Otherwise Known as the Human Condition: Selected Essays and Reviews
US: Mar 2011
Geoff Dyer has made a career out of writing, but he doesn’t have a “job”, so to speak. This is a fact that he’s quite proud of, as he admits in his new collection of essays, Otherwise Known as the Human Condition. Not only has Dyer squeaked out a life as a writer, he’s also managed to avoid specializing in any one kind of writing. His book weaves together autobiographical memories, literary criticism, and a number unorthodox, completely unclassifiable essays, like the one about having sex in hotel rooms.
This variety of material, spanning almost three decades, means that Otherwise Known as the Human Condition is equally enthralling and befuddling. One can’t help but appreciate that the same man who writes stuffy critical essays about D.H. Lawrence and F. Scott Fitzgerald is the one who is also drinking with Def Leppard, going to the Burning Man Festival, and wistfully recalling his post-college days as a drug-addled layabout. The striking shifts in material and tone, however, also make for a book that feels somewhat incoherent.
But this is just the way that Dyer wants it. As he reveals in the introduction to the book:
“It seemed to me that this variegation might even give the collection a kind of unity or coherence. The more varied the pieces, I argued, 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. If there was one thing I was proud of in my literary non-career it was the way that I had written so many different kinds of books; to assemble a collection of articles would be further proof of just how wayward my interests were.”
Dyer has certainly succeeded in this kind of goal. He scorns both academic specialization and writers who limit themselves to a single field. Instead, many of Dyer’s essays make the case that it’s impossible to separate the writers’ life from his intellectual work and his fiction. Every genre, from autobiography to journalism, is touched and shaped by the writer.
For example, Dyer includes one memoir about a job he was fired from shortly afted graduating from Oxford. The account is true, but he has also published a fictional novel based on the same experience. He comments that, “The fiction has colored my memory to such an extent that it is nearly impossible for me to get at the literal truth of what occurred.” Later, he calls his fictional account “in many ways, the most truthful version,” again calling into question the different between fiction and personal narrative. Dyer’s novels are “true” in that they are informed by his own life experience, while his non-fiction is “false” in that the author necessarily picks and chooses what details to include to effectively shape the narrative.
But Dyer is not narcissistic, and relatively little of Otherwise Known as the Human Condition is devoted to his own life. One of the more interesting sections collects Dyer’s numerous book reviews, where it becomes clear that he is just as interested in examining the intersection between fiction and biography with his favorite authors. One of the best essays examines John Cheever’s journals, as Dyer questions how Cheever’s alcoholism and sexual confusion contributed to his literary output.
Dyer is far more interested in nonfiction—journalism, travel writing, memoirs—than fiction, even with authors known primarily for their novels. He laments that author Ryszard Kapuscinki’s memoirs are almost unknown among novelists, and makes a case that Susan Sontag’s real legacy should come from her critical essays rather than her fiction. (“My love of her writing would be undiminished if she had never published a novel,” he reflects).
In summarizing his views on the excellent American journalism done in the wake of the Iraq War, Dyer remarks that these journalists are filling a gap that novelists could never hope to reach. “It is difficult to see what the novelist might bring to the table except stylistic panache…and the burden of unnecessary conventions,” he writes. Dyer is not the first to comment on the decline of the novel’s influence in modern culture, but he is unique in promoting a new literary genre as its successor.
Dyer’s best essays, naturally, are the ones that combine his seemingly-unending variety of experiences with his critical chops. In “Is Jazz Dead?” he reflects on his decades worth of association with the subject, and his conclusions are nuanced enough that I should not attempt to answer the question in this review. The tour-de-force in the volume is a slim essay entitled “Sex in Hotels”, in which Dyer reflects on the strange aura of a hotel room that makes it seem like a “non-place”, meaning everything is permitted. The essay should be placed in every hotel room next to the Gideon’s Bible, a tempting counterpoint to the message of the Good Book.
Yet despite his eclectic array of interests and strong skills as a writer, Otherwise Known as the Human Condition somehow falls short of Dyer’s aims. It presents a multiplicity of perspectives on the author, but the book remains unfulfilling, a collection of excellent essays that never really coalesce into a whole.
Part of the problem might just be the format itself—most of the essays are only a few pages long, and better suited to a magazine than a book. The essays on photography, especially, are hurt by the book’s format, and though photography is clearly one of Dyer’s passions, they don’t seem to gel as well with the rest of the book’s material. Otherwise Known as the Human Condition perhaps makes for better browsing than reading.
“The process of becoming is inevitably more awkward for a journal, which did not even set out to be a book; its imperfections and indiscretions, its lack of artistic and thematic organization—at the things, in fact, that make it a pleasure to read—militate against its ever becoming one.” Here, Dyer is talking about the “Gouncourt Journals,” but he could easily be talking about his own work.
His essays are startlingly wide-ranging, but to such a degree that it’s hard to pull the pieces together to build a fixed identity out of the parts. Perhaps Dyer wanted it this way, perhaps it’s his attempt to become the modern Montaigne, but it can make the read frustrating at times. Sample all you’d like from Otherwise Known as the Human Condition, but don’t expect to walk away from the meal feeling fully satisfied.