‘Serious While Being Funny and Funny While Being Serious’: An Interview with Geoff Dyer

Talking with the author of White Sands about blurring the boundaries of fiction and nonfiction, the disappointments of pilgrimage, and the possibilities of serious comedy.

Kyle Chayka is a writer in Brooklyn for publications including Matter, Newsweek, and The Awl.

When I called Geoff Dyer at his home in Los Angeles, where he is a writer-in-residence at the University of Southern California, he congratulated me on doing so on time, precisely at the ten o’clock morning hour. The sheer delight in his voice at this turn of events was surprising for someone who has made a life’s work out of being late—to a flight, scene, or epiphany. In Dyer, resolution is never found at the time it is supposed to; it only comes together later, in the writing, if it arrives at all.

Dyer is a writer who both chafes at definitions and yet today seems to define a category himself, with its own mounting heritage of canonical works, imitators, and innovators. The author of books like Out of Sheer Rage, a volume about doing everything but writing about D.H. Lawrence, and Paris Trance, an elegiac novel about expatriate youth in Europe, Dyer’s obvious boredom with the separation between fiction and non-, or art and life, presages the concerns of authors like Ben Lerner and Sheila Heti.

White Sands is Dyer’s latest book, named for a sprawling field of white sand dunes in New Mexico where the author and his wife pick up a hitchhiker, perhaps unwisely. Via pilgrimages to cultural landmarks and ill-fated trips to exotic locales, Dyer examines what it means to experience a work of art as well as how humans shape the landscapes around them.

We spoke about the disappointments of pilgrimage, the difficulties of writing about art, and the possibilities of serious comedy, or comedic seriousness.


How did this book come together?

I'd kept a file going of travel pieces over quite a long period of time. A couple of years ago, I got the sense that there might be a book, not just in terms of the number of words, but in terms of a thematic and aesthetic unity as well. There were a couple of places that I was thinking of writing about in Los Angeles, Watts Towers and the Adorno House. When I went to visit them, I realized I had something to say about these places, and they would fit in quite nicely with what was already there.

How did you go about ordering the pieces, creating the flow of the book?

Originally, the first piece was "Forbidden City," and I really liked that—I liked the way it started with a story. But I felt that the Gauguin piece introduces so many of the ideas in the book. I'm even thinking now that maybe for the paperback, I might change the order of those first two pieces and go back to having "Forbidden City" first.

The other slight structural issue is, it made sense for the thing to move west, to sort of stay in America. But in the middle of it we go back to Europe, to the Northern Lights. I thought it just served as a nice interlude. It ends up in Los Angeles—I thought it was obviously important that we end at the very extreme point of the western world.

Was your intention to write a book about travel?

If I think of a book like Zona, the [Andrei] Tarkovsky book, it never occurred to me when I started writing it that that could become a book. That was just something I did to pass the time. What I don't like to have, typically, is a contract whereby I'm obliged to deliver a book by a certain time. They just tend to become books under their own steam. But typically, even though I haven't been commissioned by a publisher, I will have kind of commissioned myself to try to get something done on a certain subject.

This book is very different than a collection of random essays, like Otherwise Known as the Human Condition, which was a complete random jumble of stuff just tipped into a kind of container, no real form or structure. I actually don't even see it as an essay collection. I see it as a book, and it just happens that this stuff has been published before. If people call it an essay collection, then I immediately want to say, hey, but there are stories as well!

What’s the difference for you between a more narrative story like “Forbidden City” and a more essayistic piece, like the Gauguin one?

I think one of the reasons I ended up calling the book White Sands is because that story is the nexus of things. It's got that inherent narrative attraction of a story. Or narrative propulsion, I should say. It's a journey, which always has narrative interest, and it's got a certain degree of suspense, but at the same time it doesn't really conform properly to the New Yorker template of what a story should be, because it's partly also an essay on these photographs by Taryn Simon.

In a piece like the Gauguin, that's more obviously digressive or analytical with less narrative, less story traction in it. But the key thing is the distinction is all the time dissolving. In some pieces, the narrative story dimension is more pronounced than in others. But I think few of the pieces are entirely essays, and judged by the template of traditional storytelling, the ones that are more obviously stories aren’t entirely successful as stories.

There's this continuum between narrative and criticism. But you move between those fairly freely, all the time.

Yeah, I really do. And I'm really pleased that I do. I can trace that back right to university, when we would spend the vacations reading the actual books, you know, Shakespeare or Dickens or whatever, and then spend the term time reading the criticism. And the one was fun and the other was so boring.

I can so remember this time when we were reading Julius Caesar and then I came across by this poem by Roy Fuller, "The Ides of March," which was a dramatic monologue spoken as though by Brutus. There was a way of combining the analytical task of criticism with the storytelling that we associate with fiction. In other words, the gap between these things could shrink, and I liked that. John Berger was the person who really did that most successfully for me.

It's funny how it sometimes seems like the narrative can't be critical, and the critical can't be narrative. But really the two can happen at the same time.

Yeah. Obviously my jazz book But Beautiful really does it—those scenes about the jazz musicians double as a kind of commentary on the music. Paris Trance is a version of Tender Is the Night, and Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi in some ways is a commentary on Mann's Death in Venice.

It’s sort of like musicians covering each other’s music.

All of this stuff is made so clear in jazz, really. You're never trying to copy what has gone before. If you just copy it, then you're failing to do justice to it.

You have a very accessible, participatory way of writing about art in White Sands, far from academic art history. Like the chapter on Walter de Maria’s “Lightning Field.”

