This book is not about yoga. Not in the slightest little bit. This book is many things – a collection of travel essays, a memoir of the early stages of a nervous breakdown, a contemplation of geography and history and time, a narrative of what it was like to be a global citizen in the years before 2001, when we all became global citizens whether we wanted to or not. But it is most definitely not about yoga.
At first the title disappointed me. Its origin is in a bad joke whose punch line you probably don’t even need me to tell you (Dyer: “I have an idea for a self-help book: Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It.”His friend Kate: “But you can’t be bothered to write it, right?” Dyer: “You stole my punch line” ), and at first I thought a stupid joke – plus an attempt to sell books to gullible New Agers – was all it was. For the first two thirds or so of the book, I thought that a phrase Dyer uses a couple of times in his essays, “the archaeology of ignorance,” would have made a better title. But then later on I figured out what Dyer was going for. The title is good – painfully subtle, but good.
Here is a quick synopsis of the book: Dyer has recently turned forty (sometime in the very-late nineties) and is still living a pathologically itinerant lifestyle that he seems to have lived for some time. He crashes for a while in New Orleans, tries to write a novel there, but doesn’t. He and a girlfriend named Circle visit Cambodia, and shortly after Circle departs Dyer has a fling with the aforementioned Kate, whom he meets when she has just emerged from the ocean having been stung by jellyfish all over her body. He travels to Amsterdam and Florida with someone named Dazed (who appears to be female), and in Rome he flirts with someone named Monica, who shows him a picture of her parents at the ruins of Leptis Magna in Libya, which prompts him to go to Libya on his own to see the ruins. He also visits Detroit on assignment to cover an Electronic Music Festival, and finally he goes to Burning Man with Circle, who is now going by her given name, Sarah. In most of these places, Dyer consumes significant quantities of alcohol and a variety of drugs – mostly hallucinogenics. He is often miserable and contemplates time and eternity and decay of various things – civilization and himself being the two primary objects of decay that he contemplates. He often tries to write but finds it impossible to complete projects. He despairs.
I have never found the drug memoir to be a compelling genre. I have no interest in Hunter S. Thompson or William Burroughs or Denis Johnson, although I have read enough of the latter to know that he’s a very skilled writer. The only thing worse than being around people who are taking drugs is reading about people who are taking drugs – and there were times when this book bored and annoyed me for that reason. I’m sure Dyer found the day-long saga of trying to change out of a pair of wet pants and into a pair of dry pants in a series of Amsterdam public restrooms absolutely hilarious when it happened – but someone (Dyer’s wiser self? His publisher? His girlfriend? Never mind that last one – a person named ‘Dazed’ is probably not the right person to advise anyone on how to keep drug stories to a minimum in one’s memoir) should have explained to him that this is not the kind of story that anyone else wants to hear. The Amsterdam episode in this book is boring and frustrating, and the Florida episode isn’t much better – although the frequency with which Dyer and Dazed consume smoothies in Florida (without ever directly calling attention to the number of smoothies they are consuming) made me laugh and almost made up for the excessive use of similes to describe the experience of taking Ecstacy.
What this memoir is really about, though, is the process of coming apart. As the title suggests, in this book Dyer is a person who knows what he should do for his health and well-being but cannot do it. Perhaps on some level he “can’t be bothered to do it” – but mostly there is some kind of miswiring in his brain that prevents him from doing what he knows to be healthy and good. And on this level, once the drug references begin to fizzle out, this book is extremely compelling.
Dyer is constantly trying to write a book about antiquity and ruins. I get the sense that what he wants to write is a very philosophical book – much more like something by Foucault than something by Thomas Cahill – about the theory of ruins, about what it means to live in a world with the crumbling artifacts of our forebears in various stages of decay all around us. I simultaneously find this idea interesting and think it’s as good a sign as any that Dyer needs to check himself into a hospital NOW, and I think that is how Dyer intends us to read it. Because, of course, he himself is a ruin – at least during the years in which this book is set. He himself is the destroyed remnant of some former, healthier, more robust, more courageous self– and the process through which Dyer comes to realize this is the (very loose) plot of this memoir.
