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The non-expert expert

Geoff Dyer book cover

Otherwise Known As the Human Condition: Selected Essays and Reviews 1989-2010
Geoff Dyer

No writer I know occupies as many rooms in the storied compound of arts criticism as Geoff Dyer. In Graywolf’s mix of Dyer’s two British-published anthologies (one in 1999; the other, 2010), the peripatetic author traverses photography, film, music, and literary criticism; he also plumbs the well of the personal essay.

Dyer, who’s written three well-reviewed novels, is a world traveler, autodidact, and essayist. He’s a master of the non-expert essay: self-examining pieces and books that use, among other things, photography, D.H. Lawrence, and the Battle of the Somme as his way in. He’s disciplined and ambitionless, an unrepentant time-waster, avoiding, he says proudly, all hard work. Dyer takes his time discovering—and taking apart—his interests, contrasting invention and analysis in each piece he writes.

Growing up working class, Dyer saw mundane, low-paying jobs ravage his parents. In revolt, he’s milked the British dole, refused to teach, refused to have kids. After many girlfriends, he married and settled in London, whose cultural vigor is various enough to contain him. He juggles freedom and boredom. Not without cost. He sometimes envies those with “real jobs.” But, like Rimbaud and Kerouac, his burden is light: “little money, lots of time.”

If we let it and if we do the work, time will grow our passions—such is the trail Dyer’s nonfiction follows, where, with walking-stick, he ambles on the path as much as off. His dallying personality animates the work: he’s ribald, defiant, egocentric—a drunken boat that channels no ideology or political gripe. He’s one “who’s interested in everything”—this, Susan Sontag’s definition of the author.

If there’s an exemplary essay, it’s “Sex and Hotels.” “A hotel room is horny,” Dyer writes, “because it is clean: the sheets are clean, the toilets are clean, everything is clean, and this cleanliness is a flagrant inducement to—what else?—filthiness.” The cleaner the room, the more “it cries out to be violated.” Hotel rooms are “virginal,” he says; what pleasure to tear open the soap box or break the paper strap on the toilet, what fun to “take” the room.

In “The Moral Art of War,” Dyer heralds those who’ve produced book-length nonfiction about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. These firefights have, in the West, bred little poetry or fiction. Who needs to invent anything when unraveling the actual deceit, absurdity, and killing fields of these wars ? And as Dyer points out, “it is difficult to see what the novelist might bring to the table except stylistic panache . . . and the burden of unnecessary conventions.” A novelist’s recalibration of experience via an internalized, fatalistic character is limited to (and limits) that character. By contrast, the new war-based nonfiction seeks a group consciousness—soldier, leader, politician, reporter, author—popping among many minds, plaguing us with the stupidity of war. The best books, by Dexter Filkins and Sebastian Junger, dramatize the hopelessness of the U.S. crusade against terror.

Elsewhere in these sixty-three pieces, Dyer is inspired by a dozen little-known photographers—one, Jacques Henri Lartigue: “If you look hard enough a photo will always answer your question—even if that answer comes in the form of further questions.” An appraisal typical of Dyer’ s probative nature.

Equally compelling is his essay on John Cheever’s journals, in which his messy insights reveal the man’s true art: “For Cheever, the shaping demands of the short story, his acquired habits of fictive resolution, all the aspects of hard-won craftsmanship that stood him in good stead at the New Yorker, worked against his being able to plumb the complex depths of his being.”

In  “Is Jazz Dead?” Dyer acknowledges that rock legends tour the same tunes forever while few critics decry their musicianship. But if jazz legends replay their standards, they’re dismissed. It’s warranted, Dyer notes, because unlike rock, the best jazz is “changeless and constantly changing.” We’re spoiled by the consistent inconsistency of a Keith Jarrett, whose improvisations make past and present styles interact and evolve.

Dyer’s self-entangling rhetoric signals his debt to Roland Barthes: that we discover art’s meaning in how it bewitches us. Turning the Lawrence adage on its head, Dyer trusts his response to the work more than he trusts the teller or the tale. Self-gratification, yes—but that’s the critic’s choice.



Thomas Larson is the author of The Saddest Music Ever Written: The Story of Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” and The Memoir and the Memoirist.