A writer for whom life is (usually) elsewhere

By JOHN FREEMAN, Special to the Times Union
First published: Sunday, December 5, 2004

Whenever Geoff Dyer finds himself in a rut, he packs up his belongings and hits the road. In this fashion, the British novelist and critic has crisscrossed the globe several times, living everywhere from New York and New Orleans to Rome and Paris.

"It's that thing about the importance of elsewhere," says Dyer, 46. "Let's say you are feeling really (ticked) off. The classic advice is to get out of the house and go for a walk for an hour. I just enlarged the scale."

It is this peripatetic instinct that brought Dyer from London to Albany, where he has been teaching this fall in the English program. Creative writing programs have not become quite the cultural mainstay in England as they are now in America, and Dyer says he's somewhat overwhelmed by the caliber of talent that passes through town as part of the New York State Writers Institute's Visiting Writers Series.

Even though he lives in Manhattan, Dyer has stuck around for an event or two himself. "It's amazing for these undergraduate and graduate students to see these people -- I couldn't speak too enthusiastically about the Institute," he says.

On Tuesday, Dyer leaves the classroom to make his own appearance as part of the institute's series.

This most recent sojourn in America may be one of Dyer's most productive periods yet. He recently finished writing a book about photography, and unlike his previous few books, Dyer says, "I'm hardly in it at all. There's none of this me sitting around putting off the writing."

The final push, of course, involved a trip, this time to Martha, Texas, where he worked in a cabin owned by the Lannan Foundation -- a sort of rusticated version of Yaddo.

Flaking out

If, indeed, the book is done and Dyer is out of the picture, it would be a turning of the leaf, so to speak. When he moved to Paris in the early '90s to write a book he was planning as an updated "Tender Is the Night," he wound up churning out three -- all of them about a man flaking out and not writing a book.

In 2003, Dyer bundled together tales of his other humorous false starts, in Bali, Cambodia, Rome and more, and came up with "Yoga for People Who Can't Be Bothered to Do It," a collection of meditations on the lure of someplace else.

It's the sort of book Jack Kerouac might have written, had he lived in the era of routine jet travel. Then again, the book's first piece, "Horizontal Drift," starts off with Dyer and a girlfriend delivering a car from Los Angeles to New York. The two are using the free automobile as a way to see the heartland, just as Dean Moriarty and Sal Paradise did four decades earlier. Along the way, they pass through New Orleans, a town Dyer loves so much he later returns for a stay that lasts several months.

The stories that follow read like a game of intercontinental hopscotch, played with oddly named paramours -- one is called Dazed, another dubs herself Circle -- and buddies who really enjoy their psychotropic drugs. One chapter revolves around a rain-sodden day spent high on mushrooms in Amsterdam; another unfolds in Paris, where Dyer convinces a lady friend to smoke a wickedly powerful kind of pot that gets her so high she has to be sent home in a cab.

The book's title piece details a trip Dyer took through Southeast Asia, where he encountered lots of other people doing the "self-journeying" thing. All of them were too busy baking their noodles to actually do anything as physical as yoga. As a joke, Dyer comes up with the idea of writing a self-help book for these dropouts from conventional life.

An inch away

The author, however, is the first to note that events described in the book didn't necessarily happen as they're written. "Sure, it's only an inch away from what happened," says the author, who keeps the particulars of his fictionalization mysterious. "But all of the art is in that inch."

Dyer has condensed time lines, changed names or simply invented things. "Somebody was asking me, 'Is it embarrassing to reveal this kind of stuff about yourself?' And in some weird way, I feel more embarrassed talking about it over the phone, because when it is the 'I' in the book speaking, it sort of has nothing to do with me."

In the Zone

In addition to providing Dyer with a scrim behind which he can hide -- for the record, Dyer was married 3 1/2 years ago, and the drug use dwindled away a while ago -- breaking from the record allows him to shape a narrative out of his often shapeless travels. And so, over the course of 250 pages, "Yoga" charts a journey from existential restlessness to the attainment of "the Zone," Dyer's place "of absolute contentment -- a place where the possibility of there being other places isn't a goad or torment."

Achieving this state of beatitude is harder work than it sometimes seems, Dyer insists. Sure, "Yoga" is full of elaborate, lyrical descriptions of doing nothing in Rome, or playing endless games of table tennis in Bali. But there are also grueling riffs on the kind of self-loathing that reveal the flip side to so much idle time. "There is always the fear (that) maybe I am just being lazy," Dyer admits.

Because there is no name for the mixture of nonfiction and fiction that Dyer is perfecting, let alone a category under which to shelve it, self-doubt constantly plagues the writer.

"Let's say you are writing a novel," he explains. "It's going well, it's going badly, whatever -- at least you still know it's going to result in a novel. My anxiety is redoubled by the fact that I have no idea what (a project) is going to be."

Even though it might be easier to go back to writing in conventional genres, Dyer remains tentative about the idea of writing another novel (he has written three to date, the latest of which is 1999's "Paris Trance"). Then again, he might be ruined for biography: In "Out of Sheer Rage," Dyer wrote about about failing to write a book about D.H. Lawrence (Steve Martin called it "so funny, so effortlessly readable, so clear and wonderful").

His future projects will arise out of an obsession of one sort or another. Not surprisingly, Dyer has set his sights on another city: San Francisco, where he stayed recently for a few months. Mention the city by the bay and Dyer's voice dips into honeyed tones, proving that even after this book, the Zone is as elusive as ever.

"It would be really sad if I didn't end up moving there," Dyer says, his voice trailing off. "Just unbelievably tragic. I feel at some level it's my destiny."

John Freeman is a New York City writer.

All Times Union materials copyright 1996-2003, Capital Newspapers Division of The Hearst Corporation, Albany, N.Y.

Geoff Dyer