I recently finished Geoff Dyer’s superb ‘Out of Sheer Rage’, a book ostensibly about DH Lawrence, but in reality about Dyer’s inability to write a sober academic study of DH Lawrence. In a ranting, splenetic style inspired by Thomas Bernhard, Dyer circles around his subject, procrastinating, deliberately avoiding Lawrence’s major books, taking trips to Mexico and Italy in a supposed attempt to connect with his subject, but instead finding endless reasons not to get down to work. The digressions multiply into short routines about Dyer’s hatred of seafood, his hypochondria, his failure to settle anywhere or find anywhere he can comfortably call home. In this way, by exploring his discontent and the circling depression that finally comes over him in Italy (where he can’t even conjure up his usual reliable and entirely childish fury when the local bakery runs out of his favourite cornetti integrali), Dyer ends up producing what feels like a touching and poetically truthful picture of Lawrence. More than that, it’s a touching and poetically truthful picture of Geoff Dyer. ‘Out of Sheer Rage’ is literary criticism as memoir, as fiction, as satire, and as viciously barbed humour, and it is the emblematic text in Dyer’s career as a writer who knows the constraint of no genre, and who will happily and profitably mix up any and every form in his work.
Tangentially to reading Dyer’s book, I’ve been reading ‘Reality Hunger’ by David Shields. This caused a predictable ‘controversy’ when it was published last year, with its assertion of non-fiction’s supremacy over fiction, and of the fragmentary text, collage, or lyrical essay over the linear narrative as a more authentic way of exploring life. Every five minutes it seems that someone is moved to declare the novel ‘dead’, but Shields’ approach, through a Nietzschean sequence of short, numbered sections, is far more sophisticated than that. I have one major quibble with the thesis (life does actually have a narrative thrust, and tends to point inescapably in one direction; and why should art have to mirror life anyway? ), but I think ‘Reality Hunger’ underlines how much more interesting a certain fragmentary and formally experimental style of writing can be than straight narrative, and how fiction can often straitjacket writers, who have to couch a few insights and observations within a vast, usually boring, superstructure of prose. Geoff Dyer has said that while the novel is very far from being dead, and very good novels are certainly being written now, the idea of ‘the novel’ as the ultimate testing ground for a writer is beginning to collapse, and the long-form realist narrative as inherited from the 19th century should hopefully be replaced by some sort of cross-pollination between criticism, memoir, reportage and fiction. Examples to follow would be Fernando Pessoa, John Berger, Walter Benjamin’s notebooks, the VS Naipaul of ‘A Way in the World’, WG Sebald, later JM Coetzee, and no doubt many other writers who use double initials instead of first names, like, say, DH Lawrence …
The point of all this, I think, is not that one style or one approach has to replace the other (the kind of binary oppositional mode of debate that makes the religious/atheist argument so incredibly boring, for example), but that formal questions can be more important than questions of narrative, subject, or even style. (The real concern of course is that these questions are far more interesting for the writer than they are for the reader.)
I was thinking about this, and reading these two books in particular, because of a series of conversations, emails, texts, I’ve been having with my friend and co-editor on Free State, Martin MacInnes, who convinced me that Geoff Dyer is someone I really should read in the first place. Martin is insanely committed to writing, probably to the detriment of his sanity and health, and provided me (via VS Naipaul) with one of the best pieces of writing advice I’ve ever heard. I was complaining that the solution I’d finally found to the novel I want to write next might be eminently satisfying to me as a writer, but would no doubt prove reader- and publisher-repellingly complicated. Why, I moaned, can’t I ever think of ideas which can be put forward in simple, realist, narratively compelling stories which people might actually want to read. Why must there always be complexity, allusion, this weird obsession with looping three-part structures? But as Naipaul says, “If you want to write serious books, you must be ready to break the forms, break the forms.” (This quote also appears as section 589 in ‘Reality Hunger’.) Martin is in the middle of doing precisely this, and is writing one of the most fascinating books that I’ve ever heard of. It’s not for me, here, to say what it’s about, but his approach has convinced me in a period of doubt to write the way the material demands to be written. In the end, fidelity to the material is more important than anything.
Here are a few links if anyone wants to read further about David Shields, Dyer, etc.