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Otherwise Known as the Human Condition: Selected Essays and Reviews Paperback – March 29, 2011
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. In this new collection of previously published writings, Dyer (Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi) traverses a broad territory stretching from photographers such as Richard Avedon and William Gedney (His gaze is neither penetrating nor alert but, on reflection, we would amend that verdict to accepting); musicians Miles Davis and Def Leppard; writers like D.H. Lawrence, Ian McEwan, and Richard Ford; as well as personal ruminations on, say, reader's block. In a fond tribute to the power and beauty of Albert Camus's life and work, Dyer reflects on his own encounters with the writer's work in Algeria: Coming here and sitting by this monument, rereading these great essays, testaments to all that is the best in us, is a way of delivering personally my letter of thanks. In a masterful essay on W.G. Sebald and Thomas Bernhard, Dyer writes: The comic obsessiveness and neurosis common to many of Sebald's characters is like a sedated version of the relentless, raging frenzy into which Bernhard's narrators habitually drive themselves. Dyer's writing does what the best critical writing always does, encouraging us to view, read, or listen closely to art, literature, and music as well as to pay close attention to various cultural forms and their impact on our personal lives. (Mar.)
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“Mr. Dyer's new book, Otherwise Known as the Human Condition, is a collection of his occasional prose. . . . They're 'bits and bobs,' he writes, but he takes them more seriously than that, and so should anyone who cares about joyous, wriggling sentences composed in the English language.” ―Dwight Garner, The New York Times
“There's a restless current to these essays, as if a net were being thrown ever wider in search of fresh versions of that original burst of aesthetic delight, literature, which managed to turn a working-class grammar school boy from Cheltenham into an international 'man of letters.' . . . This is what I find most remarkable about Dyer: his tone. Its simplicity, its classlessness, its accessibility and yet its erudition--the combination is a trick few British writers ever pull off. . . . [Dyer's humor is] what separates him from Berger and Lawrence and Sontag: it's what makes these essays not just an education, but a joy.” ―Zadie Smith, Harper's Magazine
“You read Dyer for his caustic wit, of course, his exquisite and perceptive crankiness, and his deep and exciting intellectual connections, but from these enthralling rants and cultural investigations there finally emerges another Dyer, a generous seeker of human feeling and experience, a man perhaps closer than he thinks to what he believes his hero Camus achieved: 'a heart free of bitterness.'” ―Sam Lipsyte, Very Short List
“Dyer's writing does what the best critical writing always does, encouraging us to view, read, or listen closely to art, literature, and music as well as to pay close attention to various cultural forms and their impact on our personal lives.” ―Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“All of Dyer's work holds together very well indeed, but what holds it together is a voice, which becomes a persona. It's a very English, low-key, plainspoken, unassuming voice that invites you in, and can become intimate but not too intimate, and can smoothly transit between comedy and gravity. It takes on flesh in his reported pieces and personal essays and some of his fiction, and there it is often richly and sometimes darkly comic--self deprecating, stubborn, canny, forlorn, worldly, hapless, serious, romantic, dissipated.” ―Luc Sante, Bookforum
“While contemporary writers such as David Shields decry the need to erase the lines between fiction and nonfiction, for years, Dyer has been exemplar, churning out smart essays with his own cocktail of fact and fiction, private and public, myth and truth and has proven that rigorous criticism and writing arises out of more than just an esoteric bookshelf. Good writing, it appears, begins with seeking what moves us.” ―Bookslut
“[These are] brilliantly witty, surprising essays.” ―The Daily Beast
“Geoff Dyer has won several prizes, all deserved. When you read accounts of Dyer's work you'll find praiseful critics comparing him to vast numbers of writers, hurling their comparisons into the useless heap that follows him everywhere he goes. I myself often think of G.K. Chesterton for the constant and dazzling flow of paradoxes in his prose.” ―Jonathan Lethem, BOMB
“The essay collection 'is considered a pretty low form of book,' in Dyer's estimation, and yet Otherwise Known may be Dyer's masterpiece: a living journal documenting the wealth of his interests, the depth of his insights, and a stealthily powerful argument for the essay, not the novel, as the richest mode of contemporary letters. . . . And let us be thankful that this polymath chose to ignore his father's own words of wisdom: 'Never put anything in writing.'” ―The Boston Globe
“Again and again, Dyer pairs an uncommonly precise description of what a particular artist does with an equally compelling, unexpected reason for why it is important. There are few more valuable things that a critics can accomplish in a review, . . . and Dyer's mastery of them is a testament to his achievement.” ―The Barnes & Noble Review
Top customer reviews
I wish I hadn't.
I can't believe how badly written and how badly edited it was.
The writing is lazy and sloppy AND JUST PLAIN BAD!
Even worse, he really didn't have much insight about anything. He prattled on and on, in love with the sound of his own voice, without putting anything into context or offering any true illumination.
Why was this so well reviewed? It is a terrible, self-indulgent, boring book.
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.