Out of Sheer Rage: Geoff Dyer


My love of D.H. Lawrence has been documented in these pages before. It is a weirdly powerful love similar to my love for filmmaker Hal Hartley, formed in my youth and thus completely impervious to all criticism or attempts at understanding. Just catching a glimpse of the weary spine of one of the copies of Women in Love on my shelf is enough to make me sigh dreamily. (The spine of the many versions of Trust I have had also make me swoon similarly.) 

And it is a love that grows and changes as I get older and see new things in the tattered pages of Lawrence’s many works, or when someone shows me new things to think about in relation to Lawrence. My aunt wrote her Master’s thesis on Lawrence, and sent me scrambling back to re-read everything he wrote in a new light. I have Anaïs Nin’s study of Lawrence waiting for the moment when I can devour it while, of course, re-reading everything Lawrence ever wrote. So it was a surprise to me to discover a book on Lawrence that I hadn’t read by an author whose work I really enjoy, Geoff Dyer. Once I learned of this slim volume, I naturally ordered it from my local independent bookseller (get out and support them, friends!) and eagerly awaited its arrival. And like nearly all books that I can hardly wait to get in my hot little hands, this one got set on the shelf since I was in the middle of reading something else. Oh, shelf of unread books! You defeat me!

But at least it got picked up eventually. Because this is one of those books that I just flat-out enjoyed in a summer day kind of way. You know how sometimes when you read a book (especially fiction), you get so into it that there’s an urgency to reading it? Like you can’t stop, even when you kind of want to stop and maybe get a glass of water? That is pleasurable in its own way, the intensity of devouring a book whole, flipping pages frantically, anxious to find out who did what and when, to find out what happens. But sometimes I think my favourite kind of book is the one that completely absorbs me without that anxious racing. The kind of book that is just like Kool-Aid on a hot summer day; you’re just drinking it in, the ice cubes are clinking against the glass, beads of water building up on the outside, but that glass isn’t going anywhere and neither are you. Out of Sheer Rage is that kind of book. 

Maybe part of that feeling is just from the way Dyer writes it. There are no chapters, nothing to divide things up, no hanging from cliffs. Just a constant stream of almost-focused rambling words that meander in and around Lawrence and then veer off into Dyer and then back to Lawrence. The book might ostensibly be about Lawrence, but the subtitle in this case really says it all: Wrestling with D.H. Lawrence. It is about Lawrence, but it’s also about how Dyer feels about Lawrence. And how Dyer wants to feel about Lawrence, a nice illustration of how so many readers want to like the classics or whatever author they just can’t quite get into. He spends a large portion of the book essentially avoiding Lawrence, or using Lawrence to avoid writing a novel. Which is to say he avoids Lawrence and avoids his novel, but reasons it all away with the fact that he needs to prepare before he can write the book on Lawrence: 

In practice, however, ‘throwing myself wholeheartedly‘ into my study of Lawrence meant making notes, meant throwing myself half-heartedly into the Lawrence book. In any case, ‘throwing myself wholeheartedly into my study of Lawrence’—another phrase which became drained of meaning as it spun around in my head—was actually impossible because, in addition to deciding whether or not I was going to write my study of Lawrence, I had to decide where I was going to write it—if I was going to write it. ‘If’ not when because once my initial euphoric resolve had collapsed the possibility of writing the novel made itself felt again as an attractive option.

There is a lot of waffling like this in the book. And it works really well as a kind of narrative structure, as Dyer slowly winds his way to Lawrence, using the very effective technique of finding certain traits within himself as he tries to write this book and comparing and contrasting with Lawrence, wishing he could be the kind of man Lawrence was or finding that in this case, he just might be. He travels to Lawrence’s hometown, and thinks about maybe just abandoning the whole venture and going to the Ikea he spots along the way. Which reminds him that he is a person of no fixed residence and so has no reason to go to Ikea. Which reminds him that Lawrence also was a wanderer, unable to settle in any one place. So he continues on to Eastwood for lack of any better choice. And really the whole narrative is essentially Dyer going ahead with writing this book for lack of any better choice. Which makes it maybe the funniest thing ever written about D.H. Lawrence. Or not about Lawrence, like this passage which cracked me up:

In a seriously hot place, somewhere where temperatures coagulate for six months a year in the nineties, people are commenting in astonished, resigned tones about the heat every ten minutes. Eventually that is all you do: you wipe your forehead and say how hot it is. Entire summers can pass like this. Apart from the heat, nothing else happens. The heat is the only news.

That is basically a description of every single summer I lived in Japan. Just add in some fanning yourself with a hand fan.

But in the end, the book really is about Lawrence. Dyer quotes extensively (but not excessively) from Lawrence’s letters, which appear to be the only thing he actually reads for this book (there’s a whole lengthy rant/passage in which he talks about avoiding/disliking Lawrence’s novels and you have to wonder why someone who dislikes Lawrence’s novels so much would bother to spend so much time thinking about Lawrence), and really analyzes them and gives them context to reveal more about the man who wrote them and how in these letters, you can see the germination of works that Lawrence would later write. And he ties Lawrence to Rilke (who he is reading to avoid reading Lawrence) in ways that were new to me and genuinely interesting. But this book is in no way shape or form a close reading of Lawrence or any kind of academic anything. You get Lawrence with a large dose of Dyer, and most of it is a kind of muddling, chasing-your-own tail kind of thing that surprisingly ends up somewhere. It’s not the book I expected when I started reading, but it is the book that I am delighted that I got. 

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