The Last Days of Roger Federer: And Other Endings, by Geoff Dyer, Canongate, 304 pp, £20, ISBN: 978-1838855741
When Dyer comes to his inevitable end, he could be entombed in his own vast pyramid of footnotes, references, direct and paraphrased quotations, film mentions, and aesthetic reactions to music and equestrian statues. Some base blocks of this triangular egghead/pop culture sepulchre could be constructed of dense, apt and expertly raconteured anecdotes. Towards the top would be photos he has forensically decoded, biographical titbits about the rise and fall of great jazzsters, reels of film spooled back from online streamed access to Blu-Ray to DVD to VHS to Betamax to louche dive cinemas like the Scala in 1980s London. Some pyramidal blocks would actually be composed of the sputtering black-and-white fish-tank TVs of the incumbent middle-aged demographic’s infancy.
Inside the pyramid, handsome cad Dyer (64) in repose would be bandaged in flesh-coloured rags made of fabric culled from the last six or seven decades. Strips of T-shirts with forgotten band names, scraps of West Coast linen shirts he makes reference to at least once in this book, and some ripped Hawaiian shirts for gaudy/Presley-glamour measure: the old yarns are the best. Stitched in there too would be tatters from the half-decent gladrags the literate smart alec tends to sport on his book covers (code: stylish, clean, bookish, dodgy academic, cool, youthful, a smart casualist; not stuffy, not a greaseball biker, not a punk, not a rocker). This mummified man of reference might well nod (and maybe click his fingers à la jazz) in knowing homage to sax man Pharoah Sanders around whom he riffs close to the end of The Last Days of Roger Federer.
Despite looking the picture of health, Dyer admits to inhabiting a worn and torn body in his seventh decade. (Who doesn’t?) Damage would seem to have been inflicted by healthy outdoor pursuits (like tennis) rather than excessive drug-addled decadence, hungry years or back-breaking physical toil. In syntax at times more complex than he has essayed before, the writer basks in the human frailty of the no longer young. He grapples here with the reducing calculus of how much time is left for him to be alive. He differentiates from first principles some type of maths-fuelled aesthetics of dozens of people’s individual life’s work limitations. Dyer is an amusing man whose eighteen-odd books and frequent moments of written and performative wit evidence his clear fondness for a laugh – at anyone’s expense, including his own. Being of a non-believing bent, he appears to have no recourse to comforting thoughts of an afterlife. Thus in this latest work, The Last Days of Roger Federer, he shines a bemused torch towards some ultimate brick wall as he follows the final phases of individual artful existence cut (always prematurely) short.
Now we are going to make him star in another illustrative Pharoah Sanders-inspired Egyptian comedy sketch. (Certain annoying “feature journalists” spent tedious years in the aftermath of the financial crash paranthesising alleged nuggets in their bland articles with the phrase “spoiler alert!”. This has seemed to give way recently to the equally odious “full disclosure”. I have formulated a useful – and truth-saturated – example: “Full disclosure – I had never heard of the richly and evocatively named Pharoah Sanders before reading this book.”) And so to the comedy sketch. In our end-of-days pyramid – and right beside Tutankhamun Geoff Dyer – would be a carefully wrapped smaller bundle. Is this improbable progeny some little lord of the burning sands? Is this a good time for some khakied colonial British white boy archaeologist to break through the tomb wall with local muscle and start his cultural appropriation? As he peels off the dusty mummy layers of ripped T-shirts emblazoned with The Doors, Bob Dylan, Tarkovsky, Nietzsche, Wagner, Beethoven and John Berger, there will be a sharp intake of breath inside the pyramidal darkness. Some shaft of Spielbergian light will illuminate the unravelling of the little but well-wrapped second corpse. Unpeeled bandage after unpeeled bandage, we are nearly there. The bones can be felt through these ancient comedy sketch rags. The little frame is finally exposed: it turns out to be Geoff Dyer’s tennis racket. THE END.
