The Book Not Written
Reading Out of Sheer Rage, the recent anti-biography of D.H. Lawrence by Geoff Dyer, I began wondering if over past years something that amounts to a new genre hasn't delivered itself roughly into being: the book about not writing a book. Much of this one, subtitled "Wrestling with D.H. Lawrence," for instance, Dyer spends adamantly not wrestling with Lawrence but, instead, serving as apologist for his own inadequacies and idiosyncratic aversion to such niceties of the book trade as coherence, research and reliability. How much more interesting we surely must find Dyer's grand dilemma, upon departing for a trip, over whether to pack the selected or complete poems! This is a literature of perpetration, not penetration.
Research! Research! The very word is like a bell, tolling the death and imminent turning to dust off whichever poor sod is being researched. Spare me. Spare me the drudgery of systematic examinations and give me the lightning flashes of those wild books in which there is no attempt to cover the ground thoroughly or reasonably.Exley's A Fan's Notes may be the prototype of the genre, the quintessential how-not-to book. Or Notes from a Cold Island, with its show-and-tell of the book Exley fails (fails even as we watch! by God, there is nothing up his sleeve!) to write about Edmund Wilson. Reading Exley is always a bit like watching a performer take to the tightwire in snowshoes, having left his crutches below on the ground.
Then there's my own favorite, Joe McGinnis's little-known and excellent Heroes, in which McGinnis before our very eyes escapes the second-book curse by the simple ruse of refusing to write the damn thing. Instead he hangs out with the like of John Cheever, repeatedly reminds us of the work he's avoiding, and manages to put together a fine meal (by pure intuition, for the man knows nothing of cooking) from miscellaneous leftovers found in a pantry. Emerging from the oven, that meal smells strongly of symbol.
Nicholson Baker's whining and dining of Updike in U and I is a more recent example: lots of I and very little U.
The apotheosis of the genre, meanwhile, has to be Marcel Bénabou's Why I Haven't Written Any of My Books, which not only doesn't get written but doesn't really even get started, looping back on itself again and again like the first syllable of a perpetual stutter.
These books are the literary equivalent of unfinished furniture, reminiscent of advertisements for used guitars (Needs work, Tunes up well)—presented, in this critical age, pre-deconstructed as it were. In them, discursiveness has been pushed to its limits, creating a kind of genius of evasion, a literature of circumlocution.
There's a rich tradition here, mind you.
Montaigne: "Were I to select some subject that I had to pursue, I might not be able to keep up with it."
Pascal: "The thought that escaped me was what I wished to write; I write instead that it has escaped me."
Or Walter Benjamin, whose great ambition was to write a book consisting solely of clips and quotes from his reading: "Every finished work is the death mask of its intuition."
And while I'm speaking here of nonfiction, hoping to avoid that whole postmodern, self-referential, self-begetting (or in this case -unbegetting) thing, it's difficult to consider literary circumlocution without recalling its masters, novelists Laurence Sterne and the brilliant Machado de Assis.
Why not go the long way 'round? these new writers ask with Sterne and Machado de Assis. Come to think of it, why go any way at all? Let's just have us a nice walk, shall we? We're not talking guerrilla literature here. More like gummy bears. You chew and chew.
In all the good Greek of PlatoJohn Crowe Ransom wrote. But in the good Greek of the book not written, there's always plenty of gravy, jars and jars of condiments, lots of butter. In the book not written, we're always half awake at 3 A.M., busily folding the world's sillinesses, imagined, real or remembered, into our own.
I lack my roast beef and potato,
Jim Sallis has ten books out this year: trade paperbacks of novels and translations, a book of essays, his collected stories. His biography of Chester Himes is listed on John Leonard's CBS site of recommended new books; his collection of long and recent poems, Sorrow's Kitchen, is just out from Michigan State University Press.