The Quick-Change Artist

Otherwise Known as the Human Condition: Selected Essays and Reviews BY Geoff Dyer. Graywolf Press. Paperback, 432 pages. $18.

The cover of Otherwise Known as the Human Condition: Selected Essays and Reviews

A writer who actively resists categorization these days might seem to be deliberately flouting common sense. Writing is a lame-duck art form at best, since readers go for data, preferably without having to chop their way through encroaching idiosyncrasies such as style. For all we know, the pursuit of data will soon enough be free of the encumbrance and ambiguity of words. In the meantime, the writer should be building a brand identity and hitching it to a neatly delimited subject area. If you’ve written a successful memoir about fishing, Manitoba, and suicidal ideation you would do well not to stray too far from those ingredients in your subsequent works. You want to turn your lemonade stand into a chain.

By those standards, Geoff Dyer is almost unimaginably self-destructive. He has written four novels (The Colour of Memory, The Search, Paris Trance, and Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi), a study of the British art critic and novelist John Berger (Ways of Telling), a collection of biographical vignettes about jazz musicians that manages to keep one foot in fiction and the other in nonfiction without losing balance (But Beautiful), an extended essay on the dead of World War I (The Missing of the Somme, which will be published in the US for the first time this July), a book about not writing a book about D. H. Lawrence (Out of Sheer Rage), a set of fuck-off travel pieces (Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It), an extended essay about motifs in photography (The Ongoing Moment), and now the present book of miscellaneous essays and short pieces, which showcases Dyer’s work never before published in the US (it draws heavily from two English volumes, Anglo-English Attitudes and Working the Room).

Otherwise Known as the Human Condition (a Swiss Army knife of a title if there ever was one) collects pieces on photography, painting, sculpture, literature, jazz, travel, fashion shows, the televised Olympics, sex, cycling, model airplanes, and comics, among other things, as well as a range of approaches to autobiography. Publishing today, in its wisdom, would have it that such a book is tantamount to forcing consumers to purchase a twenty-pound bag of mixed innards every time they want a piece of liver. Apparently some consumers concur. “Reading 25 disparate pieces, with no real unifying threads or themes, was not quite as smooth sailing as I had anticipated. I could only read two or three at a time, over several weeks,” complains Mr. R. P. of Bug Tussle, New Jersey, on the Amazon slam page about a similar collection by somebody else (me). And this is surely why Otherwise Known as the Human Condition is being published as a paperback original by the excellent Graywolf Press, rather than in cloth by the Random House cartel that’s issued Dyer’s last few titles.

Geoff Dyer in Utah, 2010, photo by Rebecca Wilson.
Geoff Dyer in Utah, 2010, photo by Rebecca Wilson.

Nevertheless, “the more varied the pieces,” writes Dyer, “the more obviously they needed to be seen together as the work of one person—because the only thing they had in common was that they were by that person.” Which is to say that instead of being agglutinations of data, his works are characterized by the fact that they are writing—that their insights and their expression are inseparable and maybe indistinguishable. They are the opposite of Wikipedia: By design, they tell you as much about the author as about the ostensible subject. It’s like with music—you want the voice before you want the song, don’t you? Or do you just indifferently punch up any old cover of “Moon River” and that’s good enough? Likewise, with a writer such as Dyer (and there aren’t too many in his league), what you dig is interpretation, in its several senses: exegesis, and profound internalization of a subject, and a thorough imaginative remaking of that subject.

All of Dyer’s work holds together very well indeed, but what holds it together is a voice, which becomes a persona. It’s a very English, low-key, plainspoken, unassuming voice that invites you in, and can become intimate but not too intimate, and can smoothly transit between comedy and gravity. It takes on flesh in his reported pieces and personal essays and some of his fiction, and there it is often richly and sometimes darkly comic—self-deprecating, stubborn, canny, forlorn, worldly, hapless, serious, romantic, dissipated. Dyer escaped the working class via education (his mother worked in the school cafeteria, his father was a sheet-metal worker) and comes equipped with all the hidden defenses and camouflage strategies that entails. Here and there he gives you a physical impression: “Several girlfriends have said that I am a terrible hugger. Basically I just stand there, draped like a coat around the person I am supposed to be hugging.” Now and then he alludes glancingly to the fact that he is as awkwardly tall as M. Hulot, although maybe half as corpulent. Bit by bit he has made himself into an indelible literary character, whose adventures run through, among other books, 1998’s Out of Sheer Rage (nonfiction) and 2009’s Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi (fiction)—where he splits himself into two: the practiced art-world freeloader in Venice and the earnest if uncertain seeker melting into the throng of pilgrims in the Ganges.

In the new collection he is present in every piece, even if he’s just sitting on the couch showing you pictures, which is what he does for the first quarter of the book. He is very good at this; he is a first-class noticer. He is an expert at noticing, for example, the instances of falsehood within truth and vice versa: that Richard Avedon “tirelessly and inventively raised the bar of contrived naturalness”; that the apocalyptic accident photos of Enrique Metinides, taken for newspapers and ostensibly straightforward, share with Jeff Wall’s constructed tableaux an “idiom of artificially enhanced reality”; that the scrupulously documentary photos of William Gedney are at the same time relentlessly literary; that the way “photographs of sport replicate gestures from the art of the past” is less about the magpie tendencies of the photographers than it is an indication of how sports have come to fulfill many of the traditional expiatory and ceremonial tasks of high art. Dyer is an enthusiastic and eclectic consumer of visuals, who has learned much from his elected master John Berger and is adept at teasing meaning and context and sometimes narrative from still images. Nothing here is as astonishing as his tour de force The Ongoing Moment, which chases subjects—a nude, a hat, a barbershop, a road—from one photograph to another across the decades and weaves these sightings together into an audaciously syncretic history of photography, but his short pieces set the table for such an enterprise.

