“Yes I do,” says writer Geoff Dyer to his Vogue minder when, on his way to cover a series of fashion shows, he is asked whether he knows what couture is. “Yes in the sense of … no, not really.” This is how we understand we are in safe hands, for the indispensable Dyer has always been game to plunge into precisely what he doesn’t know and deliver the most hilarious, perceptive, and profound reports.
The author of Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, Dyer is known as a writer of “genre-defying” books, but his essays, book reviews, memoirs, travel pieces, novels, and art criticism really just belong together on a single shelf under his name. Don’t blame Dyer for being a five-tool player, a term he would probably resent because it refers to a sport that isn’t soccer (another term he would resent) or tennis. Otherwise Known as the Human Condition—a fine title, but too bad Auden already used The Dyer’s Hand for his essay collection—is a feast for both newcomers and the long-converted. Watch our hero sidle up to the juice bar with Def Leppard, or track the ghost of Camus in Algeria, or reconsider the art of writers and photographers and musicians like Don DeLillo, Susan Sontag, Robert Capa, and Keith Jarrett. Some of the best writing in this astonishing book comes in Dyer’s personal meditations, on being an only child, a scholarship boy, a maker of Airfix model airplanes and reader of comic books. His short essay about his bricklayer uncle’s suicide and the men of his family who have “given their lives to carrying and digging” is masterful in its terseness and beauty.
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.”
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