Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1755
This is not, as one might suppose, a book for the sedentary bibliophile who would rather read about exercise than engage in physical activity. In fact, this is not a book about yoga at all, nor is this book truly “travel literature,” the category to which it is most usually assigned. Indeed, Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It is an admittedly difficult book to categorize at all. Is it fiction, nonfiction, philosophy, or humor? Are the pieces essays or short stories? Even the author, Geoff Dyer, deliberately blurs generic categories in his introduction: “Everything in this book really happened,” Dyer writes, “but some of the things that happened only happened in my head; by the same token, all things that didn’t happen didn’t happen there too.”
The eleven essays that make up Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It trace Dyer’s journeys from exotic location to exotic location as he attempts to find something, although just what that something is remains elusive. The travels span some twenty years of Dyer’s life, but he seems no closer to finding this special something (or someone) at age forty-four than at age twenty-four. Indeed, if anything, Dyer seems to become more isolated, more detached, and more immobilized with the passage of time. As he writes in the essay “Leptis Magna,” “I saw that I had spent the last fifteen years dragging the same burden of frustrated expectation from one corner of the world to the next. . . . I wished there were someone I could talk to, but as soon as this wish was realized I wished only to be alone.”
In many ways, the title essay is emblematic of the collection as a whole. Dyer writes of his sojourn to the sanctuary on Ko Pha-ngan in Thailand, where he meets a woman named Kate and an assortment of other odd characters, including a handsome man named Troy. Troy tells Dyer that because he wanted to experience mortality, he once drank a bottle of poison. Ironically, although Troy survived the experience, he is unable to remember it. Dyer has a brief affair with Kate before the two go their separate ways. Like the rest of the book, the essay is very funny, particularly Troy’s description of the blisters on his feet as a karmic exit for bad memories. Like the rest of the book, the essay is about drugs, drinking, and dissolution. Like the rest of the book, the essay is sometimes about nothing whatsoever, and it can be very sad. Dyer and Kate leave the island separately, their passionate connection reduced to the brief flickering of an e-mail message.
Dyer is at his best in the essay “Leptis Magna,” the story of his trip to Libya to see Roman ruins on the Mediterranean coast. The opening of the essay is characteristically concerned with the details of his getting to Libya and negotiating the bureaucratic nightmare of the airport and hotel. “By their airports ye shall know them!” Dyer writes, noting the smokiness of the terminal and the surliness of the officials. Checking into the hotel requires filling out “hectares” of paper. In spite of his now-familiar rants and aggravations, however, it becomes clear that Dyer is becoming increasingly unglued. He catches a glimpse of himself in the hotel mirror, and through this clichéd device, he recognizes the part of himself that he had thought to hide: “You will become one . . . of the hundreds of people to whom you paid the bare minimum of attention simply because you did not like the way they looked,” he tells himself. It is as if, in coming to see the ruins at Leptis Magna, he begins to confront the ruin that is his life.
Nevertheless, when Dyer finally, excruciatingly, gets himself to the ruins, the pettiness and minutia of life seem to fall away. “Ruins—antique ruins at least—are what is left when history has moved on. They are no longer at the mercy of history, only of time,” he muses as he tries to make sense of the experience. Even time, however, falls away as Dyer observes the sharp edge between a ruined column and the sky, the “absolute separation between the timeless man-made and the eternal.” Dyer realizes in the closing lines of the essay that from the “point of view of sea and sky—Leptis was still in the early stages of a career of ruination which would end ultimately as desert, when the horizon would be undisturbed by any vestige of the vertical: the final triumph of space over time.”
The author further chronicles his descent into depression and breakdown in the essay “The Rain Inside.” He decides that he wants to live in Detroit in order to write a book about classical Roman ruins. There, he instead finds himself unable to focus or concentrate. He suddenly realizes that he is the one in ruins. His description of this moment is both powerful and true: “I realized that . . . I had been in the midst of an ongoing nervous breakdown without even being aware of it, that I had, in fact, gone to pieces. I mean that as literally as possible. Everything had become scattered, fragmented.” Characteristically, however, he moves from a compelling two-page description of what it feels like to be in the midst of such a breakdown to a multi-page description of his reaction to losing his sunglasses.
