White Sands has been called a collection of travel essays, but I prefer to describe Geoff Dyer’s latest publication as a series of disappointments. Dyer’s 14th published work takes the reader on an uninspiring journey; it is an endless cycle of anticipation and unfulfilled expectations, enough to make even the keenest traveller want to stay home.
This is not necessarily a bad thing, nor does it mean Dyer has not achieved what he set out to. In fact, in the very first part of White Sands he tells the reader “when I am no longer capable of disappointment the romance will be gone: I may as well be dead”.
From this perspective Dyer, a middle-aged English expat, takes the reader to some of the most famous land art works in America, and to a selection of overseas destinations, including Beijing’s Forbidden City and Norway, to see (or not, as it turns out) the northern lights.
Dyer blends real and fictitious events, creating something that defies genre – it is not fiction, but not memoir or journalism either. In fact, we never really know what it is.
The book is split into ten ‘essays’, each telling a story of a different time or place. The title story is a standout. It begins as Geoff and his fictional wife Jessica (his wife’s name is actually Rebecca) are driving through New Mexico after a visit to White Sands where the beaches are “as bright as new-fallen snow”.
As they leave the “unstained wilderness” for El Paso, they pick up a hitchhiker. In just a matter of minutes though, they pass a sign that suggests their passenger is an escaped prisoner. As the pleasant atmosphere in the car transforms, Dyer talks the reader through an awkward situation that results in the couple leaving their passenger at a petrol station as they speed into the night.
‘White Sands’ is humorous and entertaining, showcasing Dyer’s talents as a writer and observer of human interaction. His essay ‘Where? What? Where?’ aims for a similar result but it doesn’t quite hit the mark. Instead, the piece takes the reader on a dispirited journey to Tahiti, “which, like Bali, has no great beaches even though it is famed for its beaches”.
While Dyer’s use of language is clever – his personification of the “half-awake sky” in Tahiti and the sprinting wind at Walter De Maria’s Lightening Field draws the reader in and his long, repetitious sentences are amusing once understood – an omnipresent gloom taints each essay.
Not even Dyer’s humour, such as when he refers to Tahitians engaging in a “calorific battle of the sexes” can save White Sands. And while it is humorous when he is guided around the Forbidden City by a beautiful Chinese women and remarks: “Mornings like this prove that you really have to be mad ever to kill yourself,” it is not enough to engage readers throughout the story.
As an exploration of why we travel and of Dyer’s personal experiences, White Sands achieves its purpose. As an illuminating story about visiting the wonders of the world, the book falls short. This simply means White Sands is not for the hopeful idealist; it is instead a book for the more realistic among us.