The Boston Phoenix
July 16 - 23, 1998

[Book Reviews]

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Everything but

Geoff Dyer uses writer's block as a building block in this tour de force of procrastination

by Charles Taylor

OUT OF SHEER RAGE: WRESTLING WITH D.H. LAWRENCE, by Geoff Dyer. North Point Press, 256 pages, $23.

In some ways, Out of Sheer Rage is Geoff Dyer's 81Ú2 : a brilliant wank. Like Fellini in that film, Dyer employs dazzling technique to distract us from the essential empty-headedness of the project: in this case a proposed book on D.H. Lawrence, the writer who Dyer claims made him want to be a writer in the first place. The title of Out of Sheer Rage is from one of Lawrence's letters, describing the state of mind in which he began his intended book on Thomas Hardy. "It will be about anything but Thomas Hardy I am afraid," Lawrence wrote, "queer stuff -- but not bad."

The best criticism is almost always about something beyond the subject at hand. The most laughable thing about the seemingly deathless vogue for -- you should pardon the expression -- "think pieces" is that they usually end up as vast generalities, saying far less than reviews in which critics have been given the space (and the editorial freedom) to go into subjects and see where it leads them. On the surface, there's nothing wrong with Dyer's D.H. Lawrence book being about "queer stuff," as long as it's "not bad."

Dyer, whose last book was the magnificent series of jazz portraits . . . But Beautiful (North Point Press/FSG), has used the presumption that he wanted to write about Lawrence as the premise for a shaggy-dog tale of a writer's procrastination, and I can't imagine many professional writers reading it and not wincing in recognition. Describing how he went about not writing his book, Dyer entertains no illusions. He recounts the trips he took to Italy, Mexico, and elsewhere, trying to find the perfect place to work. He goes to the places Lawrence lived, describing how the destination of nearly every pilgrimage forces us to fake emotion in order to disguise the realization that we've taken time and trouble to arrive at, say, an ordinary house bearing a plaque. He writes about the taking of notes as a delaying tactic -- sometimes a tactic that produces something better than the books the notes give birth to. In certain sections -- his internal debate about whether to lug his note-festooned copy of Lawrence's Complete Poems on holiday -- he approaches the niggling comic pettiness of a Monty Python routine.

The best thing about Out of Sheer Rage is Dyer's respect for the experience of literature and his rage at anything that takes the life out of it. Commenting on a volume of academic Lawrence criticism, he reaches a climax of sustained invective: "How could these people with no feeling for literature have ended up teaching it, writing about it? . . . I looked around for some means to destroy this vile, filthy book. In the end it took a whole box of matches and some risk of personal injury before I succeeded in deconstructing it. I burned it in self-defense. It was the book or me because writing like that kills everything it touches. That is the hallmark of academic criticism. . . . Walk around a university campus and there is an almost palpable smell of death about the place because hundreds of academics are busy killing everything they touch." Overstated? Yes. Hilarious? Definitely. And who can't see the function of overstatement and humor in criticism? Academics, that's who.

Dyer tries to turn the joke of Out of Sheer Rage -- that, like everyone else, the writer would almost always rather be doing something other than what he or she is doing -- into a metaphor for how easy it is to let art supplant life, and how separating the two withers each. If only the crabby son of a bitch enjoyed life more. Out of Sheer Rage is a little like skipping class to go to the beach and getting into a car accident on the way. If a writer is going to spend 200-plus pages jerking off, he could at least have the decency to enjoy the experience.

I know that I'm supposed to find the misanthropy of Out of Sheer Rage amusing, and it is, in small doses. I did laugh at the effrontery of a critic who has the honesty to say, of reading: "However much you are enjoying a book, however much you want it never to end, you are always eager for it to end . . . always flicking to the end, counting to see how many pages are left, looking forward to the time when you can put the book down and have done with it." But the combination of circuitousness and anhedonic crankiness can get pretty deadly. Having done with Out of Sheer Rage, I went on to the newly published letters of the great drama critic Kenneth Tynan. In the opening sentence of the introduction by Tynan's late wife, Kathleen, I found this sentence, which hits the mark quicker and more accurately than anything Dyer has to say: "Writers hate to write, almost all of them." n

Charles Taylor, a regular Phoenix contributor, has also written for the New Yorker, Salon, and other publications.