A shapeless, moving, end in itself
So entropic is Geoff Dyer’s latest that the reader seeks desperately for structure
This article is taken from the July 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.
Like everything else he’s written, Geoff Dyer’s latest gets you wondering what exactly a book is. With his uncategorisable blend of memoir, critique, reportage, and flight of fancy, Dyer has done more to strain at the literary leash than anyone since B.S. Johnson. Granted, he hasn’t yet published a novel in loose-leaf form, or a book with holes in its pages so that you can glimpse things that are going to happen in the story’s future. Then again, Dyer would surely take umbrage at that word “story”.
Certainly, none of his four novels has much by way of plot or even propulsion. In his new book, Dyer — who has long been drawn to Nietzsche’s idea of eternal recurrence, and has an inexplicable fondness for the spiralling drone of John Coltrane’s demolition job on “My Favourite Things” — refers scathingly to this “meandering milk train of a narrative” that began life as a joint study of Beethoven and Turner.
The book is called The Last Days of Roger Federer, though since Dyer was once commissioned to write a book about tennis and ended up filing one on Tarkovsky, best not to expect an exclusive on the great man’s hitherto unreported demise. Just as Dyer’s book about D H Lawrence, Out of Sheer Rage, is less a study of Lawrence than it is a study of Dyer’s inability cum unwillingness to write such a study, so the new book is about Roger (as Dyer insists Federer be called) only in the sense that Dyer riffs on him occasionally.
It was the ongoing — seemingly never-ending — talk of Federer’s retirement that got Dyer going. Retirement, in the working-class Cheltenham of Dyer’s youth, was something devoutly to be wished for — “a form of promotion, practically an ambition”. But what, Dyer wonders, does it mean to retire from something you love? And since Dyer’s job consists in large part of “sitting in a chair at home with your feet up, reading”, how would retirement differ from carrying on working?
All of which means that this a book about endings — last games, last gigs, last works, last days. Dyer darts hither and thither, from worrying about how his “giraffe neck” is his tennis game’s “Achilles heel”; to ruminations on why he’s relieved that he no longer wants to attend Bob Dylan gigs; to the cashiering, at the age of 20, of the Battle of Britain Spitfire pilot Geoffrey Wellum because he was “no further use to anybody”.
You won’t be surprised to learn that not all of this coheres. At one point, Dyer quotes Adorno on Beethoven’s late style, in which he sees “a tendency towards dissociation, decay, dissolution, but not in the sense of a process of composition which no longer holds things together: the dissociation and disintegration themselves become artistic means”. He could be talking about The Last Days of Roger Federer.
The blurb tries to unify things by claiming that the book asks whether “our deepest desire is for it all to be over”. Well, Freud certainly thought so, but he only crops up in passing. And Dyer has never been a death-drive kind of guy. King of the slackers, he’s less Thanatos than couldn’t give a toss. His genius has always been to claim his indolence as evidence of the Lawrentian life-force rather than an ineluctable inclination towards entropy.
So entropic is this book that the reader seeks desperately for structure. It has three sections, for instance, each divided into 60 numbered subsections. There are 60 seconds in a minute, and 60 minutes in an hour. And didn’t the 60-odd-year-old Dyer’s first novel, The Colour of Memory, have 60 (reverse-numbered) sections too? Hmmm …
Then there are the rhymes among the patterns. Here, for instance, is Michael Powell, a dauntingly early starter, says an envious Dyer, whose A Matter of Life and Death he (Dyer) belatedly catches up on during a lockdown tedium. And Enoch Powell, whose line about all political careers ending in failure gets Dyer going on the tragicomic status of so many sporting comebacks.
And here is Anthony Powell (yes, yes, I know it’s pronounced differently, but give me a break), whose Dance to the Music of Time series Dyer throws across the room after having pushed his eyes through its first five volumes: “my only regret, when I gave up on it, was that I had not abandoned it sooner, ideally before I’d even started”. Now there’s a hostage-to-fortune sentence if ever a one there was, Geoff.
His near-palindromic sentences weave like drunken Möbius strips
Towards the end of the book Dyer comes clean and admits that he wasn’t aiming for “a comprehensive study of last things, or of lastness generally. It’s about a congeries of experiences, things and cultural artefacts that, for various reasons, have come to group themselves around me in a rough constellation during a phase in my life”. Among the items are a diary note about the death of Keith Jarrett’s bassist, Gary Peacock, and a mini-essay on how Covid hindered what Dyer calls his “shampoo project” — basically, a vow to never buy the stuff but to filch it from hotel bathrooms.
If that sounds quotidian, mundane even, I’m here to tell you that these pages turn with easeful bliss. What keeps things going is Dyer’s lobbing wit and cross-court aperçus. Here he is on Andy Murray’s endgame travails: “It was the end … because there was no end in sight — to the training, the rehab, the pain”. Here he is on Dylan: “A life like Dylan’s is so beyond comprehension as to seem almost meaningless: the result of some tangled extrapolation of the way 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.”
And here he is on Turin: “The afternoon light was like nothing I’d ever seen: so fragile and sharp that the buildings became both splendid and insubstantial. Every feature in the perspectival recession of arcades and squares was perfectly defined … White in the high distance, the alps were so clear that better visibility, anywhere on earth, was inconceivable. If ever there was a day when infinity might be measured this was it. The lyrical tends to have a slight quality of halation, a faint hint of reverb. This was different, this was the lyricism of the absolute.”
In other words, whatever the subject, Dyer is always worth reading. His long, curving, often near-palindromic sentences weave in and out of themselves like drunken Möbius strips. Here he is on his favourite subject: “The whole point of — and justification for — writing about yourself [is that] indulged in conscientiously, with sufficient rigour, it’s never just about you”. Amen to that, one says, as one claps shut this infuriating, repetitive, shapeless, hilarious and really rather moving book. Kant famously defined the aesthetic object as having purposiveness without purpose. Geoff Dyer’s purpose-free book about endings is its own end.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10Subscribe