Geoff Dyer, not writing about D.H. Lawrence
Geoff Dyer negotiated with the inexplicable allure of great music by invoking moments in the lives of several giants of jazz through fiction-like prose in But Beautiful, one of my favourite books about music ever. Now back in print, Dyer’s 1997 book Out of Sheer Rage (Picador, $15 USD) takes a very different approach to writing about D.H. Lawrence, the writer who made Dyer want to be a writer. Dyer’s approach to Lawrence however is largely about avoiding any approach whatsoever. Out of Sheer Rage is a memoir of perpetual procrastination, addiction to anticipation, and despair. Steve Martin says it’s the funniest book he’s ever read. I’m rather fond of it myself.
Dyer’s considerable feat is to sustain our interest in something he’s promised from the beginning is going nowhere by actually going all over the place: to Italy, Greece, Mexico, to the US, and back home to England, to survive an island moped crash, illness, dubbed movies, the temptation to masturbate in public, and, echoing a choice passage from Don DeLillo's White Noise, the inevitable disappointment of standing in a place intended to radiate significance, or more precisely, to stand in the place where some dead admired person once stood, trying to conjure nonexistent emotions. This is something Dyer does especially well, dissecting conflicted responses to ostensible grandeur, always with a wit every bit the equal of Dyer’s titular rage.
There is of course plenty of literary commentary in Out of Sheer Rage, its belated arrival feeling almost subversive. Dyer considers his youthful reading and in some cases refusal to reread much of Lawrence—save the entire collected correspondence—as well as the work of Thomas Bernhard and Milan Kundera. He makes a compelling case for the writing of a book being only slightly ahead of the research for a book, for a writer’s notes for a novel sometimes being more valuable than the novels themselves. In one passage of just a few pages, Dyer eloquently sums up much of what David Shields spent all of Reality Hunger, his fascinating and frustrating manifesto-by-collage, trying to say—partially through pulling quotes from Out of Sheer Rage. This might explain Dyer’s own wry appraisal of Reality Hunger: “Reading it, I kept thinking, ‘Yes, exactly, I wish I’d said that,’ and then I realized I had.” Shields only included citations in his book because his publishers forced him to, so all readers who hungered for more of the reality Shields used as his source material owe the old farts at Knopf a great favour, because they at least had the courtesy to include the information that might lead us to read Out of Sheer Rage.