Geoff Dyer, The Last Days of Roger Federer and Other Endings (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), 304pp. Hardback, $28.00.

When Geoff Dyer’s new book first become available back in May, one passage quickly went viral. The 64-year-old essayist had turned his thoughts to the topic of “giving up on reading books,” a habit that he suggests becomes stronger with age. “What is the ratio of books that had seemed impregnable when young but that opened up to you later compared with those that you could somehow have got through when young but that become impossible later? About one to five, I suspect.” Among the books that Dyer proudly admits to being unable to finish are Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov (1880; translated into English in 1912); James’s The Ambassadors (1903); Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury (1929); and Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (1939).

A pretty arrogant move—to dismiss such esteemed classics as not being worth the effort. And a move perhaps, that is available to an older established writer but not to the young up-and-comer, certainly not to the student. (Also worth noting is the fact that Dyer’s dismissiveness seems especially reserved for early twentieth-century modernist novels; Robert Musil’s 1943 The Man without Qualities is another title on his list of unreadables.)

Is there such a thing as geriatric literature? Is that what Dyer is after?

But this is more or less Dyer’s point—that the novel is a different phenomenon for an older reader. Dostoevsky, Dyer suggests, was not a bad novelist, but his works are for a more youthful readership: “The best time to read him seems to be when you’re in your late teens, while your taste is in the process of being formed—by the experience of reading writers like Dostoevsky. (We talk of growing out of certain writers and books—The Catcher in the Rye or Catch-22—but perhaps they record, like height marks on the door frame in a childhood home, how far they’ve helped us grow beyond ourselves.)” Dyer simply no longer belongs to the target demographic for Dostoevsky (though this argument is less convincing for late James). We all know that there is such a thing as juvenile (or “young adult”) literature. Is there such a thing as geriatric literature? Is that what Dyer is after?

The Last Days of Roger Federer isn’t just about reading books. It’s not really about Roger Federer, either, though it has a lot to say about tennis. Dyer’s new book is about last days, last things. To be clear: this is not another apocalyptic, end-of-the-world screed about global warming or fascist politics. Dyer cares instead about personal endings—retirements, leavings, closings, final bows. Quittings.

A famous athlete—especially a solo sports star, a tennis player like Federer or Serena Williams—will often get to choose the moment that he or she retires from the game, adding heightened intensity to a final match played, perhaps, a bit past one’s prime. But artists, musicians, and writers—like Dyer—typically stick to their craft until death. Obviously there are exceptions—from Rimbaud’s abandonment of poetry at the age of nineteen to Roth’s announced retirement (“I’m done”) from novel-writing at the age of seventy-nine. (For more examples of artistic quitting, see Ross Posnock’s marvelous 2016 book Renunciation.) Yet, in Dyer’s opinion, this makes finality all the more interesting. What would it mean to know that your are working on your last project?

It’s hard not to presume that the 64-year-old Dyer might be announcing his own last days, though he is quick to assert that he still has more writing to do. (He suggests that he is in the penultimate stage of his life, uncertain about what the final stage will be.) In any case, he is clearly less interested in late style (the career twilight inevitably descending upon the elderly) than in last things, which can only be known with certainty after the fact. The recognition of lastness is ascertained through hindsight—“that was it”; it cannot be established in advance.

Dyer’s own thoughts on getting old are still featured here, however, spurred on by changes in literary taste but also by sports injuries and the diminishing appeal of drugs. A devotee of Burning Man in northern Nevada, Dyer suggests that he has aged out of the annual festival. Smoking pot was once “a joy, enhancing every aspect of my life, including work,” but “that’s all in the past now. I just don’t like marijuana anymore,” he explains. One could argue that Burning Man and cannabis have changed over time, but Dyer knows that the real change is personal. He just can’t get what he used to out of these materials.

Like a large geometrical petroglyph mysteriously glowing in the desert, Dyer’s book features a structure that becomes more impressive as one is drawn into it. The Last Days consists of three main essays composed of 60 sections each (for a total of 180 mini-essays). Dyer informs us at the end that the book’s overall word count (excluding notes) is exactly 86,400—the same as the number of seconds in a 24-hour day. The book itself is therefore a kind of “last day,” a circadian elegy rather than a set of Montaignian trials or attempts.

In Dyer’s own words, this book is “about a congeries of experiences, things, and cultural artefacts that, for various reasons, have come to group themselves around me in a rough constellation during a phase in my life.” The big theme is “giving up,” but the stars in the sky are a host of famous figures. Nietzsche (with his circular “eternal return”) perhaps looms largest, though Beethoven and Federer are also significant luminaries. We are treated to quotations from a wide range of writers, from Martin Amis to Adam Zagajewski; at least four different Powells receive mention (Anthony, Michael, Mark, Enoch). Dyer, of course, is the central presence, the operator of the astrolabe. He employs these other figures in an attempt to strip away the celestial lyricism and find a deeper truth about aging.

Fans of Dyer’s characteristic wit may be disappointed to find a less quotable prose on display here in. The style is toned down, more relaxed. Jason Christian, reviewing the book for LARB, slyly suggested that, not unlike the modernist classics Dyer finds unreadable, Last Days was itself difficult to finish. Nevertheless, writes Christian, “I persevered and recalibrated my expectations. In the end, I leaned into its deliberate tedium.”

That may seem like a harsh condemnation, but Dyer admits to being after such a new effect. “It’s funny,” he said in an interview, “with a ninety-minute soccer game, I’m pretty happy with the highlights. But weirdly, tennis, I find, doesn’t lend itself that well to highlights.” Similarly, The Last Days of Roger Federer and Other Endings doesn’t lend itself to the book-review highlight reel. Instead of periodically pausing for a trenchant observation, Dyer keeps moving, stringing along the impressions from one to the next, a rally rather than an ace. You can’t just read a piece; you have to finish it.

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