You experience art not in some realm that's just the realm of study. It's so part of the lived experience of your life—travel, romance, all of this stuff. In my case, that all comes to a head in the Jeff in Venice book, where there's this kind of romance going on in the middle of this art jamboree. When that book came out, people thought it was a satire in the art world. I think it was me describing my idea of a good time.

How do you balance the objective description of an art object versus your own subjective experience of that piece? Do you feel an obligation to the artwork?

It's such a big question, that. It's one that applies equally to travel writing, doesn't it? Because if you think of somebody like D.H. Lawrence, on the one hand, he writes with this incredible responsiveness to places, and can detect things going on in those places. They're quite reliable accounts. Other times, it seems he's just projecting onto a place the mood he happens to be in at that time. We can transfer that across to the discussion of art as well. So it's really a question of being responsible, isn't it?

There's no point in just blah‐ing on about yourself and what you are doing unless that's a way of bringing out something that's actually there, that's latent or explicitly in the work itself. Otherwise, you're just being self‐indulgent. If you're describing the phase of your life when you encountered it, then maybe that's a way of bringing out something that is inherent in the work.

You always take care to narrate your sensory experience of art. But in the contemporary art world, there’s so much work that’s relatively non-visual. You just need it explained to you, rather than standing in front of it.

There's this idea that it's conceptual. But a kid of five can grasp the concept behind much so allegedly conceptual work. It's often just this really thin glaze of thought put on it. It's pretty feeble, I think. I've got nothing against either contemporary or conceptual art, but jeez, I want to make sure the concepts are worthy of the name. I'd rather just look at something pretty, you know? So much of it is just a waste of one's eyes, I feel.

Have you been discovering Los Angeles as an historic artistic center? It’s had a resurgence lately.

I think I've never been so interested in architecture as I have since living here. Where we live in Venice, you know, on the canals, you've just got this wonderful jumble of something super modernist, clean‐angled, big windows kind of stuff, right next to some version of Anne Hathaway's cottage, but writ large. And that's the classic L.A. thing, isn't it. It's not pledged to any particular period, it’s just this incredible free‐for‐all.

Are you getting outdoors more on the west coast, too?

Oh, what a horrible question. Before my wife and I lived here, we were always coming to the American Southwest. We were always flying to Utah from London, and now since we've been here, we don’t actually spend that much time outdoors. You know, there's no part of the world that I'd rather have on my doorstep than the American Southwest. Whenever we go to Joshua Tree or something we say, oh, this is so great, we’ve got to do something like this every weekend. And then as we drive back on the Sunday, we realize why we don't do it every weekend. You end up not having a weekend when you go away. We certainly should do more of it.

This book often focuses on pilgrimages—there’s always a destination, an intentional trip. What does pilgrimage mean to you?

I'm always up for a bit of pilgrimage, really. But I'm so aware of the capacity of the secular pilgrimage to disappoint, whereby you go to the place the great writer lived, and it doesn't work for you. That's something I talk about in the Lawrence book [Out of Sheer Rage]. You can't fake it. You might try to summon up the feeling, but quite often you can't. So although the pilgrimage itself might be disappointing, quite often there'll be all sorts of incidentals that render the pilgrimage worthwhile. So in the case of that chapter on Gauguin, you know, it pretty well all sucked, all the Gauguin stuff in Tahiti that I encountered, but there were other incidental things that made it very worthwhile.

Whereas the religious pilgrimage, I think it's much more that particular thing. You go to Mecca, and it's really all about that big black cube that you have to see. That's got to deliver. Whereas the side effects or the incidentals can be redemptive in the secular pilgrimage. My appetite for pilgrimage is never diminished by particular instances of it not delivering.

You still always have that desire to go see the real place where something happened.

L.A. is particularly interesting in that respect, because it's not London or England or Stratford‐on‐Avon, where everything has got a blue plaque saying “this happened here.” But it's got a huge history, L.A., and it's pretty uncurated, really. They've been so indifferent to preserving it.

You’ve always talked about blurring the boundaries of fiction and nonfiction, and pushing nonfiction into a new space. Do you feel like people are catching up to that now, with this vogue for essays and innovative nonfiction?

I've been doing this for a while, and I hadn't realized that actually one will get greater recognition for something when more people start doing it. There's a lot of it around; it's recognizable now as a phenomenon, I think, as opposed to just something that a particular writer, in this case, me, was doing. It seems to me it's the product of quite a few people becoming a bit weary with conventional novelization.

Are there any writers you’d particularly suggest in this vein?

I think the last two people that I've been really, really heavily influenced by would be Annie Dillard and Rebecca West.

As the narrator or protagonist, you always play a role in your nonfiction work. Do you come up with a different conception of yourself as that protagonist, a different character, for each piece?

The character emerges from the style, and the particular tone is appropriate to the subject. In White Sands, it sort of helped to write about Adorno in this light‐hearted, funny way, because of the contrast with this person of such unrelenting seriousness.

As a point of honor, I've always felt that it really is essential in anything I write that nobody comes across looking worse than I do. That’s a basic courtesy, and that's kind of fun for me. I'm writing something, and then I start to have a good time when I spy an opportunity to make myself really look like a jerk. Then it starts to become fun.

Do you identify those moments when you experience them, or is it when you sit down to write?

Some things will happen that are inherently funny at the time. More often, it will happen at the desk. I don't feel any qualms at all about introducing in dialogue something that I didn't say at the time, but thought of 10 minutes later and wished I'd said. I like this idea of that movement between serious and comedy. At its best, the flickering back and forth between comedy and seriousness, ideally you almost can't tell the difference between the two. That's the absolute ideal, that you're being serious while being funny and funny while being serious.

Kyle Chayka is a writer in Brooklyn for publications including Matter, Newsweek, and The Awl.