The Last Days of Roger Federer: And Other Endings, by Geoff Dyer

Review by George Yatchisin

Some lines from Robert Christgau about Lloyd Cole have always stuck with me: “So what if he can’t stop talking about books and movies and gathers his material on day trips from his walkup flat? Does that make him so different from you?” I was reminded of those lines while reading Geoff Dyer’s The Last Days of Roger Federer (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), as it’s a book replete with ruminations about books, movies, art, music, drugs, and, yes, tennis, thematically tied by the biggest baddie of all—death. Or, as Dyer puts it, “quitting,” but that simple word can mean so many things.

Now, if my first sentence, dropping in both a rock critic who himself is famous for his often cryptic, ever epigrammatic reviews and a semi-obscure musician (his best known tune, “Are You Ready to be Heartbroken?” might be the most famous because Camera Obscura wrote the answer song, “Lloyd, I’m Ready to be Heartbroken”) was off-putting, this Dyer book might not be for you. For that’s often his method, allusive to the point it’s easy to feel you need an auxiliary reading list to school yourself to read The Last Days and be fully rewarded. The odds are good you won’t have enough days to accomplish your assignment.

It’s not like Dyer doesn’t know he’s throwing us into the deep end of the philosophical pool, for late in the book he offers an apt precis of his methods, while, of course quoting Kundera, who is contemplating both Beethoven and Nietzsche. For Kundera (and therefore Dyer), form must become “‘radically individual’” to the point “‘the composition itself should be an invention, an invention that engages all the author’s originality.’”

The Last Days of Roger Federer offers a truly unique structure—its three sections of sometimes short 60 chapters comes in at 84,600 words—that is, one word for each second of one day. (In interviews Dyer admits how painstaking the final edits had to be to keep that exact number.) That a book so time obsessed runs on a clock is particularly fitting. Dyer himself refers his “meandering milk train of a narrative,” but even that milk train has to run on time. As do we all.

So even at its often allusive remove, the book pulls none of its poignant punches, as not only death awaits, but whatever pre-death might be, or when that might be. While Dyer doesn’t quote Robert Hass, it’s hard not to conjure up his famous lines, “All the new thinking is about loss. In this it resembles all the old thinking.” Federer, certainly in running as male tennis’s GOAT (Nadal or Djokovic or someone not even on the tournament yet notwithstanding), has even announced his retirement since the book’s publication. At 41 one assumes he has much life left, but a book like Dyer’s makes one wonder what life beyond one’s “ending” can mean. For at one point Dyer offers this stinging Cyril Connolly quote, “Whom the gods wish to destroy they first call promising.”

Of course, now that’s he’s over 60 and has nearly 20 books to his name, Dyer himself has more than delivered on his promise. He might not be as happy about his own tennis talent, especially as the book amusingly adds up his physical maladies (he musically describes his lower back pain “as if I were either as brittle as glass or locked in concrete, sometimes both at the same time”), and how each ache takes longer to recuperate from. He wisely buoys us with memoir when the book gets a bit too into the weeds with Nietzsche’s Eternal Recurrence or Pharoah Sanders’ late-life lock in free jazz he at that point ironically plays by rote; turns out a detailed trip to a sensuously described Burning Man is all we need. Think of the book as a well-segued radio show beamed directly from Dyer’s brain. He’s smarter than you, but he never rubs your nose in it. He asks at the end of the first section, “Wouldn’t it be marvelous if it were possible to be a serious writer without taking oneself at all seriously? … I mean while doing the actual work.” If anyone pulls this task off, he does.

Partially because his wit can leave you aghast with laughter, from when he calls The Sound and the Fury “absolute doddle” to when he kicks off a section with the preceptive, “At any poetry reading, however enjoyable, the words we most look forward to hearing are always the same: ‘I’ll read two more poems.’ (The words we truly long for are ‘I’ll read one more poem,’ but two seems to be the conventionally agreed minimum.)” One might care to fight for Faulkner’s honor, but who hasn’t been at that poetry reading (beyond the 90% of the population who has never been to a single one, of course)? So when he asks, “Could it be that our deepest desire is for everything to be over with?” you can’t help but nod in agreement several sentences later: “How we love the idea of the last.”

Once we’re past our collegiate studies, the desire, or the impetus forced by knowing it’s going to be on the test, means it’s unlikely most of us read philosophy. Until we pick up something like The Last Days, and get to a line like, “The fact that things fall apart does not mean that they can’t keep going,” a zipping cue blasting all the other balls of thought apart. There goes Chinua Achebe, Jerry Harrison, a consideration of why Dyer uses a contraction only the second time that he could, and oh yeah, lots of thinking about all the overs we must survive before the actual end. (Let’s not miss the pun in the author’s name, by the way.)

As failed as the Modernist project was (how shiny the future seemed pre-Holocaust and atom bomb), it’s hard to avoid Ezra Pound’s exhortation make it new. It’s quicky understandable to see why Dyer at one point calls the Biographical Dictionary of Film, written and revised every few years by fellow British ex-pat now living in California David Thomson, “the greatest literary achievement of our time, …an autobiography in form of a reference book, a guide to its own composition and revision.” Dyer particularly praises an entry about a friend of Thomson’s who cemented his love for film, gave him the origin of his book project, and sadly dies. Dyer writes, “I know of no more moving moment in literature.”

Dyer also attempts to move us, and not just as readers, by not revealing the person’s name, writing, “I want you to come across it not be directed to it.” That’s yet another way to think of Dyer’s own genre-busting, brain-bending book.