Saturday, April 23, 2011

TVRB: Otherwise Known as the Human Condition, by Geoff Dyer

Geoff Dyer is a hero for those of us who still don’t know what we want to do when we grow up, both a ray of hope and an object of envy for any writer who ever feels trapped in their specialty (see, for instance, the title of this blog.)

As Luc Sante points out in his reviewof Dyer’s essay collection, Otherwise Known as the Human Condition, writers are expected to specialize these days in order to be marketable: They are either novelists or historians or art critics or memoirists. Dyer is somehow all these things, earning a living and the respect of his peers by being an enthusiastic amateur with an interest in a wide range of subjects. Photography, literature, music, war, fiction, whatever strikes his fancy becomes the subject of a (usually pretty good) piece of writing.

When I started reading Otherwise, strange coincidences started popping up. His essay on eccentric, pervy photographer Miroslav Tichy sent me to the internet to look him up, only to find he had died the day before. (This is the perfect book to read on an IPad, because you can easily look up the artists he writes about without putting it down). An F. Scott Fitzgerald quote about crying in a taxi because he would never be so happy again showed up in both a Dyer essay and an article I read in a magazine the same day. A Dyer piece on land art appeared in the New Yorker while I was in the middle of his book, and someone in another magazine I read quoted a review he wrote of something or other. I attribute these coincidences not to the mysteries of fate but to the fact that Dyer’s output flies out in so many directions that bits are bound to land here and there in the path of anyone who reads periodicals.

The New Yorker piece kind of crystallized the good and the bad in him for me, its thoughtful insights into and vivid descriptions of Di Maria’s Lightning Field and Smithson’s Spiral Jetty marred by the insistent first-personness of the account. Which is almost the exact opposite of what Sante praises in his review. Sante wonders why he bothers to include work-for-hire pieces like book reviews in his collection, whereas I find Dyer on writers, Dyer on photography, Dyer on music, much more interesting than Geoff Dyer’s Own Adventures: the first-person reporting, the personal essays. Dyer hanging out with Def Leppard, attending a fashion show, flying in a vintage airplane or masturbating in a luxury hotel room is much less interesting than his keen, incisive analyses of photographs and books.

The first-person pieces become too solipsistic for my taste, too convinced that his life is interesting enough to be put in print. The nadir is an early essay in which the madness of van Gogh, the plight of homeless East Village junkies, and the entire history of the blues are nothing compared to his agony at not being able to get through on the phone to some chick in London. Separately they may be tolerable, but read back to back, they coalesce into a portrait of entitlement: the self-absorption of thinking that just because techno music and Ecstasy blew open his mind in the 90s everybody wants to hear about it over and over again.

This might be why his novel Jeff in Venice/Death in Varanasi strikes me as Dyer at his best. Unclassifiably toeing a line between fiction and autobiography, it conveys extreme mental states (of drugs and spiritual hysteria) effectively because they are untethered from the facts of Dyer himself, yet feel somehow lived and true.

It should come as no surprise, I guess, that a collection by a writer famed for eclecticism should vary so widely in quality. But the fact that he continues to write and publish at all gives hope to those of us striving to broaden the scope of what we write beyond the brands assigned to us.


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