Putting It Together: Geoff Dyer’s Otherwise Known as the Human Condition

March 29, 2011 | 1 book mentioned 5 7 min read

coverGeoff Dyer is very good at being shallow. Like a dragonfly hovering above the surface of a pond, his criticism skims across a subject rather than diving in. Yet not every critic can incite so many ripples with such a light touch, and not every critic can show such tremendous intelligence while leaving things slighted. Dyer launched himself into critical prominence by refusing to order things neatly: Out of Sheer Rage, for example, proved that failing to finish a project could be as entertaining as the project itself. It’s OK not to finish things, or even to master things, Dyer seems to say, so long as you are moved by them. In his introduction to his newest collection of essays, Otherwise Known as the Human Condition, he says that it was exactly the “the unruly range of my concerns” that he wished to see compiled, “as proof of just how thoroughly my career had avoided any focus, specialization, or continuity except that dictated by my desire to write about whatever I happened to be interested in at any given moment.” Dyer finds himself drawn to material in a hodge-podge way, jumping from one subject to another, and gaining a kind of critical breadth along the way. “I came to relish the way that getting interested in one thing led to my becoming very interested in something else—so interested, in fact, that I often lost interest in whatever it was that, a little while previously, had transfixed me utterly. Out of this relay of awakened and abandoned interests a haphazard kind of narrative hopefully emerges in the pages that follow.”

In Dyer’s latest collection, we get to see how Dyer has cultivated that broadly drawn critical life, in pieces published over the last 20 years from publications including Esquire, Granta, The Guardian, and so on. The collection is broken into five parts—Visuals, Verbals, Musicals, Variables, and Personals—and each piece can be read not only as crafted criticism, but also as Dyer’s unexpressed thoughts on the purposes of writing, of creation, and of art. The greatest pleasure one can take away is having Dyer as a fellow audience member—what he occasionally lacks in critical authority, he more than compensates for in critical awareness. It’s freeing to read his perspective, partly because he does not assume himself to be a master artist: like a football star watching ballet, or an actress reading an economist, he can appreciate the work without trying to emulate it. And in each piece he writes, whether examining his susceptibility to a Miroslav Tichý photograph of a woman lounging on a lawn, or first hearing John Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things”, he keeps his experience as a consumer of culture in the forefront of his verdict. He makes himself a critic for the everyman, who when faced with a cultural experience not only asks “Is it good?” but also “Will I enjoy it?”

What Dyer enjoys isn’t so easy to predict. In his “Visuals” works, he can delve into a photograph and find that what engages him is the frippery around its edges, rather than the photograph’s main subject. He writes, “If you look hard enough a photo will always answer your question—even if that answer comes in the form of further questions. Well, whoever, she is, she’s beautiful. Actually, I can’t really tell if that’s true, for the simple reason that I can’t see enough of her face. But she must be beautiful for an equally simple reason: because I’m in love with her.” Dyer doesn’t have to recognize the subject matter to get close to it; on the contrary, the less he knows for certain, the more interesting his impressions of it become. He can relate to what rings true to him: examining a photograph of Robert Capa’s of a soldier and his girl walking home with their bikes in tow, he doesn’t go into a high-falutin’ analysis of war, but instead focuses on the details he can imagine. The landscape. The dust on the tires. What makes the photograph for him makes it for all viewers. “The photograph would be diminished without the bicycle; it would be ruined without her long hair. Her hair says: this is how she was when he left, she has not changed, she has remained true to him.” So much more is going on, according to Dyer, beyond the frame of any given photograph—for all the meanings we bring to viewing, all our lived experience, is just as important as what our eyes capture.

Dyer’s reviews are at their best when they are interdisciplinary, and he’s at his strongest when he doesn’t have much critical background to reference. Though his forté is obviously literature, his reviews tend to rely too heavily on contextualizing the material. Sure, he has the authority to write the stuff, but then he doesn’t have to make the great interpretative leaps and connection of dots that he does in his other essays. He can become wonky, academic, and a little distant from the work. He often makes up for it by treating certain writers as compatriots: when he asks, “Was ever a writer so besotted by failure as F. Scott Fitzgerald?” it feels like a question he’d rhetorically pose at a roast of his good friend Francis. He can take some pleasure not in each work, but in the canon of literature and where he hopes it’s headed (he longs for a boom in literature on boxing, throwing little jabs at how every boxing story stands in Hemingway’s footsteps.) His writing is, throughout, touched with a modesty and humility that serves him well. “Whatever else might be said about my talents as a reader, my ability to quit is undisputed,” he says, in the course of reviewing Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke. “I can give up on any book—and I never for a moment considered abandoning this one, even when it seemed to be going nowhere.” By confessing his own foibles, Dyer paves the way for a compliment that means something—praise in the face of inborn resistance. It is a little too easy to skim over his book reviews, and his likes and dislikes start to insinuate themselves in a slightly irrelevant manner. But he is consistently asking the right questions, of why someone is coming to a particular text, and what their expectations might be. He demands things of himself even in the midst of assessing someone else. With Susan Sontag, he asks “To what extent is it possible to be a great prose writer without being a great writer of fiction?” That question will send him into Sontag’s gifts as a storyteller, but it will also haunt each word he writes. Can a fiction writer be critiqued by anyone but an equal?

