William

William Harris’s monthly column on Full Stop discusses travel and writing.

Certain promising genres — food writing, say, or travel — almost uniformly disappoint me. I wonder why. Doubtless different genres require different reasons; travel writing, for instance, perhaps disappoints me because I find traveling disappointing. It’s an opinion I share with Janet Malcolm, who, in her literary tourist book on Chekhov, realizes her true feelings toward travel after being thrown into sorrow by the airline’s bungling of her luggage: “Without knowing exactly why, I have always found travel writing a little boring, and now the reason seemed clear: travel itself is a low-key emotional experience, a pallid affair in comparison to ordinary life.”

What makes travel so pallid? The lugging, the packing, the conspicuous reading of guidebooks, the conspicuous wearing of fanny-packs, the cyber-nightmarish following of blue dots on phone screens: I don’t think it’s any of these. What wrings the life out of travel, despite our pre-trip giddiness for it, is not its small annoyances but its total reshuffling of daily life, the way it balloons expectation and upends routine. The whole month of July, let us say, and I’m never not surrounded by my three best friends and travel companions. I hardly have any time to read a book, and in these foreign countries I can’t find a good English bookstore. The German tap water makes me sick and yet I still drink from the bathroom sink, gulps punctuated by long nights of too much beer. And the purpose of each activity — whether going to a museum, or a ruin, or sitting somewhere beautiful and doing nothing — is, if not a fleeting, histrionic drive to learn, then constant unequivocal entertainment.

Traveling is wonderful, of course, and yet it is most wonderful when I’m at home, sitting on a characterless couch, surrounded by books that I’m not reading because I’m dreaming of traveling. It’s more precisely for this reason — the discrepancy between daydreaming of traveling and its reality — that travel writing is disappointing. The actual experience of travel is composed of minor catastrophes, boredom, and perpetually unfulfilled hedonism, and at such odds with either the quiet, romantic or boundless, intrepid idea of travel, that writers end up fabricating the fluff of journeys and quests and spiritual discoveries to compensate. The other typical flaw is wallpapering over disappointment with superficial knowledge. “I did not particularly like travel books,” travel writer Paul Theroux writes in his novel My Secret History. “It was usually geography, and potted history, and a kind of lifeless boasting about how far the writer had gone and what he ate.”

In London, which is not the furthest or most exotic of places, I ate Turkish food, stayed in a hotel with mice, and bought Geoff Dyer’s collection of travel essays Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It. The other book I’ve read by Dyer — Out of Sheer Rage, a book about failing to write a book on D.H. Lawrence, which turns out, in its way, to be a book on D.H. Lawrence — had more of an effect on me, especially its ironized, winningly insufferable poetics of complaint: the whininess of parts of this post is written in its spirit, if not its style. Yet Dyer’s travel essays succeed for a different, more structural reason: they avoid the adventures and potted history, and when they wax geographic or epiphanic it’s done with skill and surprising insight. In one essay, a set piece overlooking a rice paddy in Indonesia detours into reflections on perspective, the separation between the view and the viewer, and “various attempts” to “dissolve the separation” between the two. The passage moves past land gazing to a wider geographic canvas that includes architecture and human experience, and ends with “the best example” of attempts to reconcile viewer and view: the infinity pool. “Instead of staying a boring four or five inches below the edge of the pool, the water flows over the rim into a surrounding channel and from there is pumped back into the main pool. [. . .] You float in the pool, the water falls away, and there is, it seems, nothing to separate you from the view. Distance, space, is abolished.”

The way the infinity pool is elevated from a trivial, excessively replicated luxury amenity to an elegant, ambitious, but still comic solution to an estrangement from landscape reveals in capsule form Dyer’s creative process: begin with something stupid or completely unpromising, and then zero in on it obsessively until it becomes in part enlightening while remaining essentially comic. With Dyer we’re never allowed to forget the worthless premise we began from, whether it’s a book about his inability to write a book (Out of Sheer Rage), or a book he told his agent would be about tennis before he changed his mind and made it a wandering summary of Tarkovsky’s film Stalker (Zona). He described his process similarly, in a recent interview with The White Review:

Let’s say the First World War — I’ll write about my own very peculiar take on it, this idea that the thing about the First World War is that it happened in the past: a stupid thought. Except that it’s such an obvious thought that no one has had it. And I elaborate on that, and it turns out that by being very faithful to the vagaries of my own perception of things, it strikes a chord with other people whose circumstances are very different to mine.

Start with the obvious, end with something enlightening. Garden-variety travel writing follows a similar formula, but twists it into something pathetic: start with the obvious, end by pretending it’s novel. For this reason one can’t read much about a place without being hit by the same old city brochure ad-man language describing its essence (mix of tradition and modernity; bridge between east and west; city of the future; Venice of some cardinal direction). Even Dyer, faced with the constraints of travel writing, falls into this essentializing trap in his essay on Miami, “The Despair of Art Deco.” He tries to subvert city brochure speak by repeating endlessly that Miami revolves around art deco, and by extending art deco’s influence in the city to absurd proportions — someone commits suicide, Dyer hypothesizes, because of “the despair of art deco” — but finally he’s still written an essay that itself revolves far too much around art deco, a victim of its own overblown satire. But I shouldn’t end on that note; taken as a whole Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It amounts to some of the best travel writing I’ve read. The main reason is it’s not really travel writing. You don’t come to Dyer for a sense of place. You come to Dyer for personality, grumpiness, and the chance to rediscover whatever stupid, unexamined thought you’d foolishly left behind.

Meanwhile, as if on accident, you come away with something of a sense of place, though one indistinct from its author’s role in it. The way small tics, gestures, habits on trains become various locales’ national essences: place is being conveyed, but one never forgets these are Dyer’s impressions, a subjective saturation that touches on a reality often stubbornly ignored by travel writing. “The new Lufthansa tagline, ‘Nonstop You,’ seems to encapsulate the full horror and nausea of human consciousness,” once tweeted Elif Batuman. It’s telling that it’s an airline’s tagline: we think of traveling as a blank slate on which to project an entirely new, separate and bracketed time in life, a way to start over and forget about our most pressing worries. Then once we’ve reached our destination we realize it’s still us, and that it will always be us. Many travelers don’t know how to deal with this disappointment, and the result is bad books. Dyer, however, knows it’s coming and never tries to escape himself, giving us, along with travel’s occasional leasure and comedy, the “full horror and nausea of human consciousness.”

 
Author portrait by Eliza Koch. See more of Eliza’s work here.


 

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