JULY 4, 2022
IT SHOULD COME as no surprise to readers of Geoff Dyer that The Last Days of Roger Federer: And Other Endings isn’t actually about the Swiss tennis idol, nor is it about the sport he mastered. Federer shows up here and there, slipped in among its pages like inspirational bookmarks. But as one expects from the author of Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It — which, spoiler, isn’t about yoga, but is, rather, a travelogue of sorts — Dyer’s latest effort ventures delightfully far afield from its conceit.
That conceit, broadly, is lastness: most prominently the late careers and styles of artists, authors, composers, and athletes; careers that seemingly go on forever (à la Bob Dylan’s) and those that burn out, nosedive, come back, or fade away. The book of essays-in-concept also explores the author’s existential reckoning with himself, as a writer and aging human being. What does it mean for something to truly end? What can we learn from the author’s own habitual abandonment? What is the best use of our diminishing time on this earth?
At 63, having suffered a “minor stroke” some years ago, it would seem Dyer is staring down eternity. I say “it would seem” because that’s what you’d expect from a writer in late middle age. But, here again, Dyer is different than most people. “I scarcely give [death] a second thought,” he says. For him, what’s important is to keep busy, to fill the empty days, and that means experiencing culture and writing and writing and writing about whatever comes to mind that he can fold into the project at hand, no matter how attenuated the thematic link. So many of his eclectic interests make the pages of this book: D. H. Lawrence, jazz, photography, Burning Man, drugs, raves, Tarkovsky’s slow-burning Soviet epic Stalker — subjects he’s written extensively about over the decades, in some cases entire books, and therefore has an archive of material stored in his head or in a filing cabinet.
In this regard, Last Days resembles a lengthy, fragmented appendix of said work, outtakes as it were, with new subjects added and organized into a series of numbered vignettes, some as short as a paragraph, others stretching to several pages, 180 in total, with a postscript and notes at the end. Dyer is a master of literary sleight of hand. He likes to fix your eyes on a subject and then sneak in another from somewhere undetected. One minute you’re reading about the “belated arrival” of the Mississippi bluesman R. L. Burnside, and the next you’re plodding through an explication of Nietzsche’s theory of eternal recurrence, the notion that our lives replay on a loop, forever. Looping, if anything, becomes an organizing principle of this book. Ideas are presented, and some of them return, though with new information, associative memories, or passing thoughts.
The subject of endings, it turns out, is one of Dyer’s long-held passions. In his 20s, before he published a score of provocative books, he made a “half-hearted” attempt to enter graduate school on a proposal to examine “how novels end.” But it never came to pass. It was merely a plan, he says, to forestall the inevitable: growing up, putting an end to his youth. For so much of his life, Dyer has started and stopped various projects and life trajectories. There is so much throwing in the towel. He had planned, he says, to write a book about Nietzsche, Beethoven, and some third enigmatic artist, preferably French, but never came up with anyone that suited his purpose. Another book scrapped. What remains are the researched anecdotes, factoids, and meditations on those details, which are shuffled into the mix of the book.
Dyer concedes that Last Days is, in effect, “a diary of what the writer was up to during the period of its composition,” that is, during those slow pandemic months. Asides such as this one are common in Dyer’s work. He’s never minded allowing the reader to peek behind the curtain of his writing process. And although he gushes about it here — “I am so much happier writing this book […] it occurs to me, in fact, that I could keep writing this till I die” — his familiar snark is in shorter supply. The overall tone is, dare I say it, more earnest:
A benefit of writing is that it makes one less susceptible to the numerous irritations and calamities of the world beyond the desk. It insulates from bad weather; it’s a shield against Covid and Trump (against thinking about them all the time); it protects from injury (from being injured and not being able to play tennis), from boredom, depression, and fear of dementia.
It seems the interminable days of the pandemic have only clarified Dyer’s priorities. In earlier work, he takes the reader on strange journeys into uncomfortable places and keeps us in stitches along the way. He’s funny here, no doubt, but he’s more staid. He tells us that he is stuck at home in Southern California. The dinner parties have stopped. His social life has dried up. He’s endured several tennis injuries, and he isn’t exactly happy about it. At one point, he ventures out to his home country. He sits on the balcony of the flat he owns in London and listens to William Basinski’s The Disintegration Loops, an experimental looping track that changes slightly each time it repeats, which puts Dyer in a pensive mood. He isn’t able (or willing) to fall into his old rollicking mode, not here anyway. “In the past,” he writes, “this is exactly the kind of scene I have written about, created, or recreated with lyricism and romance. Over time, that has diminished, disintegrated — both the actual experience and my ability to render it. What remains are the facts. There were no stars.”
Nevertheless, he does indulge in a few elongated scenes. The most amusing of them recounts when a friend of Dyer’s called Tao (is it the author Tao Lin?) invited him to a psychedelic party in Joshua Tree, California, a few years ago. Dyer shows up with another friend, a former pro-surfer, who is also keen to try out the drug DMT. Comedy ensues from there.
“[I]t is natural to be apprehensive,” he writes. After all, he was close to 60 years old at the time. “The key thing is to keep breathing, to remain calm. […] They’re all breathers, these Californians: breathers, polyamorous meditators, and doers of yoga, whereas I was just a breather in the normal, untutored English sense.” The scene might seem out of place in a book about endings, but that’s because you haven’t yet seen the sequence — Dyer attends a live performance of Beethoven’s Opus 132, which conjures an enigmatic quote from Adorno on Beethoven: “Nothing transcends without that which it transcends,” which gets Dyer thinking about smoking a powerful drug in the California desert.
If Dyer is untutored in those California ways, he is certainly not in matters of the arts. And if there is one imperative for the erudite, it is to become even more learned and well read. Curiously, Dyer is no completist. “I’ve always been a leaver and walker-outer of films,” he writes. The same goes for books. He takes the reader on a journey of his reading life, recounting the door stoppers he managed to finish, and loved (such as Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon), and those he set down (like Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities). Book abandonment, for a serious reader, is always a sad resignation. After several failed attempts, he writes, “It’s looking increasingly likely that I’ll go to my grave without ever having had The Brothers Karamazov experience.”
Dyer presents a theory of why (and when) we might slog through to the end with some difficult books and why we might let go of others. When we are young, he says, if we are devoted to serious literature, we are able to withstand the tedious inscrutability of difficult books precisely because we don’t know much about books or reading yet. Conversely, when we are older, we’re more discerning, more impatient. If only we’d read Proust as a teen! Oh, and there’s another dimension to the idea: “Often you fail to stick with it because of a lack of readerly stamina,” Dyer writes, “rather than a lack of strength on the part of the writer, but it’s always tempting to convert the former into the latter.” It’s a risky move for an author who writes niche interest books to discuss the idea of abandoning books, and it raises an implicit question about this one: if you don’t finish it, is it his fault or yours?
I confess it took me a long time to finish Last Days. The book, lacking much of Dyer’s “lyricism and romance,” left me a bit cold. Still, I persevered and recalibrated my expectations. In the end, I leaned into its deliberate tedium. There is a lot to digest on any given page, in any given sentence, and I decided I would take my precious time. It gets its hooks in you that way. It’s imbued with the languid spirit of COVID times, somehow infected with it: days turning into months into years, an end that is inevitable but somehow unimaginable.