Otherwise Known as the Human Condition

Once a cultural critic attains a certain cachet, said critic is entitled to a fat omnibus volume collecting sundry works to date. It's a sign of British writer Geoff Dyer's increasing recognition by the U.S. mainstream that our market has now decided it can support a volume of his collected criticism, Otherwise Known as the Human Condition, a full decade after a similar collection was published in the U.K. The book collects over 400 pages of writing on photography, great literature, jazz, rock'n'roll, boxing, the French, "reader's block," wasting one's gap year, and, of course, Dyer himself. The main criteria for inclusion seems to be only if Dyer could focus his legendarily short attention span on a subject long enough to write about it well.


One of Dyer's strengths as a critic is to exude an honesty that inspires confidence. So it is that he begins Otherwise Known by immediately admitting that these omnibus collections have something intrinsically spurious about them: "This kind of put-together is considered a pretty low form of book, barely a book at all." Yet that admission is barely made before Dyer flips it on its back, confiding that he has long aspired toward one of these fat, stately volumes, wanting it ever since he began publishing. His preference comes from his own experience: "If I see a piece by a writer I admire in a paper I very rarely read it," he says, instead waiting to read it in a book of collected writings. Not only that, but the form of the omnibus volume fits his aesthetic perfectly: "It was, precisely, the unruly range of my concerns that I was keen to see represented in a single volume."


Anyone who knows Dyer's genre-defying, promiscuous works of nonfiction will understand his affection for an unruly range of concerns; moreover, in a digital age there's a clear logic to this. With a critic like Dyer dispatching so many pieces on such wide-ranging topics to such diverse corners of the Internet, who can keep up? A collected works begins to like a supremely sedate, sensible way to go.


But it must be said that, as good and reasonable as this all sounds, one never quite loses the suspicion that Dyer was chuckling to himself as he wrote his introduction, or most of the pieces that follow. And this is a grand part of Dyer's charm. Great criticism, after all, is great storytelling, and the tension of letting Dyer act as our unreliable critical narrator is what makes one long to follow him through one improvisatory, brilliant reading after another. The Dyer seen here is a fast-talking polymath, a man building aesthetic edifices out of air while never quite shaking the sensation that he's only one step ahead of us.


Which is to say that in Otherwise Known as the Human Condition Dyer is at his best when he's teasing out precisely what fascinates him about something. Take the Czech photographer Miroslav Tichý, who comes across something like an id with a busted-up camera that just clawed its way out of the local asylum. Tichý, Dyer explains, has but one subject—women—and he usually shoots them stalker-like while they're sunbathing, unaware of his presence. By Dyer's own admission, Tichý "spent the 1960s and '70s perving around Kyjov, photographing women," making images with a host of technical issues (to say nothing of the fact that Tichý also tends to use them as coasters for his beverages). Dyer makes no bones about the fact that Tichý is one creepy guy, yet it is equally undeniable that Tichý is a hugely intriguing, talented artist. Dyer's strength as a critic is in his ability to turn all of these smudges on his record into sources of fascination—to use them to build Tichý into a compelling, idiosyncratic artist in a way that does not feel the least bit contrived.


One feels very strongly that the same principle is at work wherever Dyer's fascination is palpable—be it about the Mexican disaster photographer Enrique Metinides, the Robert Capa photo Dyer loves more than any other, the links between the misanthropic Austrian novelist Thomas Bernhard and the lauded German writer W. G. Sebald, or the way memory operates in the French village Oradour-sur-Glane, the site of an atrocious massacre during World War II. When he's on his mark, Dyer shows himself capable of talking engagingly about virtually anything, just so long as it evokes that fascination in him. By contrast, in the few essays in this extremely solid collection that fail to come across, Dyer gives the distinct impression of not being interested. In his lackluster piece on the rock group Def Leppard, for example, we can feel Dyer's boredom with the band, and he abandons them altogether for a tantalizing, but half-cocked, thesis about transnational spaces (e.g. airports, train interiors) in the postmodern era.


It is quite clear that what fascinates Dyer most of all are those things that are not given enough attention, whether it is a forgotten artist like Tichý or an ignored work by a well-known individual. On the latter score Dyer gives an amazing reading of John Cheever's journals, making the case that in the journals the nominally tidy short story writer comes into his true prodigious, baroque self. The journals are his "best writing," claims Dyer, derived "ultimately from a sustained forty-year word binge with no thought of form." Likewise, Dyer makes over the staid image of Ian McEwan, arguing he is "a thoroughly traditional original . . . the more disturbing or skewed [the] reality . . . the more finely McEwan tunes his readers to it." In the four pages that follow this remarkable declaration Dyer offers a precise, lucid explanation of just how McEwan creates such a reality in Atonement before concluding with the suggestion that McEwan has continued the work of the great British modernist writers by bringing their intense exploration of consciousness into "the larger march of twentieth-century history."


And that, in a nutshell, is what makes Otherwise Known as the Human Condition such a great read. Again and again, Dyer pairs an uncommonly precise description of what a particular artist does with an equally compelling, unexpected reason for why it is important. There are few more valuable things that a critic can accomplish in a review (that is, if the artist's work supports such an inquiry), and Dyer's mastery of them is a testament to his achievement.


Yet it would not be correct to give the impression that this is all that Dyer does in this volume—it is only what he does most often. The offerings range from reviews to personal essays to quasi-academic writing (though not dull in the least) to what has been called "creative criticism"—critical responses to works of art that are so original and compelling that they become works of art in themselves. There are, inevitably, some missteps along the way. I disagree vehemently with Dyer's assertion in "The Moral Art of War" that nonfiction journalism is replacing the novel; and whether or not you agree, it is quite certainly one of the least-convincingly argued theses in the book. Likewise, Dyer's writing on music in this volume simply does not sound as convincing, nor as insightful, as his writing on other subjects.


On the whole, however, this is an amazingly successful volume. Whether you read it to see the intellectual development of one of the most interesting critics currently working in English, or to see "a glimpse of a...way of being a late-twentieth-early-twenty-first-century man of letters" (as Dyer puts it), or simply to have your mind pleasantly smacked around a bit, Otherwise Known as the Human Condition is remarkably satisfying. It has already inspired me to seek out many new artists I never knew of and to revisit many I thought I did know—when a critic does that, the mark has been hit.

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