This book is marketed as “uproarious,” “freewheeling,” “sidesplitting,” “mordantly funny,” and “exquisitely manic” (all of these are quotations from the front and back covers), and I honestly didn’t find it to be any of these (oh, OK – I guess it’s a bit freewheeling). The only part I found laugh-out-loud funny was an essay from the first third of the book, when Dyer and Circle are visiting the holy city of Angkor in Cambodia. They are tired and thirsty, and a young girl approaches them and offers to sell them a Coke. They are in the process of making the transaction – Dyer even has the Coke in his hand – when a boy who has lost both of his legs to a land mine (he has one wooden leg and one stump, and walks with crutches) approaches and offers to sell them a Coke. Dyer immediately decides to return the original Coke to the girl and buy a Coke from the legless boy. As they share the Coke, Dyer and Circle visit with the boy for a while, learning the story of how he lost his legs, while the girl who tried to sell them the original Coke follows them around having a temper tantrum – “BUY COKE FROM ME! YOU BUY COKE FROM ME NOW!!” – while Dyer and Circle steadfastly ignore her. I laughed hysterically at this, but it wasn’t the kind of laughter that makes you feel very good afterwards. Now, there is nothing wrong with this kind of laughter (most Americans could probably benefit from experiencing more of it, to be honest), and when I finished that chapter I almost forgot how funny it was, since its ultimate effect is not the release of laughter but the recognition of how much desperation and pain exist in the world and how little Westerners do to alleviate it. It reminded me of how I felt after reading the essay in which David Sedaris and his partner tour the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam and then decide that it is their dream house and try to convince the historical society to sell it to them – and then go on and on in front of all the other tourists about how they would decorate it. It’s hilarious (much more hilarious, actually, than it would be if it were less offensive), but when you finish reading it you feel poisoned – or, more accurately, you feel suddenly aware of the poison that was in you all along.
And speaking of David Sedaris – you know those moments of honest and shocking self-hatred that pop out like violent subliminal messages spliced into a children’s movie during the most hilarious parts of his essays? Dyer operates in that landscape of self-hatred all the time. And for me, because I was so acutely aware of the darkness of this book, many of the moments that were supposed to make me laugh simply didn’t. It’s like when Harry Potter returns to school at the beginning of The Order of the Phoenix and realizes that he can see the thestrals that pull the students to from the train station to the castle – monstrous (though harmless) beasts that no one can see unless he has witnessed death.
The Harry Potter reference is a frivolous aside, of course – but any book about ruins and antiquity (and this book – which is more properly described as a book about NOT writing a book about ruins and antiquity – is about ruins and antiquity just the same) is by necessity also a book about aging and death. Dyer is constantly aware that he is an absurd figure – wandering the world doing drugs, having casual sex, feeling rooted nowhere. He writes that “it was better being forty than twenty, when one was full of fire and ambition and hope. It was even better than being thirty, when those hopes that had once animated you became a goading sense of torment” (165), and while he continually returns to the subject of ruined buildings, he really never states or betrays any desire for the kind of permanence that forty year-olds are supposed to want: houses, mortgages, children, jobs that require showing up every day at a certain place at an appointed time. It almost seems as if in his own mind he is the building that will one day be ruined: he sees the ruins that he explores in Cambodia and Rome and Libya not as representations of the buildings of our era but as representations of himself: “Perhaps the simplest lesson of antiquity is that, after a time, anything vertical – Doric, Ionic, Corinthian, whatever – commands admiration. Ultimately, though, the lure of the horizontal will always prove irresistible” (208). That “whatever,” of course, is a stand-in for “human” – this is one of many very oblique references to the suicidal impulse that pulls this novel forward, making Dyer’s collapse in the second-to-last essay in the book the only reasonable way for the book to end – or almost end.
This is a good book – at least, it’s a good book for a certain kind of reader in a certain kind of mood. Dyer’s prose is extraordinary, for one thing. As I’ve said, parts of the book bored, annoyed, and disgusted me – but I think that the experience of being bored, annoyed, and disgusted is part of reading a book like this and going through Dyer’s decline with him. It’s a cerebral book, which I like, and, of course, this IS the book about antiquity that Dyer claims he failed to write. It is a book about the way – when we are closest to our own mortality and decline – we are compelled to look away at things that, in their very decline, seem immortal.