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Otherwise Known as the Human Condition

My review of Dyer’s latest was published yesterday at B&N. Full review here.

Quote here:

One of Dyer’s strengths as a critic is to exude an honesty that inspires confidence. So it is that he begins Otherwise Known by immediately admitting that these omnibus collections have something intrinsically spurious about them: “This kind of put-together is considered a pretty low form of book, barely a book at all.” Yet that admission is barely made before Dyer flips it on its back, confiding that he has long aspired toward one of these fat, stately volumes, wanting it ever since he began publishing. His preference comes from his own experience: “If I see a piece by a writer I admire in a paper I very rarely read it,” he says, instead waiting to read it in a book of collected writings. Not only that, but the form of the omnibus volume fits his aesthetic perfectly: “It was, precisely, the unruly range of my concerns that I was keen to see represented in a single volume.”

Anyone who knows Dyer’s genre-defying, promiscuous works of nonfiction will understand his affection for an unruly range of concerns; moreover, in a digital age there’s a clear logic to this. With a critic like Dyer dispatching so many pieces on such wide-ranging topics to such diverse corners of the Internet, who can keep up? A collected works begins to like a supremely sedate, sensible way to go.

But it must be said that, as good and reasonable as this all sounds, one never quite loses the suspicion that Dyer was chuckling to himself as he wrote his introduction, or most of the pieces that follow . . .

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.

Some Geoff Dyer Links

Right now I’m reading Otherwise Known as the Human Condition for a review, and it reminds me of just what a good, versatile critic Geoff Dyer is.

So, since I’m in a Dyer mood right now, two recent Dyer links.

First, an excerpt from Otherwise, Dyer on a typically Dyeresque topic, reader’s block.

I find it increasingly difficult to read. This year I read fewer books than last year; last year I read fewer than the year before; the year before I read fewer than the year before that. The phenomenon of writer’s block is well known, but what I am suffering from is reader’s block. The condition is creeping rather than chronic, manifesting itself in different ways in different circumstances. On a trip to the Bahamas recently I regularly stopped myself reading because, whereas I could read a book anywhere, this was the only time I was likely to see sea so turquoise, sand so pink. Somewhat grandly, I call this the Mir syndrome, after the cosmonaut who said that he didn’t read a page of the book he’d taken to the space station because his spare moments were better spent gazing out of the window. . . .

And here’s Dyer on his “hero” Friedrich Nietzsche.

I keep waiting for my love of his writing to wear off, but it never does. Actually, love is not the right word – you can go on loving writers long after you’ve stopped reading them. I keep reading Nietzsche and I never cease to be astonished by his insight, his freshness, his brevity (deep problems treated like cold baths: in and out as quickly as possible), his profound plumbing of consciousness, even his “howlers” (as Cioran termed them). I suppose he’s a philosopher, but that seems a poor description . . .


The Surrender is Veronica Scott Esposito’s “collection of facts” concerning how she embraced her true gender.


Two long essays of 10,000 words each on sex in—and out of—literature . . .

The first essay dives in to Nicholson Baker’s “sex trilogy,” explaining just what Baker is up to here and why these books ultimately fail to be as sexy as Baker might wish.

From there the book moves on to the second essay, which explains just why Spaniard Javier Marías does right what Baker does wrong . . .


5 essays. 2 interviews.

All in all, over 25,000 words of Latin American literary goodness.

3 never-before-published essays, including “The Digression”—a 4,000-word piece on the most important digression in César Aira’s career.

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