Geoff Dyer on ‘Otherwise Known as the Human Condition’
April 19, 2011 | by Evan Ratliff
“Writing, for me, has always been a way of not having a career,” Geoff Dyer explains, by way of introduction, in his new essay collection Otherwise Known as the Human Condition. His goal in such a retrospective, he adds, is not to illustrate the coherent themes of his work. Rather it is “to serve as proof of just how thoroughly my career had avoided any focus, specialization, or continuity except that dictated by my desire to write about whatever I happened to be interested in at any given moment.” Dyer’s readers will find that sentiment unsurprising. He is the author of four novels, a critical study of John Berger, a book of photography criticism, and several books inexplicable in blurb form (e.g. Out of Sheer Rage, a National Brook Critics Circle Award finalist ostensibly about D. H. Lawrence but largely about the process of Dyer attempting to write about D. H. Lawrence; and Yoga For People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It, a travelogue as easily filed in humor as it might be in philosophy). Otherwise Known as the Human Condition is a curio cabinet of reviews ranging across photography, art, and literature, combined with Dyer’s experiential approach to topics as wide as forays into the foreign world, and his search for the perfect cappuccino-and-doughnut combination.
How does one approach selecting from a life’s work for an essay collection like this?
My editor, Ethan Nosowsky, and I both independently turned up with a provisional list of what we’d like to see. And we were pretty gratified at how, in a Venn diagram sort of way, there was so much overlap between the two. I’ve written a real lot, including things I’d forgotten about. The general rule would be that they had to at least raise some question—I’m thinking of the pieces about books here—something that transforms it from being a review to a sort of essay in its own right. People either are or are not interested in Denis Johnson, say, but there are a few things in that essay which are worth raising about people other than Denis Johnson. The better the piece, in some ways, the more irrelevant it would render this issue of whether or not you had read the book in question. The pieces also aren’t chronological, so you get a juxtaposition of a piece written maybe twenty years ago with a more recent one—and the slight contradiction that emerges because of that.
Most of these essays are personal at some level; do you look back on the sentiments and feel like the they hold up for you over time?
What I’ve really liked doing is combining what you might call art criticism or music criticism with something that is happening in real life. Something like “Blues for Vincent,” where I combined what is in a photograph with something in a love letter. So to answer your question in the most prosaic, literal-minded way: Of course I’m not in love anymore with the women to whom these love letters were sent. But I think there is an enduring truth in the sentiment, even if the sort of cast list has changed.
More generally—and I say this only because I’m struck by how much in life all one really does is confirm to some sort of actuarial norm—if I look at one of my novels or one of these early essays, there is really a lyricism which verges at times on the sentimental. And I’m aware that that impulse is much less pronounced in me now than it was then. But that’s entirely in keeping with the actuarial graph, the route everyone takes through life.
Interviewers never tire of asking whether your fictional characters represent some thinly veiled version of you. But I’m more curious to what extent the persona in your nonfiction represents you?
It’s funny, because people always say when they meet me having read me—or they read me having met me—that they are struck by how the tone is pretty similar, in real life and in the books. It’s not the same persona in every book. The Lawrence book contains a particularly irritable one. That’s partly a phase I was in at that point in my life. But more importantly because, stylistically, I was under the spell of Thomas Bernhard. But that kind of dry humor, that sort of back and forth between the really serious and the funny—without putting the funny bits in italics, as it were—that’s something which I think is common to my life and my writing.
Try as you might to have a book centered around themes, I did find some jumping out at me, one of which was a tension in various places—a review of Susan Sontag’s work, an essasy on nonfiction approaches to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars—between the relative merits of fiction and nonfiction as catalogues of the human condition. Of course, you’ve written both; but is nonfiction on the rise, so to speak?
Again to talk about actuarial norms, it really is the case that as you get older you read less fiction. And then by the time you are my age, it’s really quite minimal the amount of fiction that one reads. As I’ve joked before, the next stage along that path is that you only read military history. I’m kind of looking forward to that. Generally, I’m not anti the novel. As you say, I have written them. What I am anti is this assumption that the novel is the only proving ground—that you are really more of a writer, as it were, if you are writing a novel. Really for me, there is no difference. It’s not like I really want to be a novelist and then there is other stuff I do in between novels, one subsidiary to another. In terms of fiction, the gap between what happens in life and what’s on the page is no greater or less, really, in the fiction than the nonfiction. Because some of it is made up in the nonfiction as well. It’s not like the books are depending for their interest on my having claimed to have some James Frey–like experience. It’s all pretty ordinary stuff. But I’m keen on this idea of—I guess I’d use the term the nonfiction work of art—being judged by all of the criteria used to judge novels.
In a way that’s reminiscent of Tom Wolfe’s original impetus for pushing New Journalism, using fictional tools in nonfiction. Is that a genre which you find commonality with?
When I was a teenager that sort of Tom Wolfe–New Journalism stuff was around. But I’m not sure I would dignify what I do as journalism. With New Journalism there is a degree of reporting, isn’t there? Albeit from a very unusual time. Whereas my writing is more experiential. I would like nothing more than to do a book of reporting on something, albeit in a highly personalized way.
Your mention of James Frey has me imagining some fact-checker attempting to verify your assessments of the perfect cappuccino and doughnut (eventually found at a deli in New York, with offerings from the Doughnut Plant) to which you devote an entire essay.
Things change, unfortunately; it would need to be constantly updated. That place, I can’t remember what it’s called now, when I went back there, the cappuccino was just awful. And my wife came back from New York recently and reported that it had become incredibly difficult to get the standard vanilla crème Doughnut Plant donut. These are the issues that I will be getting to the bottom of when I get to New York.
You should be staging readings at which these doughnuts are offered.
I’m really surprised in terms of the structure of the publicity that I’m not holding something at the Doughnut Plant. Except that I have been to the Doughnut Plant, so I know that it’s not sort of a great destination restaurant. I was on a radio program where I mentioned the Doughnut Plant, and it was broadcast on the BBC. I took the CD in, thinking that might count for something, and the guy gave me a couple of free doughnuts. You know English people love to freeload, so I was really happy with that. Unfortunately I’d already had a couple of doughnuts that day.
You quote Amis saying “writers lives are all anxiety and ambition,” but it seems to me that you could add, from your work at least, “and happiness.” You are often found to be pursuing it through those kinds of small moments.
There’s that old line, I can’t remember who uttered it but I know Amis quotes it, that “happiness writes white.” That’s always seemed to me not true. I’ve been interested in writing about what is happiness, and really preserving my happy moments in the form of verbal snapshots.
Often, for you, that happiness seems to be found in the nature of the writing life itself.
If you come from a working class background, as Lawrence did, it was just fantastic for him not to be doing a job like his dad did. For me, I went to Oxford where you had to turn up just one hour a week for tutorial. And then I left Oxford and signed on the dole, first once a week and then as unemployment mounted, only about once every month—or even every two months in the worst of the Thatcher era. Basically from the age of eighteen onwards, in one way or another, I became a member of a sort of leisure class. I became used to having infinite amounts of time to do what I wanted. Partly because of my background, I think, that’s always seemed just an incredible boon. And although like all writers I whine about all the stuff that you would expect, at the deepest level it’s just such a fantastic thing to be able to arrange your time as you please. What that doesn’t mean is that you just want to lie around all day smoking dope or drinking beer. It just means you are responsible for yourself. And of course then after a certain number of years of leading a life like this, you become absolutely unsuited to do anything else.