Although a much more hip and edgy essay than those mentioned previously, “Skunk” seems overall to be one of the less successful articles in the book. Dyer is in Paris in April of 1999, working on a book about walks to take in that city. Through mutual friends, he meets an attractive woman, Marie, who agrees to accompany him on a walk the next day. Over coffee, Dyer tells Marie that it would help his walk if he were stoned, and he invites her to share a pipe with him. The next pages describe their attempts to find a place to get high on “skunk,” very strong marijuana. Although Marie tells Dyer that marijuana has never had any effect on her, the skunk affects her negatively. For the rest of the essay, she is in the grips of a drug-induced paranoia; she is particularly afraid that Dyer is writing about her, not the walk. “Skunk is like that,” Dyer tells the reader, “it takes the normal dope smoker’s paranoia and raises it to a level of reeling expressionist insight.” At one point, Marie attempts to cross out her name and phone number from Dyer’s book: “Unfortunately the pen had run out of ink . . . and so she began using it as a chisel, gashing out parts of that page and the three or four underneath.”
Marie’s dread is palpable throughout the essay. After she leaves, Dyer begins making notes to himself about what Marie said and did “in case one day I wanted to use what happened in a novel or a story.” The essay in front of the reader is the clear proof that he has done just that—and that Marie’s paranoia was therefore justified. While the essay has some very funny moments, readers might feel some discomfort in Dyer’s lack of sympathy for his subject.
Set in Amsterdam, “Hotel Oblivion” is another article that depends on drug use for its most comical moments. After tromping around in a rainstorm under the influence of psychedelic mushrooms with his friends Dazed and Dave, Dyer decides to change into dry pants in the washroom of a restaurant. He has a difficult time with this simple task, first putting back on the wet pair he had just taken off, and then putting on the dry pair inside out. Later, the friends are unable to recognize their hotel and wander around the city looking for it. They still think they are in the wrong hotel when Dave tries his key in a door, only to discover that they are, indeed, in the right hotel (or at least, that the key works).
Certainly, there is a long history of humor connected to alcohol and drug use; many comedians have built whole careers on their depictions of drunk or stoned individuals. Readers who enjoy this kind of humor will find “Skunk” and “Hotel Oblivion” shatteringly funny. What ultimately renders these essays less than satisfying, however, is Dyer’s lack of connection to the city he is in, the people he is with, and the writer he has become.
The last essay in the collection, “The Zone,” is the story of Dyer’s trip to Black Rock City, Nevada, to participate in the Burning Man celebration. The trip pushes Dyer to consider his life and his travels and to find himself once more in what he calls “the Zone.” He writes that watching the Burning Man was “one of those moments that make your whole life seem worthwhile because it has led to this, to this moment.” Nevertheless, nearly by definition, the Zone is not something one can stay in for any length of time; as soon as one is aware of being in such a state, it immediately evaporates. Consequently, the closing lines of this essay seem to offer both hope and despair for the quester looking for transcendence: “Just before the Man was completely engulfed in flame, one of his knees gave way. He lurched forward and it looked, for a moment, as if he were about to step clear of the fire that defined and claimed him.”
Dyer’s books, including this one, have been consistently well reviewed and have won the writer several prestigious awards. He has also attracted the praise and support of a number of influential readers and critics, including actor, writer, and comedian Steve Martin, who called Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It a “funny . . . readable . . . clear and wonderful” book. Certainly, Dyer offers moments of brilliance in these essays, moments of rare insight and beautiful language. However, the reader who finds drug humor offensive, and self-absorption tiring, might do well to avoid this particular example of Dyer’s work.
Booklist 99, nos. 9/10 (January 1-15, 2003): 837.
Kirkus Reviews 70, no. 22 (November 15, 2002): 1670-1671.
Library Journal 128, no. 3 (February 15, 2003): 160.
New Statesman 132, no. 4634 (April 21, 2003): 53.
The New York Times, January 24, 2003, p. E46.
The New York Times Book Review, January 12, 2003, p. 7.
The New Yorker 78, no. 45 (February 3, 2003): 87.
Publishers Weekly 249, no. 45 (November 11, 2002): 49.
San Francisco Chronicle, February 15, 2003, p. D1.
The Times Literary Supplement, May 2, 2003, p. 31.
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