Opening Windows - Otherwise Known as the Human Condition: Selected Essays and Reviews, 1989-2010 by Geoff Dyer


From the Publisher:

Otherwise Known as the Human Condition collects twenty-five years of essays, reviews, and misadventures. Here he is pursuing the shadow of Camus in Algeria and remembering life on the dole in Brixton in the 1980s; reflecting on Richard Avedon and Ruth Orkin, on the sculptor Zadkine and the saxophonist David Murray (in the same essay), on his heroes Rebecca West and Ryszard Kapuscinski, on haute couture and sex in hotels. Whatever he writes about, his responses never fail to surprise. For Dyer there is no division between the reflective work of the critic and the novelist’s commitment to lived experience: they are mutually illuminating ways to sharpen our perceptions. His is the rare body of work that manages to both frame our world and enlarge it.”

Geoff Dyer is an intellectually self-made man. He has won his awards and the invitation to write about what he likes by succeeding. Otherwise Known As the Human Condition is a testament to his two decades of success at writing about photography, art, literature and music all the while creating the main character in the semi-documentary of himself – the working class only-child Englishman who went up to Oxford and found working for a living intolerable. His persona is the jet-age wandering lonesome romantic writer type, difficult to please, looking for the next inspiration. He is not, as he proudly puts it, “the Something Professor of Anything at the University of Whatever.” He can write a very funny essay about sex in hotels or the donuts of New York as experienced in Tokyo or unpacking his library (without apologies to Walter Benjamin, whom he often quotes) without flashing credentials as a bibliophile, travel writer or a food critic. As British as he is, this self-made bohemian mask makes him practically American.

These are not windows one would expect to provide the most interesting views on the world, but Dyer makes these open niches into exceptional views by bringing to them an exceptional vision.

Generally fiction writers write nonfiction either to make a living or to express something, well, not fictional. And nonfiction writers write novels because they want to be, well, more artistic. Geoff Dyer is an exception to both these rules. His publications include four novels but his five nonfiction books are “genre-defying,” which makes them “hard to find” because you can’t figure out what shelf they might be on in a physical bookstore. Though most of his essays are neither criticism nor limited to the subject of literature, I found my copy in the generally-unpromising Literary Criticism shelf. Perhaps this is because bookstores have no shelf reserved for a selection of concisely expressed ideas derived from the process of making a living as a writer.

As miscellaneous as the collection is, there is a unifying subject: being intensely engaged in reading, looking and listening. This desire for intensity motivates Dyer to fill the page with writing that is witty, fluid and thoughtful. He opens the reader’s mind to just how much can be seen, heard and felt about the subject. Dyer is at his best when he is engaged by something that he really likes.

Like is a light but loaded four-letter word. Anyone involved in social networks – and this includes a very large portion of the world’s population in 2011 – has the power to like things all the time. That little thumbs-up like button – how many times have you pressed it? And how many times have you added a comment or chose to answer the open-ended question “What’s on your mind?”

Dyer is the kind of person who does not resort to pressing buttons on social networks to express what he likes. He uses a form he characterizes as “semi-learned” essays. He has managed to insert these essays into three open windows of print media: magazine articles, art catalogs, and book introductions. These are not windows one would expect to provide the most interesting views on the world, but Dyer makes these open niches into exceptional views by bringing to them an exceptional vision.


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