Once a cultural critic attains a certain cachet, saidcritic is entitled to a fat omnibus volume collecting sundry works to date. It’sa 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 hiscollected criticism, Otherwise Known asthe Human Condition, a full decade after a similar collection waspublished in the U.K. The book collects over 400 pages of writing onphotography, great literature, jazz, rock’n'roll, boxing, the French, “reader’sblock,” wasting one’s gap year, and, of course, Dyer himself. The maincriteria for inclusion seems to be only if Dyer could focus his legendarilyshort attention span on a subject long enough to write about it well.
One of Dyer’s strengths as a critic is to exude anhonesty that inspires confidence. So it is that he begins Otherwise Known by immediately admitting that these omnibuscollections have something intrinsically spurious about them: “This kindof 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, confidingthat he has long aspired toward one of these fat, stately volumes, wanting itever since he began publishing. His preference comes from his own experience: “IfI see a piece by a writer I admire in a paper I very rarely read it,” hesays, instead waiting to read it in a book of collected writings. Not onlythat, but the form of the omnibus volume fits his aesthetic perfectly: “Itwas, precisely, the unruly range of my concerns that I was keen to seerepresented in a single volume.”
Anyone who knows Dyer’s genre-defying, promiscuous worksof 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 likeDyer dispatching so many pieces on such wide-ranging topics to such diversecorners of the Internet, who can keep up? A collected works begins to like asupremely sedate, sensible way to go.
But it must be said that, as good and reasonable asthis all sounds, one never quite loses the suspicion that Dyer was chuckling tohimself as he wrote his introduction, or most of the pieces that follow. Andthis is a grand part of Dyer’s charm. Great criticism, after all, is greatstorytelling, and the tension of letting Dyer act as our unreliable criticalnarrator 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 thesensation 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’steasing out precisely what fascinates him about something. Take the Czechphotographer Miroslav Tichý, who comes across something like an id with abusted-up camera that just clawed its way out of the local asylum. Tichý, Dyerexplains, has but one subject—women—and he usually shoots them stalker-likewhile 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 thatTichý also tends to use them as coasters for his beverages). Dyer makes nobones about the fact that Tichý is one creepy guy, yet it is equally undeniablethat Tichý is a hugely intriguing, talented artist. Dyer’s strength as a criticis in his ability to turn all of these smudges on his record into sources offascination—to use them to build Tichý into a compelling, idiosyncratic artistin a way that does not feel the least bit contrived.
One feels very strongly that the same principle isat work wherever Dyer’s fascination is palpable—be it about the Mexicandisaster photographer Enrique Metinides, the Robert Capa photo Dyer loves morethan any other, the links between the misanthropic Austrian novelist ThomasBernhard and the lauded German writer W. G. Sebald, or the way memory operatesin the French village Oradour-sur-Glane, the site of an atrocious massacreduring World War II. When he’s on his mark, Dyer shows himself capable oftalking engagingly about virtually anything, just so long as it evokes thatfascination in him. By contrast, in the few essays in this extremely solidcollection that fail to come across, Dyer gives the distinct impression of notbeing interested. In his lackluster piece on the rock group Def Leppard, forexample, we can feel Dyer’s boredom with the band, and he abandons themaltogether for a tantalizing, but half-cocked, thesis about transnationalspaces (e.g. airports, train interiors) in the postmodern era.
It is quite clear that what fascinates Dyer most ofall are those things that are not given enough attention, whether it is aforgotten artist like Tichý or an ignored work by a well-known individual. Onthe latter score Dyer gives an amazing reading of John Cheever’s journals,making the case that in the journals the nominally tidy short story writercomes into his true prodigious, baroque self. The journals are his “bestwriting,” claims Dyer, derived “ultimately from a sustainedforty-year word binge with no thought of form.” Likewise, Dyer makes overthe staid image of Ian McEwan, arguing he is “a thoroughly traditionaloriginal . . . the more disturbing or skewed [the] reality . . . the morefinely McEwan tunes his readers to it.” In the four pages that follow thisremarkable declaration Dyer offers a precise, lucid explanation of just howMcEwan creates such a reality in Atonement before concluding with the suggestion that McEwanhas continued the work of the great British modernist writers by bringing theirintense exploration of consciousness into “the larger march oftwentieth-century history.”
And that, in a nutshell, is what makes Otherwise Known as the Human Conditionsuch a great read. Again and again, Dyer pairs an uncommonly precisedescription of what a particular artist does with an equally compelling,unexpected reason for why it is important. There are few more valuable thingsthat a critic can accomplish in a review (that is, if the artist’s worksupports such an inquiry), and Dyer’s mastery of them is a testament to hisachievement.
Yet it would not be correct to give the impressionthat this is all that Dyer does in this volume—it is only what he does mostoften. The offerings range from reviews to personal essays to quasi-academicwriting (though not dull in the least) to what has been called “creativecriticism”—critical responses to works of art that are so original andcompelling that they become works of art in themselves. There are, inevitably,some missteps along the way. I disagree vehemently with Dyer’s assertion in “TheMoral Art of War” that nonfiction journalism is replacing the novel; andwhether or not you agree, it is quite certainly one of the least-convincinglyargued theses in the book. Likewise, Dyer’s writing on music in this volumesimply does not sound as convincing, nor as insightful, as his writing on othersubjects.
On the whole, however, this is an amazinglysuccessful volume. Whether you read it to see the intellectual development ofone of the most interesting critics currently working in English, or to see “aglimpse of a…way of being a late-twentieth-early-twenty-first-century manof letters” (as Dyer puts it), or simply to have your mind pleasantlysmacked around a bit, Otherwise Known asthe Human Condition is remarkably satisfying. It has already inspired me toseek out many new artists I never knew of and to revisit many I thought I didknow—when a critic does that, the mark has been hit.