The potential liabilities of an omnium-gatherum collection, on the other hand, are illustrated in the section called “Verbals,” which is devoted to book reviews and prefaces to works of literature. There are terrific things here, of course. His preface to Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers is unsurprisingly deep and heartfelt, and his tribute to Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon—an epic blend of travel narrative and history that cycles relentlessly between the past and the present (as of 1941) of the Balkans—claims another ancestor for his nonfiction, a book in which “it is impossible to say where sensation stops and cogitation begins.” It is dispiriting, therefore, to find in the midst of this a bunch of tepid reviews of tepid works—Ian McEwan’s Atonement and Don DeLillo’s Point Omega, for example—which appear nothing more than dutiful. Every writer who makes a living by writing has churned out this sort of thing on assignment, and sometimes an insight is hatched or a phrase turned in the course of it, but gathering them between covers is probably what made the unthemed single-author collection box-office poison in the first place. Besides which, Dyer’s own books are so much more interesting than some of the ones he reviews—you hardly expect him to hang out with a reactionary like McEwan (who has devoted himself to propping up the corpse of the “well-made” novel as if he were singlehandedly determined to prevent the sun from setting on the British Empire). But then it is worth noting that Dyer’s own fiction (quite apart from the tightrope-walking, dual-nationality But Beautiful) is the least exciting wing of his varied oeuvre. It can be plodding, safe, expected—the only aspect of his work that can feel like a career move, although it’s more likely that he wants to keep faith with his patron saint Lawrence, and through him with a nineteenth-century conception of what it means to be a man of letters.

His latest novel, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, is, to be sure, far from unrewarding, although its rewards are primarily of a nonfictional sort: observation and self-portraiture. Since both those matters are to be found in abundance in his travel writing, DVJV can feel like a couple of very long extra chapters cut from Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It (2003). Those matters also predominate in the final third of the present volume, in the sections titled “Variables” and “Personals,” which might in lesser hands be a pile of odd socks. The first of these compiles assignments from glossy magazines, the delicious sorts of assignments that involve airplanes and hotels. He goes to Algiers, to Belgrade, flies in a MiG-29, hits the runway shows during Fashion Week in Paris; he also watches a lot of television. The pieces in both sections are charming, poised, and perceptive without delivering the unexpected emotional payoff of the pieces collected in Yoga—they involve less risk and less annoyance, chiefly. Dyer has a gift for making entertainment from the brisk recounting of the sorts of repetitions—the search for a particular make of donut through different parts of New York City over a number of years, say—that would be unutterably tedious in life or from most lips. He thus has a natural line on the lyricism of the minor annoyance, the very thing capable of making travel writing endure past the date on the magazine.

The last section amounts to a compressed autobiography in slices. He introduces his kin in their ancestral setting, Gloucestershire, when he goes home for the funeral of his uncle, a suicide. When he leaves to return to France, his father, “as always, gave me two five-pound notes, one each from him and my mother.” This leads to a piece about the isolation of being an only child, which is perhaps even more about the economies of people who were through the war, not to mention the isolation of being a scholarship student from a working-class family. In his final year at Oxford he goes home for a visit and surprises his mother at the school cafeteria where she works. They hold each other and cry. “I was my parents’ only child, but the life I would go on to lead would be so different from theirs, and the most important part of this difference was the way that it could never be explained and articulated to them by me.” The next story finds him shaking off the last chain of the working-class ethos when, not long after graduating, he is fired from his first real job, goes on the dole, and likes it. Sex and drugs and intellectual expansion are in the air. He hangs out, with a vengeance, and reads ferociously. Then he is older and doesn’t read as much. Then he is a writer, who calls himself a gate-crasher, which is to say that like any real writer he steps into a project with curiosity and imagination but no map.

Most writers, even today, begin with the shape and size of the container they wish to fill—the novel, the memoir, the book of reportage—and proceed to cut their material to suit. Dyer (like West and an interestingly scattered line of writers from George Borrow to Blaise Cendrars to W. G. Sebald) allows the material to determine the form. This strategy, always risky and volatile, among other things prevents the conclusion of a writing project from ever being foregone. About But Beautiful, he notes: “If I’d known what I needed to know before writing the book, I would have had no interest in doing so. Instead of being a journey of discovery, writing the book would have been a tedious clerical task, a transcription of the known.” But he’s the sort of writer who follows art critic Harold Rosenberg’s suggestion: “Loiter in the neighborhood of a problem. After a while a solution strolls by.” When you take that approach seriously you maybe stand a chance of being, as Dyer is often blurbed, “unclassifiable.”

Lucy Sante is the author of Low Life (FSG, 1991) and Kill All Your Darlings (Yeti 2007).