Sante on Dyer

In the new BookForum, Luc Sante reviews Geoff Dyer’s new collected-writings book, Otherwise Known as the Human Condition. I’ve got a review of this upcoming sometime soon at B&N.

I find a lot to agree with in Sante’s review, so why not mention one thing I somewhat disagree on:

The potential liabilities of an omnium-gatherum collection, on the other hand, are illustrated in the section called “Verbals,” which is devoted to book reviews and prefaces to works of literature. There are terrific things here, of course. His preface to Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers is unsurprisingly deep and heartfelt, and his tribute to Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon—an epic blend of travel narrative and history that cycles relentlessly between the past and the present (as of 1941) of the Balkans—claims another ancestor for his nonfiction, a book in which “it is impossible to say where sensation stops and cogitation begins.” It is dispiriting, therefore, to find in the midst of this a bunch of tepid reviews of tepid works—Ian McEwan’s Atonement and Don DeLillo’s Point Omega, for example—which appear nothing more than dutiful. Every writer who makes a living by writing has churned out this sort of thing on assignment, and sometimes an insight is hatched or a phrase turned in the course of it, but gathering them between covers is probably what made the unthemed single-author collection box-office poison in the first place. Besides which, Dyer’s own books are so much more interesting than some of the ones he reviews—you hardly expect him to hang out with a reactionary like McEwan (who has devoted himself to propping up the corpse of the “well-made” novel as if he were singlehandedly determined to prevent the sun from setting on the British Empire).

Of course Sante is absolutely right that Otherwise has a few items that could have been left out (pretty much any 500+ page collection of misc writings will), but I liked Dyer’s review of Atonement much more than Sante did. To me it was anything but dutiful; more like one of the (many) instances where Dyer surprises you and crafts an ingenious argument for a work you never would have expected him to get behind in a million years. And given the stand Dyer ends up taking in the review, to say that he was simply being “dutiful” would imply borderline misrepresentation on Dyer’s part. I’m certain he’s a better and more honest critic than that.



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