April 2011

Kerri Arsenault


Otherwise Known as the Human Condition: Selected Essays and Reviews by Geoff Dyer

Geoff Dyer’s essays are not thematic, but that doesn’t presuppose there is no unifying leitmotif to his narratives. In Otherwise Known as the Human Condition, a 21-year compilation of previously published essays, he falls in love with strangers in old photographs, notes the comings and goings of porn channels in 1993 Belgrade, discusses Lorrie Moore’s long-awaited novel A Gate at the Stairs, and obsesses over cappuccino foam. Dyer fosters this theme-less myth by designating his narratives as “haphazard” and his career a “literary non-career” that is comprised of the “unruly range of [his] concerns.” Simply put, and as he notes in his introduction, he writes about what moves him deeply.

And what writer doesn’t? Susan Orlean, another wonderful essayist, concurs. In the introduction to her collection The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup, Orlean writes, “There are so many things I’m interested in writing about that settling on one drives me crazy.” But where Orlean exposes the extraordinary found amid the ordinary, Dyer infiltrates topics through a mix of art, mockery, music, humor, innuendo, analysis, shrewd intellect, criticism, self-deprecation, music, emotional reactions, diatribes, observation, research, dreams, letters, personal experience, and interpretation, shepherding his readers on an unconventional junket. Subsequently, his essays are deeply personal, sometimes smug, tremendously intellectual, and often highly incontrovertible. So why should we care about what appears to be solipsistic articles by a British polymath? Because Dyer really writes about what moves all human beings -- boredom, beauty, war, death, curiosity, obsession, love -- and in doing so, illuminates, in a nutshell, the human condition.

For the uninitiated reader, Dyer writes travel essays about “non-places.” He critiques photography with no photography background whatsoever. He writes about how he procrastinates about writing. He is usually perched on the outside looking in, a “literary and scholarly gate-crasher,” which tends to be his comfort zone. His passion and acute surveillance toward his subjects, rather than his “transcription of the known” translates to profound intellectual discovery for him and the reader.

Dyer and his prose often lurk in these kind of “non-places: international hotels (if you’re lucky, refugee camps if you’re not”), planes, transit lounges, motorways,” existing in a modern limbo that is nowhere, anywhere. In “Def Leppard and the Anthropology of Supermodernity,” he intimates that in these supra-locales what you see is not always what you get. Instead of the quintessential super-rocker, Dyer reveals backstage band juice-fests instead of drug-fests, and a gorgeous Korean promoter turns out to be an unexpected surprise. The concert even begets a disappointing occasion, like some moments in life itself: “That’s the problem with rock shows like this: nothing that happens subsequently can quite live up to those opening moments when all the power suddenly erupts and you are, emphatically, no longer waiting for something to begin, pretty soon, though, you are waiting for it to end.”

In “Fabulous Clothes,” Dyer is sent by Vogue to cover the fashion shows in Paris with no knowledge of couture or the fashion industry. The perspective of ignorance serves him well; rather than gush about the newest trends he finds substance in the blank gaze of a supermodel looking at herself in the mirror, the architectural spirit of a coat, and how ceremony, even in the magnificence and elaborateness of bespoke clothing, is primal. It is genius to see beauty where there is none, and vice versa.

This singular kind of narrative nonfiction can more accurately reflect our untidy universe, because being human is a messy business. However, the untidiness in his approach can be unnerving for readers unwilling to read an essay about Algeria (“Loving and Admiring: Camus’s Algeria”) with not a lot of discussion of, well, Algeria, except for the sky above it. “I open the shutters with trepidation and find an allotment sky, a sky catarrhed with cloud. A shadowless day of loitering rain,” then “In the morning tattered clouds are flung across the sky; the bay is flooded with sun. Even wind seems a species of light,” and again, “As I continue walking the sun bursts out again, making the bank of cloud smolder green-black, luminous over the sea.” Dyer even recollects the sky where “I grew up under a miserly, penny-pinching sky, in the niggardly light of England, where, for three months of the year, it gets dark soon after lunch…” He finds nothing of Camus’s Algeria that “formed him and sustained him.” Dyer conveys a fatigued country, a “place of austerity” where there is “rubble and rubbish everywhere” where “the sea has been forced out to sea.” Only the clumsy reader would ignore what is an elemental travel story; the sky, no matter where you go remains eternal and unchangeable “[i]ndifferent to what it falls on” and it becomes the origin of all journeys. The sky is devoid of cultural attractions and tour guides… in it there is only eternity and what it shed light on in the past.

