Otherwise Known as the Human Condition

By Geoff Dyer


Graywolf Press
March 2011

Reviewed by Johannes Lichtman


In Leonard Michaels' cross-genre masterpiece, Shuffle, Michaels claims that "Talking about literature is like talking about yourself." I have always been drawn to critics and writers who push it a step further—from the figurative to the literal—and embrace the idea that talking about literature is talking about yourself. These are the authors who let me read literary criticism—which, I am somewhat ashamed to admit, I can rarely stand on its own—wrapped inside a sweeter, tastier nugget of narrative or memoir.       

Geoff Dyer's latest collection of essays, Otherwise Known As the Human Condition, mixes the personal with the subject, but the topics are somewhat cordoned into five sections: "Visuals" (photography and art), "Verbals" (literature), "Musicals" (music), "Variables" (miscellany like fashion, massacres, hotel sex, and traveling to the birthplace of Camus), and "Personals" (memoir). The categories bleed into one another from time to time, but as the book consists of 63 occasional pieces on a wide variety of subjects (Dyer recently told an interviewer, "I'll give you ten dollars if you can tell me what a Geoff Dyer subject is"), the collection does not function in the same circling, analytical mode that delighted and/or infuriated readers of Out of Sheer Rage, Dyer's brilliant study of D. H. Lawrence.

Unfortunately, the sharpest dichotomy of the personal and the critical can be found in the "Readings" section of Human Condition; I say unfortunately only because Dyer has such great things to say about the intersection of literature and his life. But though disappointing, this separation of life and lit is very understandable: Many of the pieces included in the "Readings" section were either short newspaper reviews, or essays first commissioned by publishers for introductions to reprints of classic books. Penguin Modern Classics probably would not have been very pleased to see Dyer bitching about the hardness of his hotel pillow—as he does hilariously in a later essay about a Def Leppard concert in South Korea—in the introduction to The Beautiful and the Damned. The one exception to the separation of life and lit is Dyer's essay on Tender is the Night, which contains a footnote one should never read in a Geoff Dyer book: "This piece was commissioned by The American Scholar…They responded to the draft by asking if I could make it more personal, so some of what's here is me being obedient, not self-indulgent!" The result, as could be expected, is a stilted, inorganic piece of writing in which the writer tries to force the union of memoir and criticism. Dyer's straightforward study of The Beautiful and the Damned is far more successful.

Dyer's encyclopedic knowledge of literature and his uncanny ability to find unexpected connections make his literary criticism quite satisfying on its own. In one of the strongest pieces of the section, an introduction to The Journals of John Cheever, Dyer relates how, "The reflection in 'The Death of Justina' (1960) about how the soul might not leave the body but 'lingers with it through every degrading stage of decomposition and neglect' is there, almost word for word, in a journal entry from the previous year." Not only does Dyer have a knack for juxtaposing Cheever's fiction and journals, but he also pulls in the journals of Kafka, Charles Isherwood, the Goncourt brothers, and most effectively, Kierkegaard, to give a panoramic view not just of Cheever, but of the act of confession:

a quotation from Kierkegaard's Journal entry of 1836: "I have just returned from a party of which I was the life and soul; wit poured from my lips, everyone laughed and admired me—but I went away—and the dash should be as long as the earth's orbit---------------------------------------------------and wanted to shoot myself."

The Kierkegaard quote epitomizes The Journals of John Cheever better than any passage from the journals themselves.

Dyer also has a real knack for pointing out what is great about something while simultaneously critiquing its flaws: On his strange unwillingness to give up on Denis Johnson's Tree of Smoke, despite it being "stuck in a quagmire of incantatory banality" in which "the story had disappeared like a path overrun by vegetation," Dyer writes, "It is as if [Johnson's] skewed relationship to the sentence—not really knowing what one is and yet knowing exactly what to do with it—operates, here, at the level of structure."

The separation of subject and self that dominates the literary section Human Condition is pleasantly absent in the other sections. In one of the most entertaining essays of the book, "Def Leppard and the Anthropology of Supermodernity," Dyer brings the goods that make his classic nonfiction so engrossing: Travel (he is in Seoul for a concert), a cast of interesting characters (Def Leppard and co., including a one-handed Japanese law student who is Def Leppard's number one fan), a weaving of utterly disparate elements (the Def Leppard concert with Marc Augé's Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity, a book about hotels and airports and the other non-places of contemporary life), and, perhaps most strikingly, a martini-dry sense of humor:

we reconvened in the lobby, ready for the sound check at the Gymnasium. This promised to be a big moment for all of us: it involved leaving the hotel and afforded the opportunity to confirm my suspicion that we were not in Seoul at all. We had sat in a plane for twelve hours but for all I knew we had spent that time circling Heathrow before being taken to an Asian theme hotel on the outskirts of Hounslow.

As Kundera remarked of Cervantes, "We are laughing not because someone is being ridiculed, mocked or even humiliated but because reality is abruptly revealed as ambiguous." If the critic is to be funny, he generally has to be funny at the expensive of someone else, often the artist. While I sometimes enjoy Anthony Lane's snarky New Yorker movie reviews (example: when Lane suggested that the new Bond movie, Quantum of Solace, should have been called "Batter of Ram"), snarkiness follows the law of diminishing returns: The more we get, the less effective it is and the less we want to spend time with the snark. When Dyer is a character, he can make fun of whatever he wants while also poking fun at himself—and, at his best, revealing some previously held reality to be ambiguous.

The most unexpected and arresting piece of Human Condition goes for the opposite of snarkiness: "Blues for Vincent" is a lyrical essay that contains four short scenes unencumbered by transition or analysis. Dyer merely exhibits four mini-dramas—a description of a sculpture depicting Vincent and Theo Van Gogh, a scene of a homeless man throwing himself against a storefront until unconscious, a second-person address to an unnamed longed-for person, and a brief meditation on blues music—and leaves the reader to make the connections for himself. With "Blues for Vincent" we also get to see the author's vulnerability, a sharp departure from the British wit and control that dominates most of the collection. It's not self-deprecating vulnerability either—it's unadulterated: "I wake at four in the morning and think of you doing ordinary things: hunting for your glasses that you can never find, taking the tube to work, buying wine at the supermarket…I long for your letters and…spend whole days waiting for you to call." About the sculpture of the Van Gogh brothers, Dyer mentions that he may not remember the work exactly, since it has been years since he saw it: "I think their heads are touching but I could easily be wrong (works of art that affect you deeply are seldom quite as you remember them)." By withholding the surety he could have easily found by looking up the sculpture, Dyer illuminates a larger, parenthetical truth about the nature of remembering art. The parenthetical becomes more important than the un-bracketed text.

The one essay from Human Condition that will most please lovers of classic Geoff Dyer is "Unpacking My Library." At the beginning of the piece, we find Dyer reunited with all his books after years of separation, a time of transit when "living abroad meant a move out of quotation marks." As Dyer looks through his books, he recalls his personal history of reading—in a scene that is reminiscent of the record collection organizing scene in Cusack's High Fidelity—before sitting back to enjoy the unpacked library: "Needless to say, I have no impulse to read…At the very most I want to take a volume from the shelf, consult it, perhaps smell it, and replace it, carefully…Assembling my books in one room is the fulfillment of a life's ambition. There's nothing else I want." It's a beautiful, if comic, moment of honesty. And Dyer, like Hemingway (of whom Dyer writes, "when male American writers take us to a boxing match, it is generally so we can watch them squaring up with Hemingway"), values honesty as a paramount to good art.