Dyer has spoken before in interviews and prefaces about promising his agent a book about the Wimbledon ballgame, in generally clever and fake apologetic musings about how he has turned in something else entirely (for example a collection of travel and other musings called Yoga for People Who Can’t be Bothered to Do It). The hitting of a ball across a net fascinates him – whether it’s the full eighteen-hole, set-piece epic that is tennis or the pygmy, crazy-golf iteration that is ping-pong. One of his anticipations of a month-long stint in 2011 as writer-in-residence on board the USS George HW Bush is gleeful below-deck playing of ping-pong on the crest of the Gulf’s ocean wave. In fact, in an alternate ITV ad-break world, poetic punk John Cooper Clarke’s healthy endorsement of Sugar Puffs would be followed by glowing/perspiring/sweating lit genre-bender Geoff Dyer sneering at a high-chair-elevated umpire while sipping a beaker of self-served and refreshing Robinson’s Barley Water. And so the title of this latest book would appear to be at least partly an in-joke. Anyone for tennis? If, like me, you know sweet love-all about central courts and mixed doubles, it is useful to know that Roger Federer is a tennis player. Dyer rather sportily employs Federer’s name as a signifier of something. And he does indeed constitute a trace element within the book – his “racketeering” career on the courts and the notion of him throwing in the towel is one of many supporting structures used by Dyer. But, at the same time, all this talk of tennis is just not cricket.
The Last Days of Roger Federer is a long essay (268 pages) around a set theme. Its buckled-wheel rotational narrative is broken into numbered vignettes which serve as an accumulation of testimonial jigsaw pieces of evidence. Dyer prosecutes the case that artists, writers, thinkers and sportspeople decline with the passing years and that their work and performance fade off. This seems obvious enough, but Dyer digs a little deeper and concludes that the line of erosion is not always linear or straight: there are mad last bursts of insight, creativity and on-pitch prowess. People retire from their game but then return for one more fight, game or tournament, much like a bored batch of middle-aged Jean-Pierre Melville crooks getting the gang together for one last bank job. Sometimes they win gloriously; often they fail ignominiously.
His formula is to locate numerous artists and others in the autumn or winter of their life. Around specific biographic details, he conducts a jocular but sincere investigation into decline. He maps second winds and efforts to return to form as musicians, athletes, thinkers and painters peter out or experience a resurgence. Perseverance and triumph over his own tennis elbows, hands, knees (and boomps a daisy) injuries permit Dyer to observe his own physical decline with backhanded humour and the technique of introspection. Scenes of sixtysomething delinquency, substance consumption and the attendant freedom of immaturity will delight anyone who has ever enjoyed a few pints at the bar and felt progressively and mockingly free of a lifetime of woes. “The same again?” How can I have the same again, dear barman? But do give me something similar.
The Last Days consists of three parts and an epilogue. In the main sections, the narrative technique is numerical: each has sixty sequentially numbered nuggets of insight arranged like dominoes – the ending of one forcing you propulsively into the next. But of course Dyer does not stick with this easy technique: he also employs a conversal variation where the dynamics of non-sequitur apply. And so, one numbered nugget might end and, rather than behave like an obedient domino for the lazy form-accustomed fan and lean over to headbutt the next domino onwards, it refuses. Instead, it compels the now-thrown reader to sharpen their wits and start on the next numbered tract as a mystery. Will this latest slice of cogent dexterous prose cue them up for a return to the domino effect? Or will it turn out to be another non-sequitur? Read on to find out. The result is that this book is not exactly an easy fireside read.
What’s Dyer at? Simple answer: he is compiling a huge jigsaw (say five thousand pieces) that you’d think only certain people in austere living rooms with no central heating might be interested in assembling. He is picking out a piece of a cloud, the corner of a windmill, the ear of the owl upon the barn, the polka dot on the scarecrow’s neckerchief as part of a vast fresco of the idea of ageing and becoming aware of it. There is no real linearity. (His one hundred and eighty numbered pieces mock this presence and absence of a directly common thread, the way Peter Greenaway’s Drowning by Numbers may or may not have mocked itself and its audience with numbers appearing within the frame. I can’t remember. I never actually saw the whole film as I think I came in three-quarters of the way through a Channel 4 broadcast of it in 1987 when I returned to the hole in Walthamstow in which I was living having been out for a failed Jack Kerouac-pilgrimage pint in the closed King Lud pub which Jack had mentioned frequenting in an essay in Lonesome Traveller. This latter anecdote should really be a footnote* but the medium of the online essay, not to mention drb house style, tends to frown upon and indeed trample footnotes. Dyer uses footnotes deviantly to add an extra layer of richness.)
