Dyer collection shows off skill, breadth

  • Article by: DYLAN HICKS , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 8, 2011 - 1:01 PM

Wide-ranging criticism and essays from 25 years of work.

Otherwise Known As the Human Condition by Geoff Dyer

In what may be Geoff Dyer's signature book, "Out of Sheer Rage," a man named Geoff Dyer travels around the world failing to write a scholarly book about his onetime hero, D.H. Lawrence. But in failing to do that, he writes a discursive essay (or travel book, or memoir) about anxiety, sloth, sex, influence and dyspepsia, a book full of absurd exaggerations and precise observations that also happens to say smart things about, and in the spirit of, D.H. Lawrence.

Dyer is sneaky like that: His effortlessness is really quite crafty, and he gets his nonfiction books to buzz along like tightly plotted novels, while his hardly plotted yet addictive novels double as open-ended essays. "Otherwise Known as the Human Condition" collects a quarter-century of the English writer's essays, reviews, "semi-learned articles," introductions and stray journalism. Throughout we get a variety of Dyer's literary personae, which range from the aesthete with an apt literary quote for every photograph, to the layabout hedonist with the perfect drug from every date.

Specialization is one of the many things Dyer deplores (as we learn from one of these pieces, the rather too self-satisfied "My Life as a Gate-Crasher"), and his versatility is shown off by the book's five parts: three sections of criticism (art, literature, and music); one of assorted essays and magazine articles, and a final section of personal essays.

As an art critic, Dyer is chiefly interested in photography, and writes about it with passion and a critic-as-artist sensibility indebted to English critic/writer John Berger and French critic/theorist Roland Barthes. (For most readers, the book will get increasingly accessible as it moves toward the end, at which point he's writing about doughnuts.) As always, he's loaded with witty paradoxes; Richard Avedon, for instance, "never lost the appetite for discovery, but he kept discovering the same thing."

On music he's not as consistently sharp. A piece on the alleged moribundity of American jazz is too grossly undersupported to be taken seriously. And as is usual with such odds-and-ends collections, "Otherwise" recycles some stuff that didn't require a second life in book form. Some of the shorter book reviews, though careful and well-turned, are predictably redolent of yesterday's papers, while a few breezy magazine features (Dyer flies jet fighters, Dyer visits a fashion show) were probably better when skimmed in the optometrist's lobby.

But some of Dyer's best writing is here too, such as "Loving and Admiring: Camus' Algeria," and "On Being an Only Child," both moody and funny blends of self-examination and literary criticism. In these and other pieces he deals with big themes, but doesn't leave out the small pleasures and annoyances. An Algerian soda, for instance, is "so sweet that drinking a couple of glasses is probably only slightly less bad for your teeth that getting hit in the mouth with a bottle of the stuff." I laughed out loud, then wondered how he could let "probably only slightly" stand, then decided the adverb cluster was essential. He's sneaky like that.

Dylan Hicks is a Minneapolis writer and musician.

  • OTHERWISE KNOWN AS THE HUMAN CONDITION

    By: Geoff Dyer.

    Publisher: Graywolf Press, 421 pages, $18.

    Review: The English writer's subjects range from Camus to doughnuts in this witty collection of essays and journalism.

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