found there instead was heat rash, overpriced goods and a population encased in blubber because of its diet of pure sugar. Next is “the Forbidden City” of Beijing “a nightmare city combining the intensity of New York and the vastness of L.A.” Before we’re finished in this tour of “the outside world,” Dyer takes us through Walter DeMaria’s art installation “the Lightning Field,” Simon Rodia’s “Watts Towers” in L.A. (where he remembers Jimmy Garrison, the bass player for John Coltrane, who remained loyal while other members of his “classic quartet” departed), the Northern Lights, the “White Sands” of New Mexico, and the paradoxical World War II residencies of Europe’s intellectuals in Los Angeles, including the fearsomely intellectual “Teddy Adorno” (otherwise known as the forbidding Theodore Adorno. Others taking mind-boggling refuge there at the time were Thomas Mann, Igor Stravinsky and Arnold Schoenberg.)

There is no other writer quite like Dyer. He is wickedly funny, indefatigably brilliant and almost effortlessly compelling. – Jeff Simon