In his book reviews, Dyer can afford to act like his subjects’ peer, but in his “Musicals” essays, he turns right back into a fanboy, and the reader can’t help but lap it up. His essay on “My Favorite Things” is epic, gushing, and rhapsodic in ways that only true music fans can be. He falls in love with the vocalist Ramamani and becomes a pseudo-roadie for Def Leppard on tour (nothing less than pure hilarity.) And his essay entitled “Editions of Contemporary Me” should be handed out in freshman year orientation packets, bearing the giant disclaimer “Caution: Your tastes in four years will be dramatically different than they are now.” This essay is Dyer at his best because, ultimately, he’s a critic interested in how taste evolves, making many, many concessions for how one comes to love and hate a piece of art. How you discover things—as he examines in the “Variables”—is as important as what you come to think of them. Dyer sees a homeless man’s daily plight and the story of Vincent and Theo van Gogh as two parts of the same story of the blues—“The message of the blues is simple . . . It cannot heal but it can hold us, can lay a hand around a brother’s shoulder and say: You will find a home, if not in her arms, then here, in these blues.” These variables, too, are where Dyer’s personal opinions seep in—in hoping to escape London, “with its sky of sagging cloud, where all the beautiful women already have boyfriends,” Dyer flees to Algeria in search of Camus’ rhapsodies on poverty and sunlight, and the rain seems to follow him. “Even in Algiers, on this autumn morning, I open the shutters with trepidation and find an allotment sky, a sky catarrhed with cloud. A shadowless day of loitering rain.”

These aren’t quite pieces of cultural criticism, but more like meditations on a life in the midst of culture, and of all the expectations art can saddle us with. Nora Ephron once wrote, “So much of what I see reminds me of something I read in a book, but shouldn’t it be the other way around?” This might be Dyer’s problem, too—when everything you see brings you back to art, it’s hard not to see art everywhere you go. And it’s hard to read his account of flying in a fighter jet without wondering if he was playing Top Gun in his head all the while. Nevertheless, the drama is real, and it emerges in Dyer’s impressionistic essays on the crisp white bathrobes in fancy hotels, or in the stark ghost bicycles peppering busy New York intersections. In his “Personals,” we get tiny glimpses at the developing life of the writer, the little influences along the way—the comics and what they do to adolescent boys; the limitations and freedoms of an only child; and so on. And perhaps Dyer’s true passions were discovered in childhood after all: “I loved arranging my things—whatever they were—and putting them into some kind of order.” Looking back on a photograph of himself on a London roof in the mid-1980s, he says, “it was an idyllic time and—such is the nature of idylls—it is now a vanished time… Destiny, I think, is not what lies in store for you; it’s what is already stored up inside you—and it’s patient as death.” He unpacks his library, his sense of adventure, and eventually, a great and serendipitously discovered love, and we get the sense of a person evolving through exposure to the great wide world.

Is there any truly fair way to review a critic? It seems like trying to see a telescope more clearly by gazing at it through a telescope…or perhaps it’s like the observation made by a prepubescent Sally Draper on this season’s Mad Men, talking about the Land O’Lakes butter box: “That Indian girl, sitting holding a box, and it has a picture of her on it, holding a box, with a picture of her on it, holding a box. Have you ever noticed that?” You can scrutinize each choice until the criticisms are just blobs of words and empty space. But buried somewhere within each well-schooled critic is a hungry cultural neophyte, ready to consume and report on whatever material they can get. Dyer is not so untouchable yet; he can still be moved to enjoy, or disdain, something without prejudgment. And ultimately that’s part of his charm: he can be like his reader, as blank as a slate, and demand that each piece of art freshly persuade him, charm him, move him to give it praise.

has written reviews and commentary for Full Stop, The Rumpus, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Kenyon Review, and Specter Magazine, among others. She lives in Morningside Heights.