Luckily for Geoff Dyer, he has a gift for writing compellingly about photographs that his readers will likely never see. Luckily because the first hundred or so pages of Dyer’s collection Otherwise Known as the Human Condition: Selected Essays and Reviews–titled simply “Visuals”—is comprised of Dyer’s reflections on the work of mostly relatively obscure photographers such as Joel Sternfeld and William Gedney (obscure at least for this reviewer, who does not pretend to be a devotee of or expert on the medium).
In most cases, the essays include one or two—or, in the case of Gedney, three—photographs that must serve as evidence of the overarching themes and aesthetic approaches that Dyer identifies in the oeuvres of each artist. At the same time the relative dearth of images gives Dyer a major advantage in that the reader has no immediate recourse for checking to see if Dyer’s reflections on a particular image jibe with his or her own response. Many readers will, in other words, have to take Dyer’s word for it that what he sees—both literally and figuratively—in the images to which he refers is really there.
But that’s not really the point. Criticism can never be wholly objective, appreciation much less so, and its merit and appeal are not limited to its success at simply analyzing its object. Rather, at its best it speaks of the mysterious attraction that the critic feels for his or her subject. And this Dyer does quite well. For example, Dyer writes of his enchantment with a series of photographs by Michael Ackerman that feature a nude or partially clothed woman going about her domestic routine (including using the toilet), “it was like falling in love and moving in with someone, when being able to watch that person doing the most ordinary things is touched by rapture, undulled by familiarity.”
Presumably the rather blurry image of what appears to be a naked woman that prefaces the essay derives from this series. In any case, whether or not Dyer’s meditation on Ackerman’s images adduces what is already there or simply imposes his own subjective response upon them is irrelevant. What is to be admired, for this reader at least, is how succinctly Dyer manages to encapsulate in a single relatively brief sentence the trajectory of a relationship and the profound changes in attitude and perspective that the persons in it experience as the weeks, months, and years of cohabitation progress.
Along with numerous passages of economical articulation of and reflection on the large patterns of human life the collection is littered with felicitous couplings of words, turns of phrase, and sentences: “daylight noirs” and “the plausible context of desire” and “John Cheever had subjected his liver-damaged soul to a daily regimen of self-excoriation” for example. I use the word “littered” deliberately, though; for the most part the prose is deftly conversational rather than lyrical. This is not a knock, not by any means, and the aesthetic nicely complements the tone of humane but also often wry curiosity that pervades the better part of the collection.
In other words, Dyer’s work here is always readable and that is no small accomplishment given the diversity of subject matter (if there is something in here likely to interest every reader, there’s also something likely to bore him or her, at least in and of itself). That said, in terms of originality and depth of thinking the first section is the strongest and, taken altogether, the collection offers diminishing returns. After the virtuoso contemplation of photographs in “Visuals” comes a section of literary criticism titled “Verbals”/ The work here is generally solid if not exactly groundbreaking as a sampling of its subjects might suggest: D.H. Lawrence’s working class roots, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s drinking, Susan Sontag’s relative lack of merit as a fiction writer rather than critic.
Still, Dyer usually manages to offer engaging meditations on well worn topics and even the most platitudinous observations (Fitzgerald was “the most romantic of materialists”) are at least partially redeemed by what appears to be genuine interest in whatever topic is at hand. (That said, we should not forget that Dyer, as he notes, makes his living by his pen so we can probably assume that some of the pieces here have their origin in professional obligation rather than the enthusiasms of a freewheeling intellect).
The third and fourth sections of Otherwise Known as the Human Condition, respectively titled “Musicals” and “Variables”, constitute the weakest stretch of the collection. “Variables” is simply a polite term for “hodgepodge” and the pieces often demonstrate a kind of oily cleverness rather than genuine thoughtfulness. Geoff Dyer once caressed the hair of a man he mistook to be a woman. Geoff Dyer finds Olympic female volleyball players alluring. Geoff Dyer thinks hotel rooms are erotic. And so on. If the collection as a whole is a kind of cartography of Dyer’s eclectic interests, this is the beige desert on the map.
Still, the relative deficiencies of sections three and four served further to prime my anticipation for the final section, titled “Personals”. The vagaries of his or her own experience are, potentially at least, the essayist’s best material and in the work of masters like the great innovator of the essay form, Michel de Montaigne, intense scrutiny of the self becomes the lens through which the essayist discovers general truths about, well, the human condition.
The fund of experience from which Dyer draws is impressive. He has lead an unconventional life devoted to reading, listening to music, attending concerts, going to films, and travelling — all of which constitute the foundation for the vast range of reference presented in the previous sections of the collection. All of this might lead one to ask, “Where does this guy get the time to read so many books, see so many films, visit so many museums and galleries?”
The answer, Dyer insists, is simple: he spent many years “living on the dole”—in other words, collecting unemployment benefits from the government with the ostensible aim of looking for a job. Dyer makes clear that he never much cared for work and that he was more than willing to forego the advantages of a more materially rich life and bourgeois respectability for the pleasures of connoisseurship and undirected study—as Dyer puts it, he and his friends “did what we wanted all day.” Dyer is far too smart not to realize that his account of a life of government- sponsored leisure will likely raise the ire of some readers; indeed, he pretty obviously wants to provoke that ire through self-consciously glib insistence on the fact that he believes the world owes him a living (a phrase that crops up numerous times in the last section).
The closest, however, that Dyer gets to critical self-reflection on his choices is to write, “Free health care, free school, free tuition at university, a full maintenance grant, and then—the icing on the cake—the dole!” followed by, “I say ‘free,’ but it was paid for, of course, by the sweat of my father’s labor.” This, however, is it; Dyer archly enumerates the enormous privileges he has enjoyed and the cost born by others to make those privileges possible, only to move right along to some detailing of the convoluted sexual relationships and intrigues among his friends and roommates.
The problem here is not that Dyer steers clear of a teary-eyed paean to the working class—that would be a far less interesting than what follows. The problem is that in this essay, and generally across the autobiographical pieces, one comes to realize that past the mention of books read, trips taken, films watched, Burning Mans attended, and so on there is not much all that humanly interesting about what Dyer has to say. In other words, the pieces offer little commentary about the essential dramas of a life and instead present an homage to a kind of intellectual and bohemian consumerism.
Again, Dyer is smart enough to realize this and to have fun with it. It’s probably no accident that the second to last essay, titled “Otherwise Known as the Human Condition (with particular reference to Donut Plant doughnuts),” is a kind of mock-epic account of Dyer’s attempts to secure a particularly tasty kind of pastry. The subject of the piece might serve as a figure for much of Dyer’s writing in the collection: a pleasure to consume, artful and satisfying in many ways, but lacking essential substance.