The Last Days of Roger Federer is a compendium. Dyer might have arranged his pieces calendrically as a thought for each day of the year had they by chance totalled 365 – indeed, with 366 he could have just about got away if he were to plead leap year. This book is a box of chocs which does not need to be consumed in any fixed order: have a hazelnut whirl or maybe a lime barrel; skip that strawberry soft centre. I read it from start to finish and felt increasingly aware of the gaps in my knowledge, the lack of expertise in philosophy, my ignorance of classical music and complete indifference to sports, especially tennis. But just as I felt deficient in my uncouthness, I also convinced myself that I was being fed great nutrients, morsel by morsel by a master who had decided to impart everything he knows and frame it within a capture of ageing. I learned so much from this book, but each extra iota dislodged the previous one I had managed to retain so that by the end I had forgotten almost everything.
On one single and not unrepresentative page, I count fifteen references to external people. Here they are: Rebecca West, Annie Dillard, Louise Glück, Len Deighton, Jean Rhys, Eve Babitz, Mavis Gallant, Elizabeth Bowen, Larry McMurtry, James Jones, Terrence Malick, Shirley Hazzard, Evan S Connell, Ivy Compton-Burnett and DH Lawrence (in the footnote) along with reference to Custer and eight book/film titles. So that is twenty-four references on one page alone. Multiplying this by the book’s 268 pages, my speedy mental arithmetic makes this a possible total of 6,432 references. Pity the poor indexer. Other pages drip names more familiar to me – here are a few: The Doors, Bob Dylan, George Best, Kerouac, Hemingway, Camus, Al Pacino, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Turner, John Ruskin, Philip Larkin, Raymond Williams, The Clash, David Lean, Emily Dickinson, Nietzsche, Martin Amis, de Chirico, VS Naipaul, Proust. It all adds up to a lot of information. Splendid value for a book and screw the retail price. But it’s a long time since I rote-learned. Just as the book itemises examples of final failure and late-career challenge, it made me feel my brain has become a sieve. But one standout observation by Dyer sticks firm: artists often don’t get a chance to create their last artwork. Simply because they die. Their planned or current project fails to get completed and so what was actually their second-last project has to function for posterity as their last. This book is a magnificent cornucopia of such sustained points of penultimatism. And JMW Turner is painted as the epitome of this cruel twist.
Along the way, Dyer notes posthumous success as part of this landscape, along with the idea that people often only get known long after their creative powers have passed their zenith. Musicians especially. He writes about endless last gigs and pointless final efforts of cultural endeavour. He writes of people quitting while they are ahead – especially sports stars – but they get lured back by money, boredom or ego to ultimately get beaten. He writes of his own economy of death-overshadowed life as a man of his age and calculates his actuarial proximity to the end. Against the awareness of time running out, he recounts the time wasted trying to read vast books that ultimately disappoint: “My only regret, when I gave up on it, was that I had not abandoned it sooner, ideally before I’d even started.” He seems to enjoy an episode of Californian drug-taking for the reason the altered-state trip takes just fifteen minutes from start to finish rather than the time-consuming binge of other drugs or indeed drink, which can easily steal a day or two of your increasingly precious life. He is good on proportions and reminds how a single day for a middle-aged or older person is a greater chunk of their life than it was to them when they were younger.
He does in fairness hold court on tennis and its lifelong attraction for him. He calibrates the ravages of time on his own body – with its muscular-skeletal issues – against how he once played hard at this sport while pursuing a vigorous nightlife too. His charm shines through again and again – he is self-deprecating and funny. At times it appears he is deploying a militia of biographical minutiae of the cultural greats as stepping stones by which to traverse some wide torrent he has arranged to gush through his own authorial and lived terrain. The quest for self-betterment will have you follow him as he wades through the deep waters, but you’ll be relieved when he himself takes relief in a lively anecdote. He is at his best when operating without his learnedness, without his cod mortar board and gown. He knows this too for, among all his myriad references to others, he writes: “Wouldn’t it be marvellous if it were possible to be a serious writer without taking oneself at all seriously?” His arch tales of everyday tedium are captivating. I like his accounts of giving up, of going to a film, of wearing a linen shirt to go through gridlock traffic jams to a weekend party. I like his chummy experiences of the Burning Man festival where in knowing he will never go back he also knows that he will go back. This book has a reasonable cargo of such Dyerisms. Somewhere in there he even Netflixises a modernist poet: “Every end, to paraphrase TS Eliot in the last episode of the final season of ‘Four Quartets’, is a new beginning.” This affords a convenient review closing curtain.
John Fleming writes radio drama and other fictions and works for The Irish Times as a journalist.