Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling With D.H. Lawrence
Dyer and his brand of blurrily personal nonfiction is much in the ether lately, or at least the certain subsection of slightly literary inclined internet ether I breath, for better and worse. But more than the chatter overhead, Dyer has been urged on me by a well-read, much-respected friend, and I have finally buckled against my own inability to take reading suggestions and have read Out of Sheer Rage, his book charting his failure to write a sober, academic study of Lawrence.
I thought the book was almost an undiluted joy. Like much of Nicholson Baker’s writing, the book sounds unendurable when subjected to brief description: it’s a book which chronicles the author’s inability to sit still and write about D.H. Lawrence, a writer he both admires and who has penetrated his life to a cellular level. But also like Baker’s U & I, the book manages both to avoid its way into its subject, to be both about the author’s own interests, obsessions, tics, neuroses, while also being about Lawrence, and teaching me–a Lawrence neophyte–a great deal and making me want to read Lawrence desperately.
It also makes me want to read more Dyer. I’m not sure if Dyer’s brand of nonfiction–novelistically pliable and complex and yet learned without being fusty, essayistic without mooning into abstraction, curling into scholarship, or shedding its style into reportage–is indeed the Next Wave, but he is one of those author’s who, as I think Martin Amis said somewhere, you discover with muffled enthusiasm, realizing as you read that you’re now going to have go read everything the man has written.
But I do have a quibble. And for better and worse, quibbles are easier to write about than straight praise: I wished the book had a bit more novelistic furniture, especially toward the end. When discussing Milan Kundera in the middle of the book (pgs. 118-122 in my paperback, where he mounts his quiet assault on the novel), Dyer says, “After reading Immortality what I wanted from Kundera was a novel composed entirely of essays, stripped of the last rind of novelization.” And while I find this idea fascinating and while what I liked about this book of Dyer’s was its associative leaping from idea to idea, I found myself still wanting a little more rind. There are personal, scenic-like details that crop up repeatedly–Dyer’s girlfriend Laura is a wonderful foil, for instance–but these ingredients raise certain expectations that go unfulfilled. For example, Dyer buys a flat in Oxford, England–Dullford, he calls it. And it occurs at a point in the book where this seems like the most reckless action he could take, and yet he doesn’t really go into the why or the how of the purchase. He doesn’t pay it the same kind of narrative attention I was expecting. He thinks about so much in this book, but he doesn’t really allow himself the room to think about this. And it seems less like an interesting narrative maneuver than it does an avoidance of his responsibility as a narrator. In a novel, we would just call this an example of an unreliable narrator, but in a work of nonfiction, does this not just become an author’s mistake?
And while it’s his book, his life, his aesthetic, and while I realize he wants to rid himself of these kind of well-made novelistic restrictions, and while I’m not sure if this fault is either his or mine, I still wanted to hear more about that stupid flat; I wanted to see him besotted by all that paperwork, signing his life away. This is a problem with personal nonfiction of this sort, in that it’s personal only up to a point. It is open but shields the true, fully honest self off from the reader. So, paradoxically, a novel feasibly becomes a more honest way to communicate with a reader because an author isn’t always deploying these invisible firewalls between himself and the reader while maintaining a facade of jocular openness.
Does this reaction make me hopelessly old-fashioned? I feel suddenly like an old man at a concert, complaining about the volume.