You may not have heard of Geoff Dyer, but this novelist, critic and essayist has been called "one of our most original writers," and indeed his writing is unique, with titles ranging from Yoga for People Who Can't Be Bothered to Do It and Another Great Day at Sea: Life Aboard the USS George H.W. Bush. Born in Great Britain and currently living and teaching in Los Angeles, Dyer takes readers on a tour of both the world and his intriguing mind in White Sands: Experiences from the Outside World.
In nine essays interspersed with short vignettes, Dyer recounts journeys like his trip to Gauguin's Tahiti, where he "soon came to see that the real art of the Marquesas, and of Polynesia, generally, was tattooing." During a tour of Beijing's Forbidden City, he develops a crush on a young woman named Li, whom he assumes is a guide. She isn't―but she does her best to act as one. Similarly, Dyer's observations are by no means full of the usual travel guide stuff; instead, they tend to be full of unexpected details, diversions, and detours.
Dyer sums up his mission like this: "trying to work out what a certain place―a certain way of marking the landscape―means; what it's trying to tell us; what we go to it for."
"Northern Dark" tells of Dyer's trip to see the Norway's Northern Lights with his wife Jessica, which doesn't go well, and includes the line, "Why have we come to this hellhole?" "White Sands" begins with a brief discussion of his visit to the New Mexico monument, but morphs into a riveting account of picking up a hitchhiker and then passing a sign that says, "NOTICE/DO NOT PICK UP HITCHHIKERS/DETENTION FACILITIES IN AREA."
The book's last essay is a bit of a departure, but a fitting conclusion to a book that's so much about inner reactions to the outside world. Dyer describes his experience of having a mild stroke and its aftermath, prompting him to conclude: "Life is so interesting I'd like to stick around forever, just to see what happens, how it all turns out."