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Otherwise Known as the Human Condition is Geoff Dyer’s third anthology of collected reviews and essays, and his first tailored specifically for American readers. For the uninitiated, the book is a sweeping survey of Dyer’s writerly terrain: Twentieth century photography, John Berger, jazz, British military history, and Burning Man all merit standalone essays (sometimes several) while his favorite writers and musicians drift in and out, active participants in the salon of his reading. “Critics are always working the room,” Dyer writes in an essay on Susan Sontag, and certainly, the fun of Human Condition is standing by his elbow as he makes the rounds. Beyond the sum of its topics, the anthology is best taken as an introduction to Dyer’s style of criticism, which can crudely be described as the work of a hedonistic dilettante, or perhaps a dilettantish hedonist.
Composed almost entirely of previously published work, Human Condition is built around five sections that periodically go off on wonderful tangents: “Visuals” is given mostly to writings on photography; “verbals” to literature reviews and what’s inelegantly referred to as creative nonfiction; “musicals” mostly to the topic of jazz (there’s also a remarkable essay titled “Def Leppard and the Anthropology of Supermodernity”); “variables” to a scattering of travel sketches, pensées, and writing on haute couture; and finally “personals,” brief autobiographical essays about his literal (and literary) upbringing. Taken as a whole, the pieces don’t so much trace the evolution of Dyer’s nonfiction career between 1989 and 2010 as partition it into themes. For a more panoramic view, seek out his novels, of which he’s written as least three, depending on how you count.
For readers less concerned with Dyer’s take on photographer Edward Burtynsky or Rebecca West’s Balkan travelogue than in the author’s own history, it’s the last section of Human Condition that proves most engaging. In “Sacked,” Dyer recounts losing his first job, and wonders why he remembers so little about it—books, partying, and women are the culprits in both cases. A former scholarship boy at Oxford, Dyer casts himself as an autodidact made good, opting for a life of letters after taking inspiration from D.H. Lawrence. “It takes a bit of getting used to,” he writes of his unruly and unemployed 20s, “the idea that spending 365 days a year doing exactly as you please might be a viable proposition.” It’s all in positioning: Rather than settle into a field, Dyer prefers to “loiter—with no intent of entering—outside the academy, unhindered by specialization…and the rigors of imposed method.”
The pitfall here is that his rhetorical hesitation can be tiresome, bordering on gratuitous. While searching for a particular donut during a stint in New York (a pastry that comes to assume a near-Platonic status) Dyer complains that he wishes he “was not forced to live this way, was not compelled to seek out thing I have decided I like in the face of terrible odds.” Of course, he isn’t. But it would be his readers’ loss if he felt otherwise.