Book Review: ‘Otherwise Known as the Human Condition’ by Geoff Dyer
Otherwise Known as the Human Condition
Selected Essays and Reviews
Graywolf: 422 pp., $18 paper
“Almost as soon as I began writing for magazines and newspapers,” Geoff Dyer tells us in the introduction to “Otherwise Known as the Human Condition: Selected Essays and Reviews,” “I hoped one day to see my articles published in book form.” This is both obvious (what writer doesn’t want to see his or her short pieces collected?) and revelatory. Such a collection is generally regarded as a sideline effort at best, and yet, the argument here goes, that’s completely wrong.
“A distinction is often made,” Dyer notes, “between writers’ own work — which they do for themselves — and the stuff they do for money.... [M]y case is rather different. Most of the journalism I do is as much my own writing as, well, my own writing.” To which I say finally we have a manifesto for the occasional writer, in which the short piece — the review, the note, the observation — gets its due. Make no mistake, this is an aesthetic statement, and with “Otherwise Known as the Human Condition,” Dyer lays out a quiet kind of writerly revolution, in which “the late-twentieth-early-twenty-first-century man of letters” might best be described as a literary gadfly, unbound by genre or a reader’s expectations, writing about anything that comes to mind.
Dyer has staked out such a territory from the beginning, or the near beginning, of his career. Born in Cheltenham, England, educated at Oxford, he wrote an early novel and a study of John Berger, but found his voice with the 1991 book “But Beautiful” (published in the U.S. in 1996), an impressionistic paean to Lester Young, Bud Powell, Duke Ellington and other jazz musicians, filtered through photographs, recollections and Dyer’s sense of the music as a spiritual force. His nonfiction follow-up, “Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling With D.H. Lawrence,” is a masterpiece: a book undertaken (at least in part) to avoid writing another book, which leads the author to meditate not just on Lawrence but also on reading, writing and evasion — and as such on himself.
This is the essential tension in Dyer’s writing; he is always present, a defining intelligence, a tour guide to the inner life. And yet if this risks seeming self-indulgent, that to Dyer is part of the challenge, part of the point. "[I]t’s not what you know that’s important; it’s what your passion gives you the potential to discover,” he writes in “My Life as a Gate-Crasher,” an essay that explores his methodology before returning to a familiar touchstone. "[T]he writer’s self-sufficient — and therefore ideal — status,” Dyer notes, “is expressed with sad and beautiful pride by Lawrence: ‘I am no more than a single human man wandering my lonely way across these years.’”
This idea of touchstones is essential to “Otherwise Known as the Human Condition” — throughout the book, certain names pop up again and again. There is Berger, whom Dyer calls a mentor, and whose “ability to write on so many different subjects in so many different ways was an indication not only of his ability but also of his success as a writer”; there is Don DeLillo, Rebecca West, Garry Winogrand, Richard Misrach, William Gedney. The last three are photographers, and their presence highlights both Dyer’s range and the coherence of his point of view. Like Berger, he is willfully eclectic, opening the book with 19 essays on photography, moving to literature and music, and then less classifiable pieces: journalism and “Personals.” Yet like Berger also, this heterogeneity adds up to a wider outlook on the world.
In “The Moral Art of War,” he examines several books about Iraq and Afghanistan, asking and answering the question of why the wars there seem most fluently explored in nonfiction. “Just as characters interconnect with each other within a novel,” he writes, addressing works by Dexter Filkins, Jon Krakauer, Evan Wright and David Finkel, “so these nonfiction books and real-life characters interconnect with and segue into each other to form an epic, ongoing, multi-volume work in progress. The names of this constantly revised, unfinishable book, I guess, will eventually be History.” Something similar could be said of Dyer’s collection, which folds in upon itself in unexpected ways. He concludes “The Moral Art of War” with a consideration of “the twilight of the photographer as novelist,” evoking Robert Capa, at the center of one of the early essays in the book.
This may seem a stretch, but that’s Dyer’s intention, to suggest that, in a culture where “anyone with a free hand and some kind of image gadget” can become a photographer, the image has lost its moral, or written, voice. As to what this has to do with literature, Dyer explains it all concisely: “We are moving beyond the nonfiction novel to different kinds of narrative art, different forms of cognition.” Modernity, in other words — or, at this point, post-modernity — can’t help but change us all.
Nowhere is this more effectively expressed than in Dyer’s consideration of the art of writing, which keeps coming back to the “tendency to dispersal” he invokes at the start of the book. His heroes are similarly distracted: West, whose best work “is scattered among reportage, journalism, and travel — the kind of things traditionally regarded as sidelines or distractions,” or Susan Sontag, of whom he asks, “To what extent is it possible to be a great prose writer without being a great writer of fiction?”
The idea, that literature is an art of accretion, is not just inescapable but overdue in an era when we ourselves have grown decentered. But Dyer is not contesting meaning, just received meaning — aesthetic doctrine, as it were. His take on John Cheever offers an evocative illustration, with its declaration (correct, I believe) that the author’s “greatest achievement, his principal claim to literary survival,” is his journals and not his fiction. Why? For Dyer, it’s all about whatever gets us closest to the truth. Although he admires Cheever’s stories, there are too many smooth surfaces. "[T]he shaping demands of the short story,” he writes, “his acquired habits of fictive resolution … worked against his being able to plumb the complex depths of his being. Only in the shapeless privacy of his journal could he do that.”
Here again, we see Dyer’s argument: that what’s important is not form but expression, that what we say, rather than how we say it, lingers in the end. It reminds me of Raymond Chandler’s comment in “The Simple Art of Murder” that "[t]here are not vital and significant forms of art; there is only art, and precious little of that.” Even more, it suggests the quote from Cheever’s journals with which Dyer closes his piece.
“To write about the foolish agonies of anxiety,” Cheever writes, “the refreshment of our strength when these are ended; to write about our painful search for self, jeopardized by a stranger in the post office, a half-seen face in a train window; to write about the contents and populations of our dreams, about love and death, good and evil, the end of the world.” For anyone who’s forgotten that criticism, that occasional writing, could explore such issues, “Otherwise Know as the Human Condition” is a call to think again.
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