In Boston, seven or eight years ago, after a reading Geoff Dyer gave to promote his Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It, a collection of travel essays whose ethos is best encapsulated by the Bhagavad Gita’s claim that wise is the man who finds “action in inaction,” I dined with Mr. Dyer and a handful of other hangers-on who’d followed the author out of the bookstore and into a nearby restaurant. We were Dyer devotees. We’d read Yoga, as well as Out of Sheer Rage, a book about failing to write a book about D.H. Lawrence, and the defining text in the canon of what might be called Anti-Lit-Crit-Lit, a canon that also includes Nicholson Baker’s U and I and Julian Barnes’ Flaubert’s Parrot.
There were two outliers at the table: a pair of 60-something med school professors who’d missed half the reading and were unfamiliar with the author’s work. They’d been pushed on Mr. Dyer by a mutual acquaintance, and were duped by the Oxford-educated author’s upper-crust accent and proclivity for quoting W.H. Auden into thinking Mr. Dyer was like them: snobbish, bourgeois, a respectable dinner companion.
Mr. Dyer is in fact a scholarship boy from the English country town of Cheltenham. Like his role model Lawrence, he was born into a working-class family–his father was a sheet metal worker, his mother served meals in the school cafeteria–and drafted into the academic elite by a grammar-school teacher with an eye for nascent intelligence. Mr. Dyer discusses his origins with a refreshing absence of both disdain and sentimentality in Otherwise Known as the Human Condition: Selected Essays and Reviews (Graywolf, 432 pages, $18), an indispensable compendium of more than 20 years’ worth of Mr. Dyer’s work for such publications as The Guardian, Prospect and The New Statesman, much of which has never before been published in the United States. “My parents worked hard and I didn’t like the look of it,” Mr. Dyer writes. He later admits to “a particular isolation that attaches to the scholarship boy or girl.” He found aspiration in Lawrence, who “made writing a means of–and a synonym for–being alive: an adventure in short.”
At dinner, Mr. Dyer’s adventurousness was apparent as he held court with an extended extemporaneous retelling of Yoga‘s central essay, “Decline and Fall,” in which his younger self takes a self-guided tour of the Roman ruins under the influence of LSD. The med school professors were utterly confused. “But,” one gasped, “that was a very long time ago. You don’t take LSD anymore?”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake no,” Mr. Dyer replied. “I haven’t taken LSD in ages. I don’t think I’ve taken it since … August at Burning Man.”
Like the many personal anecdotes that brighten Otherwise Known as the Human Condition, this one is meant to disarm the reader with warmth and charm before sucker-punching with the work of serious criticism. It is also meant to illustrate something about Mr. Dyer as a writer; namely, that the juxtaposition between his Oxford erudition and his aptitude for Hunter S. Thompson-esque antics (in one essay he casually snorts heroin at a stranger’s apartment; in another he refuses cappuccino because it’s not being served in “proper china”) brings him a long way toward his unspoken goal of rescuing the term “personal essay” from its current incarnation as a euphemism for self-indulgence. Or perhaps it’s dry criticism that he’s come to resuscitate with his easy prose. Mr. Dyer has made a career of genre-blending, comfortably lounging in the gray areas between fiction and memoir, essay and criticism. This collection is a welcome addition.
The pieces in Otherwise Known as the Human Condition were compiled from two previously published British volumes, Anglo-English Attitudes and Working the Room, and it makes sense that many of the selected essays focus on Mr. Dyer’s invaluably alien perspective on American life. Mr. Dyer traces his romance with the United States to a sibling-less childhood spent reading Marvel comics. On the pages of Spider-Man he found “a vertiginous city of spectacular skyscrapers … a place where the quotidian was suffused with the mythic.” The same wide-eyed worldview informs Mr. Dyer’s criticism, and balances out the acidity of his essential British irony, as in his backhanded but pointed assessment of the American writer Denis Johnson, “a metaphysical illiterate, a junkyard angel … [with a] skewed relationship to the sentence–not really knowing what one is and yet knowing exactly what to do with it.” Beneath the serrated bon mots hides enthusiasm of an almost American kind. Mr. Dyer freely admits to his jealousy of American novelists, who “had the advantage over their British counterparts of automatic, unlimited access to the mythic, the vast.”
Occasionally this passion for grandiosity pushes his tastes toward, well, the grandiose. He likes Keith Jarrett way too much, and believes bad house music leads to spiritual enlightenment. It can also color his prose with the barest touch of purple. In a memorable essay on sadness, Mr. Dyer gets momentarily carried away, explaining that “the blues is not something you play, but a way of calling out to the dead, to all the dead slaves of America.” It’s a pretty line that a white American could never get away with. It is to Mr. Dyer’s credit that he can, sort of.
His stubborn self-conviction is at once comical and oddly admirable. “I am amazed–and often furious,” he writes, “that the world does not resemble more closely my own preferred idea of how it should be.” When we follow Mr. Dyer to Algeria in search of Camus’ ghost, we come to the core of his credo while watching boys play soccer in a “prairie blaze of light,” on a pitch the “color of rust,” and it’s hard to disagree: “As the ball hangs there, moon-white against the wall of cloud, everything in the world seems briefly up for grabs and I am seized by two contradictory feelings: there is so much beauty in the world it is incredible that we are ever miserable for a moment; there is so much shit in the world that it is incredible we are ever happy for a moment.”
In an essay on Susan Sontag, Mr. Dyer asks, “Can one’s achievements as a cultural commentator and critic be enough to make one a writer in the specially valued sense of those one has written about?” With this fine collection, Mr. Dyer has answered his own question.