geoff Dyer has always been a predominantly youthful literary presence. In a career of novels, biographies, essays, reviews, memoirs and journalism, there has always been a keen curiosity for the disparate things that capture his attention: DH Lawrence; Jazz; Burning Man; Russian cinema; drugs; the Somme… Of course, one of the main things that has always caught Dyer’s attention is Geoff Dyer, and he’s now trying to bring his freshness, bounce and humor to an examination of the decidedly not-youthful spheres of ” things that are coming to an end, last works of artists, time is running out”. It’s his time. Although Dyer is still young at heart, he is also now in his 60s, had a mini-stroke in his mid-50s, and his habit of playing tennis has left him with “multiple permutations of problems: rotator cuff, hip flexor, wrist, cricked neck, lower back and bad knees (both)”.
Dyer’s obsession with tennis has only grown in intensity over the years. He still plays twice a week – although these days he is unable to serve overhand – and his time on TV has been multiplied dramatically by a friend sharing a password for the tennis channel . The endless speculation about Roger Federer’s retirement naturally interested him and it became important to him “that a book based on my own experience of the changes brought on by aging be completed before Roger’s retirement”. (“Yes, ‘Roger’, not ‘Federer’,” he explains, “even though I’ve never met him, it’s Roger, always and only Roger.”)
Yet, just like Dyer’s book on DH Lawrence, Out of Sheer Rage, was about not writing a book about DH Lawrence, this book isn’t really about Federer. We learn snippets of what he means to Dyer – down to a close read of the two points he lost to Novak Djokovic in the 2019 Wimbledon final. But he’s a minor player compared to the study. of Dyer on the terrible but endlessly attractive Bob Dylan concerts, old JMW Turner throwing caution to the wind, Beethoven’s last quartets, Nietzsche’s breakdown or, of course, Dyer himself. Longtime readers will know the bones of his biography – working class Cheltenham; high school; Oxford; The bohemian 80s life in Brixton that turned into a career as a writer – but snippets of it are seen through a new lens. He recalls that those close to him, living in a “low-paid, often unpleasant and unrewarding world of work”, saw retirement as something to “look forward to from a surprisingly early age. It was a form of promotion, practically an ambition.A reward camp from the Duke of Edinburgh (he stopped after the bronze, and abandonment is also a theme of the book) is remembered as the moment he heard the news that George Best had abandoned the football at just 26. More tangentially, a trip from Oxford to see the Lewisham Clash occasion an elegiac passage on the notion of the last train, which he and his friend had missed.Another riff recalls the misery of the last orders placed in British pubs.
Dyer’s charting ability allows him to roam widely. (And perhaps to collect seemingly random work in the book.) There are sections on the linked demise of the Plains Indians and the buffalo, and on Robert Redford, facing death alone on a stricken yacht, in the 2013 film All Is Lost. Among the many novels Dyer has asked for time on are The Brothers Karamazov (his copy still has a 2012 receipt from a restaurant in Bologna between pages 80 and 81) and A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell – the first attempt after volume five, the second in book three. His only regret is not having abandoned it sooner, “ideally before even having started”.
But while he’s a connoisseur of the mundane details of failure – often cleverly crafted for humor with himself as the target – he also has a joyous appreciation of the transcendent and the triumphant. A long list of “things we finally get to, late in the day” includes the writings of Jean Rhys and Eve Babitz, and Colonel Blimp by Powell and Pressburger. In a book about things that are mostly too late, the many mentions of lockdown seem oddly a bit too early. Not because they are distressing, more that they are still too familiar and even Dyer’s originality cannot make them surprising.
In another writer, Dyer’s tendency towards self-centeredness could easily be tiresome. But the minutiae it pulls out for display – the free tennis hookup, the industrial-scale hotel shampoo outlet – ring true to life and embody a kind of openness. And it’s this openness and attention to things that encourages you to trust him and follow him on sometimes more obscure forays, like Nietzsche’s notion of the eternal return. But there’s still humor, as well as the sense that he’s been watching things carefully and thinking things through. He might note that at any poetry reading, “no matter how enjoyable, the words we most look forward to hearing are always the same: ‘I’ll read two more poems’.” Yet her book is saturated with a deep engagement with poetry from Larkin to Tennyson, Milton, Louise Glück and many others.
Dyer acknowledges that he tends toward demographic norms in that he finds himself increasingly reluctant to “stray away from the military history section of bookstores, with an increasingly heavy emphasis on World War II world”. But he’s also someone who still indulges in intricately choreographed hallucinogenic drugs in Joshua Tree, literally dreams of playing football (“my best dreams of the year”), and rides his bike with the enthusiasm apparent of an eight-year-old child. Age has come upon him, but youth has not disappeared. It’s the knee pads on both legs that keep him on the tennis court now, but like Federer, it’s a reserve of flair, touch, timing and keen eye that keeps him in the game.