Dyer also has the curiosity, quick reflexes, and eye of a good cameraman, particularly in the photography essays in this collection. Fortunately, he is neither the archetypical journalist, documenting the scene as a silent observer, nor does he discuss composition, light, framing, at least in an academic way. In “Robert Capa,” a quiet reverie about a photo taken of a man and woman in 1943 Sicily, he is emotional: “I will never love another photograph more.” He is curious: “When did they meet? Have they made love? How long have they been walking? Where are they heading?” And he even imagines himself in the photograph: “It is possible to grow old in this landscape. All the sounds -- the rustle of cicadas, the noise of his boots on the road, the slow whir of the bicycle (his or hers? it has a crossbar) -- offer an irenic contrast to the deafening machinery of tanks and artillery.”

It’s hard not to compare at least some of Dyer’s perspicacious observations to Roland Barthes’s photographic commentary Camera Lucida. Barthes wrote, “A photograph’s punctum is that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me).” Where details “prick” Barthes, they “move” Dyer, but each man is haunted with detail that most would normally disregard. Dyer in his Algeria essay is preoccupied with the light and the sky, noting its every metamorphose. Barthes, in discussing the photo “Idiot Children in an Institution, New Jersey, 1924” by Lewis H. Hine, can’t take his eyes off the “boy’s huge Danton collar, the girl’s finger bandage” rather than the disorienting scale of the children’s comportment. It’s not just the emphasis on wee details knitting the authors together, but the premise that they are not necessarily adding anything to what they see rather they are wringing forth something already there, however veiled. Dyer’s approach to writing, though not simple, can be simplified in the famous line from The Little Prince: “Here is my secret. It is very simple: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

While Dyer’s approach and voice are unique, his essays remain part of the flow of literary mimicry, which only adds to their richness. While meditating on the photography of Enrique Metinides, Dyer compares Metinides’s burgeoning career to something that would occur in the film City of God. Then he compares Metinides to the photographer known as Weegee. In this same essay, Dyer also cites Don DeLillo’s novel White Noise, Thomas Bernhard’s novel Extinction, Alejandro Gozalez Inarritu’s film Amores Perros, author Cormac McCarthy, photographer Jacques Henri Latigue, and even the Virgin Mary, with each informing Dyer’s reading of Metinides’s. Yet Dyer avows he “loiters -- with no intent of entering -- outside of the academy, unhindered by specialization (obviously) and the rigors of imposed method” he relies on what has come before him; for storytelling is not ahistorical. Dyer’s brilliance is in using the same stories to tell his own story in a new way.

Many of the essays are often a covert tribute to the conundrums of writing itself (or a justification therein). In “Otherwise Known as the Human Condition: with particular reference to Doughnut Plant doughnuts” Dyer writes,

We are always taking the same routes through cities. The tube forces us to do this, and so -- less claustrophobically -- do buses. Even on a bike, when we can take any route, we allow ourselves to get funneled along familiar paths, preferring the often slightly longer but nicer cycle lanes because they are ostensibly safer even though they can actually be more dangerous because one is in a state of less than heightened alert… This tendency to the habitual expresses in linear terms the way that, in a vast city like London, we avail ourselves of only a fraction of the numerous other opportunities -- and alternative routes open to us.

Yet he lauded living on Rue Boulle in Paris “…partly because I was able to leave and approach my apartment in so many ways.” Taking the more unusual path is something both Dyer does and something he promotes. Despite his extolling the virtues of this road not taken, he’s no lackey to perpetual spontaneity. He’s obsessive (a serious understatement) about finding a place to have his daily cappuccino and croissant in his new neighborhood. His requirements are unforgiving and he search unrelenting. “First, the coffee had to be exactly as I liked it… Second, the pastry had to be exactly as I liked it… Third, I would never drink my coffee out of a paper cup; the coffee had to be served in a proper china cup.” Though he is obviously a creature of habit, Dyer’s approach doesn’t inhabit the route (or routines) of most writers and not only does he dare to admit to a compulsion for order and habit, but on the same page expresses a genuine belief that habits can indeed be perilous. This affable metaphor is not pat, for it parades the incongruities of our humanity, writer or not.

While contemporary writers such as David Shields decry the need to erase the lines between fiction and nonfiction, for years, Dyer has been exemplar, churning out smart essays with his own cocktail of fact and fiction, private and public, myth and truth and has proven that rigorous criticism and writing arises out of more than just an esoteric bookshelf. Good writing, it appears, begins with seeking what moves us.

Otherwise Known as the Human Condition: Selected Essays and Reviews by Geoff Dyer
Graywolf Press
ISBN: 9781555975791
432 Pages