Sunday, January 29, 2012

Geoff Dyer's "Otherwise Known as the Human Condition": Book Review

Dyer likes the odds-and-ends he's gathered from '89-'10. Doughnuts, desert, lots of sex and drugs, photographers, jazz, book and art and music reviews, and autobiographical fragments fill these readable pages. Even when the topic didn't interest me, at least I paid attention, in case I might get interested. The unpredictability of his observations keeps you as alert as he is to what appears total recall of whatever this enviable Oxford grad (even if working-class background and after university unemployed for a long stretch) has seen, read, or done. His diaries unearthed from the early '80s attest to both his powers of recollection and his occasional lapses, which themselves gain, ironically, lavish documentation in his attempts at recalling when he was fired, when he met so-and-so, when he bedded her, when he got high with him, while thriving on the dole.

He has somehow constructed a career "as a gate-crasher" doing whatever he wants, writing when he wishes, wandering when he doesn't, or when he gets a magazine to pay for his expenses to write. A Serbian bus driver, sex in hotels, Airfix model planes and Marvel comics, unwanted books, being an only child. What appeals here as in his fiction and travel reporting and non-fiction remains his ability to capture a restless, disheveled mood. In Algeria, he remembers his stay. "In a restaurant--womanless, smoky--I order a beer. It comes in a green bottle and that is the major pleasure it affords. The food--chicken, brochettes, couscous--comes on a plate and half of it stays there."

One aspect that could have improved this collection? It begins with many eloquent essays from catalogues of photographic exhibits. Yet, few photos are included. This forces a reader to rely more on Dyer's evident skill with words to tell us what is shown, but often, it's frustrating to have so few examples as illustrations. That being said, William Gedney's power as an artist leaps off the printed page, thanks to Dyer's verbal skill.

An encounter with Def Leppard ends perfectly; another with Richard Misrach's photos and the Utah sand flats ends with a scene "like a contemporary monument to the Donner Party," where "a family car has sunk up to its axles in an area of sudden mud." Rebecca West's massive "Black Lamb and Grey Falcon" represents for Dyer a model of sprawling reflection on his own Balkan quest: "as a kind of metaphysical Lonely Planet that never requires updating." The strength of this admittedly diverse and diffuse anthology for all its "unruly" assembly testifies to West's disciple, another restless and engaging guide to one eccentric, lively, and unfailingly erudite, take on his--and perhaps our-- human condition. (Amazon 12-9-11)

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